I recently read “This Compost” by Walt Whitman, and after just one reading, it immediately landed itself on my list of favorite poems. Why exactly it ended up on that list took me a few more reads to decipher. Whitman is a Transcendentalist who glorifies nature to an extent some Christians would consider inappropriate, myself among them; nevertheless, the poem speaks to an element of worship that modernity has largely or neglected: the reverent fear of God.
Wonder and fear are the two primary themes in this poem, and although, as a Transcendentalist, Whitman is speaking directly to nature, it is not much of a leap to apply his worship to the Creator of nature as well. Throughout the piece, he speaks in wonder of nature’s ability to bring life and beauty out of the death and decay on which it feeds. In the third stanza he even goes out looking with a spade as an expression of his disbelief that life could spring out of death untainted:
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat. (Whitman 11-16)
Yet in this wonder there is also a tangible tone of fear: the poem begins and ends with his admission that he is terrified by this miracle. This detail, which is missing from so many other poems about nature and God, lends Whitman’s subject a kind of sanctity that cannot be replicated. It is a marvel that God can bring good out of evil, but it is also a terrifying and awful miracle.
Where has this fear of God gone? In the typical modern church, we sing songs of wonder, of praise, of trust, but fear is hardly ever mentioned. There might be a sermon on the fear of Hell, but most sanctimonious pastors twist this with a sermon that makes Hell out to be the time-out corner for other sinners. In any case, the fear I am speaking of, a reverent fear of God, does not have to do with Hell, but with the appropriate terror of a power greater and better than us. It is the awful wonder present in the book of Job when God reminds Job of all the greatest and most terrible things in the universe, things of which He is master. It is the fear that is absent from most modern praise songs, but sewn deep into many traditional hymns, including one of my favorites, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” The choral version of the hymn begins with a single piano note and a haunting solo that is mindful of a chant: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.” As the song progresses, more harmonies are woven in and the tune grows, but the initial command to remember reverent fear is especially powerful. Later, the song mentions seraphim and cherubim, described in full Biblical accuracy – “veil[ing] their faces to the Presence” – another reminder of the sheer glory of God too awful for even angels to behold. Although it is not necessary for every song to carry this tone of reverent fear, the ones that do are unfortunately quite rare.
This is why Whitman’s poem is such a treasure. It evokes elements of worship that have faded with the arrival of the Enlightenment. Perhaps if we retained a little of the awe for nature that the poem speaks of, we would be better at fulfilling our God-given role as stewards of the earth. There are so few places left on earth where one can go and behold, and tremble, and remember that we are here because of divine grace, not our own prowess. Perhaps if we still believed in dryads, we would be more respectful of the forests. Perhaps if we remembered whose Almighty hand formed these oceans, we might take better note of where we dump our trash. Perhaps if we still retained an appropriate fear of God, our modern Christian culture would not be so brazenly hubristic. Perhaps we knew better when we understood less.