Whitman was certainly a strange choice for Dartmouth, such that scholar Bliss Perry later speculated that the invitation had been a prank. Nevertheless, for his reading on that rainy day, Whitman was paid $35. Accounts differ on the level of success: one report said the poet spoke in monotone and could not be heard well, while another referred to his "clearness of enunciation." The poem he read was "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," which begins:
As a strong bird, on pinions free,
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving,
Such be the thought I'd think to-day of thee, America;
Such be the recitative I'd bring to-day for thee.
The conceits of the poets of other lands I bring thee not,
Nor the compliments that have served their turn so long,
Nor rhyme — nor the classics — nor perfume of foreign court or indoor library;
But an odor I'd bring to-day as from forests of pine in the north, in Maine—or breath of an Illinois prairie,
With open airs of Virginia, or Georgia or Tennessee — or from Texas uplands or Florida's glades;
With presentment of Yellowstone's scenes or Yosemite;
And murmuring under, pervading all, I'd bring the restling sea sound,
That endlessly sounds from the two great seas of the world.
And for thy subtler sense, subtler refrains, O Union!
Preludes of intellect tallying these and thee — mind-formulas fitted for thee — real and sane and large as these and thee;
Thou, mounting higher, diving deeper than we knew — thou transcendental Union!
By thee Fact to be justified—blended with Thought;
Thought of Man justified — blended with God:
Through thy Idea — lo! the immortal Reality!
Through thy Reality — lo! the immortal idea!
*My introduction to this event came from Jerome Loving's biography Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself.