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Hidden Acrostic Wit
in Walt Whitman’s “A Riddle Song”
by Roy Neil Graves
Copyrighted by
The Explicator 1996. Reprinted by permission.


          From The Explicator, “Whitman’s A RIDDLE SONG,” Roy Neil Graves, Vol. 55, No. 1, 22-25, Fall 1996. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802. Copyright © 1996.
          (A copy of the poem appears below, after the article. The poem text did not accompany the Explicator article when it came out in 1996. According to Michael Moon, in his Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass and Other Writings [2002 ed., p. 399], Whitman said of the poem, "[...]I made the puzzle: it's not my business to solve.")








    A Riddle Song (first published in 1880; one of the new poems in the 1881 ed. of Leaves of Grass)

     That which eludes this verse and any verse,
     Unheard by sharpest ear, unform'd in clearest eye or cunningest mind,
     Nor lore nor fame, nor happiness nor wealth,
     And yet the pulse of every heart and life throughout the world incessantly,
     Which you and I and all pursuing ever ever miss,
     Open but still a secret, the real of the real, an illusion,
     Costless, vouchsafed to each, yet never man the owner,
     Which poets vainly seek to put in rhyme, historians in prose,
     Which sculptor never chisel'd yet, nor painter painted,
     Which vocalist never sung, nor orator nor actor ever utter'd,
     Invoking here and now I challenge for my song.

     Indifferently, 'mid public, private haunts, in solitude,
     Behind the mountain and the wood,
     Companion of the city's busiest streets, through the assemblage,
     It and its radiations constantly glide.

     In looks of fair unconscious babes,
     Or strangely in the coffin'd dead,
     Or show of breaking dawn or stars by night,
     As some dissolving delicate film of dreams,
     Hiding yet lingering.

     Two little breaths of words comprising it,
     Two words, yet all from first to last comprised in it.
     How ardently for it!
     How many ships have sail'd and sunk for it!
     How many travelers started from their homes and ne'er return'd!
     How much of genius boldly staked and lost for it!
     What countless stores of beauty, love, ventur'd for it!
     How all superbest deeds since Time began are traceable to it—and shall be to the end!
     How all heroic martyrdoms to it!
     How, justified by it, the horrors, evils, battles of the earth!
     How the bright fascinating lambent flames of it, in every age and land, have drawn men's eyes,
     Rich as a sunset on the Norway coast, the sky, the islands, and the cliffs,
     Or midnight's silent glowing northern lights unreachable.

     Haply God's riddle it, so vague and yet so certain,
     The soul for it, and all the visible universe for it,
     And heaven at last for it.

                                                    —Walt Whitman


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