Tag Archives: Ed Begley

“I knew a man”



I knew a man . . . . he was a common farmer . . . . he was the father of five sons . . .
and in them were the fathers of sons . . . and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow
and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes,
These I used to go and visit him to see . . . . He was wise also,
He was six feet tall . . . . he was over eighty years old . . . . his sons were massive
clean bearded tanfaced and handsome,

They and his daughters loved him . . . all who saw him loved him . . . they did not
love him by allowance . . . they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only . . . . the blood showed like scarlet through the clear brown
skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher . . . he sailed his boat himself . . . he had a fine
one presented to him by a shipjoiner . . . . he had fowling-pieces, presented to
him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick
him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him . . . . you would wish to sit by him in
the boat that you and he might touch each other.



Written in free verse, “I knew a man,” by Walt Whitman, is part of “I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.,” a poem with nine short subsections included in the original (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass.

It is a great example of the utter simplicity and non-literary character of Whitman’s poetry. (This aspect of Whitman’s poetry is analyzed and explained definitively in C. Carroll Hollis’s monograph Language and Style in Leaves of Grass [Louisiana State University Press, 1983]).

The poem is read here by the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970). Begley is, without question, the greatest reader, the greatest vocal interpreter, of Whitman’s poetry ever.



Reflecting upon this poem, it occurs to me that I know, and have known (beginning with my parents), people eliciting such thoughts, such admiration from me.

People seemingly ordinary. Meaning not famous, or great as we commonly take great to mean when we speak of a great statesman, a great author, or any other person of such stature.

Ordinary people.

Yet remarkable people.

Men and women whose character, integrity, sincerity, kindness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, fortitude, and so forth one is struck by over and over, almost daily. Of whom one finds oneself reminding oneself constantly what a privilege it is to know such persons. And of what they have to offer. To you or me.

Whitman stopped to admire a blade of grass. I often find myself, as did Whitman in this poem, “stopping to admire” ordinary people whom I meet and reflecting upon their wonderful qualities and, by extension, upon our common humanity.


— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

“I Hear America Singing”







I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.



In the 1970’s, when I first lived in New York, I used to frequently borrow LP records from the New York Public Library. I once borrowed an LP on the Caedmon label (a pioneer in audio recordings) of the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970) reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I told my poet friend Charles Pierre, a great admirer of Whitman, whose poetry influenced the former’s own book of poetry (his first), Green Vistas, about the marvelous (as I found it to be) recording.

“Who was the reader?” he asked.

“Ed Begley,” I said.

“Ed Begley,” he answered. “Oh, he’s wonderful.”

I was wondering how he knew this (when it came to Whitman).



“I Hear America Singing” was the first poem by Whitman – THE poem — that got me into Whitman. I had to hear it out loud, it seemed.


I heard the poem being read (by a different reader) on an audiotape yesterday.

It is a very short poem. Notable for:

Utter simplicity. Saying just enough to convey the meaning, profoundly, without anything else (and no extraneous references or allusions, literary or otherwise). For example: “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Just that: a girl sewing or washing. Nothing more needs to be said. (Normally, we might expect to hear “sewing a new coat,” or “washing clothes.”)

Biblical cadences and parallelism: “The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;” “the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.” Giving the reader an exquisite sense of aesthetic satisfaction and of completion.

Parallelism achieved by the use of grammatical constructions — i.e., gerunds such as “sewing” or “washing.”

Repetition in the way one might hear in a nursery rhyme: “The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck”; “the day what belongs to the day.”

The use of adjectives that one might not expect in the context, adjectives that delight: “the delicious singing of the mother.”

A manner of stating things so that what seems simple and apparent has profound implications, and what is not said or left out is as important as what is said. For example: “the hatter singing as he stands.” This phrase invites us to “fill in the blanks” and envision the hatter standing at a workbench. Whitman tells only so much and invites the reader to complete the picture in his or her mind. It is a kind of addition by subtraction.

The poem itself sings.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018