What Does ‘Pismire’ Mean?

Clover Blossom Amidst GrassOne of the ways I meditate is to look up words I don’t know. The word ‘pismire‘ appears in Walt Whitman’s eternal shocker Leaves of Grass (that link includes the full text of the poem).

Pismire means ‘ant’ and the etymology comes from Middle English pisse (meaning urine) + mire (meaning ‘ant,’ likely Old Norse). Wha? Oh, apparently, the formic acid that ants secrete smells like…urine! Fascinating, non?!?

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

I find I incorporate gneiss and coal and long-threaded moss and fruits and grains and esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
And call any thing close again when I desire it.

In vain the speeding or shyness,
In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powdered bones,
In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes,
In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low,
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs,
In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
In vain the razorbilled auk sails far north to Labrador,
I follow quickly….I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.”

-Walt Whitman (stanza 31, Leaves of Grass)

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