Whitman Illustrated: Song of Myself

Illustrating what many deem a “sacred” task must be both a sublime task and a terrifying one.

Whitman Illuminated cover
Whitman Illuminated cover

For one American illustrator, Allen Crawford, it was not only these things, but also a test of physical endurance, a jarring of sleep patterns, and a project that he estimates ended up taking 2,560 hours.

...and found no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones
…and found no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones

This text is American poet Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself – a seminal 60-page text from his Leaves of Grass collection.

 O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Crawford decided to make this epic poem his epic project, hand-drawing each of the words of the poem with illustrations, flourishes and page upon page of passion for is subject matter that we suspect began to border on madness.

There was never any more inception that there is now, and will never be any more perfection that there is now, nor any more heaven or hell that there is now
There was never any more inception that there is now, and will never be any more perfection that there is now, nor any more heaven or hell that there is now

Crawford worked on the book, which features 234 illustrated pages for a year, alone in his basement “lapsing into a nocturnal pattern”. He says that each two-page spread took eight to ten hours to complete, adding that in winter he sometimes got so cold he resorted to working in a Russian fur hat.

“I sometimes think of this projects as a visual journey that I kept as I explored the wild expanses of Whitman’s poem, surveying and documenting each line as I went”, he says in the foreword.

“So much effort was put into each spread that I could never work out in advance what I was going to draw on the following day. Each morning I felt as though I was starting all over again.

“The hardest part was working out what the next image would be. Would it be pectoral? Lyrical? Emblematic? Surreal? Typographic? Playful?”

I see in them and myself the same old law
I see in them and myself the same old law

The book’s playful, vivacious aesthetic works superbly with Waltman’s own sensibilities, taking joy in life and nature; in physicality and human life.

There’s no hard and fast rules, design wise; with some pages purely type-based, and others wit more literal illustrations of the words within the lines. It’s a beautiful book, illustrating a beautiful poem.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside
The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside

Whitman Illuminated Song of Myself is published by Jonathan Cape Graphic Novels on 20 November priced £20

This is the true sustenance
This is the true sustenance

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