Sidewalk Poetry #39: Song of the Broad-Axe (excerpt)


Muscle and pluck forever!
What invigorates life, invigorates death,
And the dead advance as much as the living advance,   
And the future is no more uncertain than the present,  
And the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the delicatesse of the earth and of man,
And nothing endures but personal qualities.       
What do you think endures?
Do you think the great city endures?        
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best-built steamships?        
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments?       
Away! These are not to be cherish’d for themselves;      
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them;
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance.          
The great city is that which has the greatest man or woman;    
If it be a few ragged huts, it is still the greatest city in the whole world.          

The place where the great city stands is not the place of stretch’d wharves, docks, manufactures, deposits of produce,
Nor the place of ceaseless salutes of new comers, or the anchor-lifters of the departing,      
Nor the place of the tallest and costliest buildings, or shops selling goods from the rest of the earth,         
Nor the place of the best libraries and schools—nor the place where money is plentiest,     
Nor the place of the most numerous population. 
Where the city stands with the brawniest breed of orators and bards;
Where the city stands that is beloved by these, and loves them in return, and understands them;
Where no monuments exist to heroes, but in the common words and deeds;
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place;
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws;    
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases;
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons;      
Where fierce men and women pour forth, as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves;        
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority;     
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and what not, are agents for pay;      
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves;
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs;           
Where speculations on the Soul are encouraged;
Where women walk in public processions in the streets, the same as the men,          
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men;
Where the city of the faithfulest friends stands;
Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands;    
Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands;  
Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,         
There the great city stands.
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.]

[2nd Avenue in New York City c. 1861.]

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