Two remarkable poems celebrate Louisiana’s moss-laden live oak trees. The first, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” Walt Whitman wrote. He and his younger brother, Jeff, came to New Orleans in February 1848 to work for a newspaper, the New Orleans Crescent, as a journalist and Jeff as a copy boy. They left before the end of the year because of their opposition to slavery.
The other poem, “Bearded Oaks,” Robert Penn Warren composed a century later. He too lived in Louisiana and taught for many years at Louisiana State University. Warren is the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry–Promises, in 1957–and for his classic novel–All The King’s Men, in 1946.
-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books
I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
By Walt Whitman
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,All alone stood it and the moss hung down from
the branches,Without any companion it grew there uttering
joyous leaves of dark green,And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me
think of myself,But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
standing alone there without its friend near,
for I knew I could not,And I broke off a twig with a certain number of
leaves upon it, and twined around it a little
moss,And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight
in my room,It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear
friends,(For I believe lately I think of little else than of
them,)Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me
think of manly love;For all that, and though the live-oak glistens
there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat
space,Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend
a lover near,I know very well I could not.
By Robert Penn Warren
The oaks, how subtle and marine!
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.
So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light;
The grassed, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.
Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.
Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour;
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.
The storm of noon above us rolled,
Of light the fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Unrocked is dark, unrippling, still.
Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descended, whispered grain by grain,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.
All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage is rage of stone;
If hopeless hope, fearless is fear,
And history is thus undone.
(Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
All windows; once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping fled.)
The caged hearts make iron stroke,
I do not love you now the less,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke
So little time we live in Time,
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour’s term
To practice for Eternity.