Navigating a Confusing World with Whitman’s “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances”

Walt Whitman photographed at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Samuel Murray, 1891.

“Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” by Walt Whitman is included in my favourite poetry anthology of last year, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. It is chosen by Stephen Fry in the collection, and it’s also alleged to be J.K. Rowling‘s favourite poem.

I love this poem because it recognises that the world is a confusing place. It’s not always easy to find meaning, and I think we all occasionally ponder why we’re here.

Whitman seems to be telling us that this is understandable. Yet he also suggests there is a solution of sorts: spending time with those who are important to us, and creating meaning through connection.

The final four lines are worth learning by heart. As Stephen Fry beautifully puts it: “It’s Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me”.

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Walt Whitman

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

From Leaves of Grass

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