Walt Whitman remains one of my favorite love poets, a fine choice for Valentine’s Day. I pick up Leaves of Grass now and then and am awed every time by the sheer boundlessness of his love. The poems are a love song to none other than the earth and everything on it. Sex oozes from every stanza, a plenitude of loving with no boundaries—no one left out.
Today when I picked up “Song of Myself” it opened to section 5. I was holding the “Deathbed Edition,” the last edition, published in 1891–92. You can read the whole poem—as well as, for that matter, all six editions of Leaves of Grass—at the Walt Whitman Archive.
Today one line in particular caught my eye:
And that a kelson of the creation is love
I skimmed up a few lines to find the context:
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Yes, there is the lover, there are the two of them lying in the grassy pasture, there is the lover’s tongue. And then the rush of good feeling, what we so unpoetically call endorphins but what Whitman called
the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.
His blissful state leads outward, not away from the lover but toward a bigger inclusiveness:
And I know that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers.
And then that enigmatic line, “And that a kelson of the creation is love . . . ”
Enigmatic because I’d never seen the word kelson before. A quick trip to the American Heritage Dictionary told me it was a variant of keelson, which is “a timber or girder fastened above and parallel to the keel of a ship or boat for additional strength.”
Ah, so that’s it. Love as the timber of strength holding this ship of fools together.
I nearly had my own moments of bliss just swooning over the beauty of his vision.
Lest you think he’s talking only about human love, the last lines of the verse make it clear: he includes the leaves dangling over the lovers’ heads in the pasture where they lie, and the ants scrambling along the ground, the rocks, and even the weeds that enfold them:
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
Nobody, but nobody, left out of a Whitman love song, not even a rotting fence, not even weeds.