“The Height to be Superb Humanity”: A Poet’s Christmas Greeting

In 1889, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew the highly popular Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the first Republic of Brazil. On Christmas Day of that year, seventy year old American poet Walt Whitman—the self-styled “Poet of Democracy”—wrote a poem called “Christmas Greeting” to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. It is my favorite Christmas poem:

Welcome, Brazilian brother–thy ample place is ready;
A loving hand–a smile from the north–a sunny instant hall!
(Let the future care for itself, where it reveals its troubles, impedimentas,
Ours, ours the present throe, the democratic aim, the acceptance and the faith;)
To thee to-day our reaching arm, our turning neck–
to thee from us the expectant eye,
Thou cluster free! thou brilliant lustrous one! thou, learning well,
The true lesson of a nation’s light in the sky,
(More shining than the Cross, more than the Crown,)
The height to be superb humanity.

It is important that Whitman chose Christmas as the occasion for this poem—even though he wrote it for very secular ends. For Whitman, the best Christmas present that his beloved country could give to Brazil was a shining example of how to be good at democracy—a lesson that transcended both religion and politics. It was simply “to be superb humanity.”

Ordinary humanity will not do in a democracy. Ordinary humans lack the courage to lead and the commitment to work for the greater good with people they do not approve of or agree with. Ordinary humanity is tribal, uncompromising, unforgiving, and unfit to govern itself. Ordinary humans are followers.

Democracy calls us to be better than ordinary. So, too, did the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas. He taught us to reject what was natural, and therefore easy, and to undergo a mighty change of heart. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God. And he showed us that the Kingdom of God was within us.

This, I believe, was why Whitman sent the people of Brazil an invitation to democracy on Christmas Day. For him, the message of Christmas and the requirements of democracy were the same: be superb humanity. Or, as another great poet would say a hundred years later: “be excellent to each other.” This is also what democracy demands.

The power of this message is only strengthened by its universality. It is the message of Christ, but it is not a “Christian message.” It is the consistent message of all faiths, and all philosophies worth dedicating a life to. One does not have to adhere to a particular faith, or any faith at all, to follow Whitman’s call. One need only reject ordinariness when it comes to being human.