For centuries, people have had differing opinions about miracles. Have any miracles ever really happened? Or is everything at the mercy of chance? Across all cultures, peoples, and time periods, there have been stories of miracles. In the Israeli culture alone, there are stories of Moses calling down plagues upon Egypt and parting the red sea to lead the people to freedom. Many stories like this are told across cultures. And then there are the miracles of Jesus, which spearheaded the movement of Christianity across the world. Today, it is difficult to know whether or not miracles have ever really happened.
Whitman’s poem, ‘Miracles,’ seems to be in response to this very question, “Is there any such thing as a miracle?” While many people would look for miraculous healing or resurrection from the dead or some other such dramatic miracle as proof. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, reveals through this poem, that he believes in miracles not because he has experienced a blind man given sight, or a dead person raised to life, but because he has experienced the very things that most every other person experiences on a daily basis. Most people would never recognize these things as miracles, but Whitman does.
Why! Who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles
Whereas many people may have claimed to have seen some particular great miracle, and others may refuse to believe it, Whitman claims that he has never known anything other than miracles. He continues,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water
Or stand under trees in the woods
Or talk by day with any one I love- or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love
Within these few short lines, Whitman has revealed that he finds miracles in the streets of Manhattan and the roofs of houses. He finds it amazing what men have had the intelligence to build. He reveals that he sees the sky and the beach as miracles. He also believes that his ability to enjoy them is in itself a miracle. He also claims that his ability to feel love for another person is a miracle. He believes that what mankind has created, nature and human emotion are all miracles.
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon
Or animals feeding in the fields
Or birds- or the wonderfulness of insects in the air
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down-or of stars shining so quiet and bright
He continues to describe the miracle of humanity. He writes about having “dinner with his mother” and looking at “strangers” and observing “honey-bees” and “animals” and “birds”. At this point, it becomes evident that Whitman mentions three particular parts of nature in each section of this poem: humans, animals, and nature. When he mentions his mother, he again alludes to the miracle of human emotion and his ability to love another human being. When he mentions insects, particularly honey-bees, he alludes to that which is the very sustenance of life, which he finds miraculous. Everything that is alive and breathing is a miracle to him, and the beauty and majesty of the stars shining in the heavens is yet another miraculous mystery.
In the next stanza, he continues in this same pattern of mentioning nature as well as humanity. He continues,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best-mechanics, boatmen, farmers
This stanza is interesting because he parallels his appreciation of the heavens to his appreciation of other human beings he has spent time around. He considers it a miracle that humans could have such diversified talents from mechanics to boatmen to farmers. He mentions human emotion within this observation as he calls them “those I like best, and that like me best”. He refers to the human ability to like one another as a miracle.
Or among the savants- or to the soiree- or the opera
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man or the perfect old woman
Here, he admires what the human mind has created, and finds the results of the human mind t be miraculous. This is why he admires the “movements of machinery”. He also sees human growth as a miracle. He watches children, and to him, it is miraculous the way they grow, and the way their minds work to create sport and to play games with one another. He also views the elderly as miraculous. The way the body ages and the soul grows wiser is yet another miracle to this speaker.
He continues to speak of humanity in the following stanza, and here, he speaks ironically of sickness. While many would see the healing of sickness as a miracle, he sees the illness itself as a miracle, or perhaps he sees the “normal” human status of healthy as a miracle, and so when illness takes over, he considers all human experience to be miraculous. He continues,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These with the rest one and all are to me miracles
The whole referring- yet each distinct, and in its place
This section reveals that he believes that life itself is a miracle, with all that happens in it. Life is a miracle, illness is a miracle, and even death is a miracle. He believes that each occurrence has a designated place and time, and that too is a miracle. When he looks upon his own eyes and figure in the glass” he contemplates his own life. He wonders about himself, where he came from, his creator, and the gift of life he has been given, and all of this, he considers a miracle.
He continues to describe what he views as miraculous. He says,
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same
Every spear of grass-the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women and all that concerns them
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles
He expresses his belief that all of creation- every inch of it speaks of a creator and is therefore a miracle. He specifically mentions that “light and dark is a miracle” which is perhaps a result of his religious background as a Quaker, in which he was sure to have been taught that God spoke, “Let there be light” (Trapp).
To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim- the rocks- the motions of the waves- the ships with men in them”
Again, here he mentions humanity and nature in one breath. He views both as miracles. He ends his poem just as it began, with a question,
“What greater miracles are there?
Walt Whitman Background
Walt Whitman grew up as a Quaker, although he did not follow every aspect of that religion in his adult years. Rather, he sought to find spirituality for himself. He did consider all things as a miracle and often hinted at the idea of a creator, but the overall theme of much of his poetry reveals his regard for humanity and nature. This poem reveals his awe of nature and humanity. He is awed by trees, the sky, the ocean, animals, and most of all, humanity. He is in awe of what the human mind has designed, and he is in awe of human life itself. He believes humanity to be of utmost importance, and many of his other works reveal this as well.