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Walt Whitman, W. Curtis Taylor, photographer, [c. 1877]. (Prints & Photographs Division/Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07141)

Of Butterflies and Other Things: Natalie Merchant Visits the Harned-Whitman Papers in the Manuscript Division

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This is a guest blog by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture, and the Arts in the Manuscript Division. 

Walt Whitman was born on this day over 200 years ago; we celebrate his work that continues to inspire and resonate with us. 

“O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music—full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments—full of grain and trees . . .
O for the dropping of raindrops in a song!
O for the sunshine and motion of waves in a song!
O the joy of my spirit—it is uncaged—it darts like lightning!
It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time.”

Walt Whitman, “A Song of Joys,” Leaves of Grass (1881-1882 edition). For the full text of the poem, see Walt Whitman Archive.

The poet, journalist and writer Walt Whitman was born at West Hills, Huntington Township, New York on May 31, 1819. He was raised among farmers, laborers and craftsmen. A  love of the outdoors, the grass, the seashore and of living things characterized his life since he was a boy. Whitman wrote in “A Song of Joys” of his birthplace: “O to go back to the places where I was born, / To hear the birds sing once more, / To ramble about the house and barn and over the fields once more, / And through the orchard and along the old lanes once more.” (1)

Whitman’s keen identification with nature and its sights, smells and sounds is manifested in many ways in Library of Congress collections. Iconic among the items saved in the Manuscript Division’s Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers is what has become popularly known as the Whitman butterfly. Highly metaphorical, the butterfly as a material object is a delicately colored printed cardboard Victorian Easter card, die-cut in the shape of wings. Whitman fitted it with a thin ring-like wire and wore it perched as a prop on his finger in a famous studio portrait taken in Philadelphia in the 1870s. The unseen verso of the illustrated butterfly card features lyrics about resurrection by Anglican hymn-writer John Mason Neale (1818-1866).

A paper butterfly with dusty pink outline, with poem on its wings that reads "The first begotten of the deal/For us he rose, our/glorious head. /Immortal Life/to bring. /What thought the saints/like him shall die, /they share their /leader's vistory. /and triumph with their king.
Butterfly card. Harned-Whitman Papers (Manuscript Division/Library of Congress)

Whitman used the butterfly as a powerful ephemeral symbol of natural and spiritual metamorphosis, transcendence and resurgence. He incorporated butterfly symbolism into the iconography of the book design for the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. The inner side of the card featuring the hymn text holds significance in relation to Whitman as well.  Music–especially vocal music, songs, birdsong, and the glory of the human singing voice– was an inspiration to  him throughout his life and something he addressed frequently in his poetry. Musical influence began for Whitman as a small child, with the folk songs and hymns his mother Louisa sang to him as a toddler, and extended to the great singers and opera stars he heard perform in the concert halls of New York City.  Singing, like the butterfly, was for Whitman a form of transcendent representation and spiritual communication.

Warble me now for joy of lilac-time, (returning in reminiscence,)
Sort me O tongue and lips for Nature’s sake, souvenirs of earliest summer . . .
Bees, butterflies, the sparrow with its simple notes . . .
Gathering these hints, the preludes, the blue sky, the grass, the morning drops of dew . . .
A warble for joy of lilac-time, returning in reminiscence.

Walt Whitman, “A Warble for Lilac-Time,” Leaves of Grass (1891-1892 edition). For the full text of the poem, see Walt Whitman Archive.

Whitman admired many human singers, as well as birds. He was especially a great fan of the vocal skills of Italian contralto Marietta Alboni (1826-1894) whom he heard perform in New York City in the 1850s. Another noted contralto of our own day, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant (b. 1963) is a newly appointed member of the board of trustees of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. While touring special collections divisions with her daughter at the Library of Congress earlier this spring in the company of American Folklife Center head Nicole Saylor, Merchant viewed materials from the Harned-Whitman collection in the Manuscript Division, including drafts of poetry, notebooks stemming from Whitman’s time visiting and providing moral support to ill and wounded soldiers in Civil War hospitals, and the cardboard butterfly. (2) Visibly moved, she shared that she had found inspiration in the Library’s online Whitman collections while writing a song about Whitman (“Song of Himself”) while sequestered during the Covid pandemic. (3) Soon after she visited the Library, she debuted the Whitman song on her new album, Keep Your Courage (April 2023).

AFC board member Natalie Merchant and her daughter view the Harned-Whitman butterfly in the Manuscript Division. (Barbara Bair/Library of Congress)

Whitman and Merchant are both New Yorkers, singing their songs in different centuries and across generations. The two share a deep comprehension of the poetry involved in singing, and the ways that lyrics and the sounds of voice and instrumentation reach audiences, and resonate and have meaning to individuals of many walks of life. Such songs can be strikingly intimate and yet are open to renewed appreciation and perpetual reinterpretation by other voices over time.

At the end of his epic poem from Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” Whitman urges readers of the future to look for him in the grass under their boot soles. He  pledges that he stops somewhere waiting for us. In “Song of Himself,” Merchant celebrates empathy and memory. But above all, she celebrates seizing the possibility of renewal and revitalization as a way for us to keep our courage in difficult times.  “Who saw the world in a blade of grass?” she sings in a beautiful voice that I believe Whitman would have appreciated and loved. She then addresses Whitman across time and space, promising the poet that “Your song, it will be sung—and sung again.” (4)

O amazement of things—even the least particle!
O spirituality of things!
O strain musical flowing through ages and continents . . .
I take your strong chords, intersperse them, and cheerfully pass them forward.

Walt Whitman, “Song at Sunset,” Leaves of Grass (1891-1892 edition). For the full text of the poem, see Walt Whitman Archive

  1. For a “Get Inspired” exercise to conduct with children to help learn more about Walt Whitman and observations of nature, and to encourage them to tap into ways nature inspires their own creativity, see Take a Nature Walk with Walt Whitman a Library of Congress educational resource developed by the Informal Learning Office. Also consider a family visit to the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site in Long Island, New York.
  2. Literature, Culture, and the Arts specialist Barbara Bair displayed the Whitman collection items for Merchant on March 22, 2023. See Mike Sacks, “Natalie Merchant’s Lost American Songs.” The New Yorker (April 22, 2023).   and “Music Interviews: Natalie Merchant on album ‘Keep Your Courage’” with Ayesha Rascoe (NPR/WAMU, April 9, 2023, Weekend Edition)
  3. The Library of Congress Harned-Whitman Papers are available to the public in digital format online. They are also featured in a new Walt Whitman Campaign project launched May 23, 2023 by the Library of Congress By the People crowdsourcing transcription program. Transcribers can engage closely with a wide variety of Whitman’s texts and see the butterfly card in both these digital contexts on the Library of Congress web site, and also explore the closely related Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers and the Walt Whitman Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection.
  4. Natalie Merchant, “Song of Himself,” Keep Your Courage. Nonesuch Records Inc./Warner Music Group Co./Big City Sister Inc. 2023.


Comments (2)

  1. Barbara, thanks for this good post celebrating Whitman’s birthday. I’m a longtime Natalie Merchant fan, too.

  2. Walt Whitman is one of my favorites. My mother an, avid reader and school teacher, shared him with me in my teen years. And now so many years later i hear“ Song of Himself” by Natalie Merchant and all the memories come back. Endless gifts in this life that never die in spite of all the loss. Thank you for this gift.

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