Leaves of Grass
Personal Desire, Societal Expectation: Whitman on Religion and Sexuality
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
As a member of society, one is encouraged – often through media, legislation, and cultural tradition – to meet certain social and behavioral expectations. The disregard of these social “norms,” which attempt to make human behavior more predictable through the standardization thereof, are what made author and poet Walt Whitman controversial in his time; he defied both individual and literary conformity throughout his work, choosing instead to personify the gap between personal desire and societal expectation. In his protracted and intimate epic Song of Myself, Walt Whitman reflects on this gap, specifically through the lenses of religion, or the lack thereof, and sexual imagery in his writing.
Born and raised in the early nineteenth-century, a time of political turbulence and white, evangelical supremacy, Whitman, influenced by the notions of deism, chose to respect all religions but follow none. “Jehovah… Kronos… Osiris… Brahma, Buddha… Manito… Allah… the crucifix engraved… Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image, [I take] them all for what they are worth and not a cent more, admitting they were alive and did the work of their days… Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself… Discovering as much or more in a framer framing a house… Not objecting to special revelations, [I consider] a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as a revelation” (Section 41). Here, Whitman refuses to associate with any single organized religion, instead suggesting that all religions and deities are neither false nor absolutely true, but equally respectable in philosophy, tradition, and scrutiny – a rather revolutionary notion for his time, in which Christianity and its denominations ruled the American cultural sphere. Historically, he did not allow religion to dictate his behavior like many Americans who feared “sinning”. Whitman chose instead to carve his own path based on his own morals and desires, rather than religious expectation, encouraging his readers to “…no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres [of] books,” but rather to “listen to all sides and filter them for yourself” (Section 2, both quotations). Furthermore, Whitman’s rejection of religion is apparent in his distaste of the pious: “I think I could turn and live with animals… They do not sweat and whine about their condition, they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God… Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago” (Section 32). Whitman, disgusted with the blind allegiance of the devout to their gods, churches, and holy books, finds solace in the purity of nature and her creatures. He would rather live among the Earth’s creatures than be pestered and dictated by those of God, choosing instead to follow his own spiritual path based on his own principles and ambitions, free from the influence of God and the promise of Heaven. This mindset was rather revolutionary for his time, as the promise of Heaven provided a comforting benefit of death to the largely religious American populace. Overall, Whitman did not give in to prominent American religion, or religion in general, nor did he allow its doctrines to dictate his path, to determine his personal moral rules, or to judge and influence his behavior – all of which are further evidenced by the author’s then-controversial sexuality and sexual imagery.
Humans within themselves harbor auto-, homo-, and heterosexual desires. Sex is simply a human experience, much stronger in uniting than in dividing a human’s relationships, both with his partners and with himself. Whitman himself, in search of communion with all living beings, hinted at homosexual tendencies throughout his literary work. In an early version of Song of Myself, Whitman said, “Prodigal! You have given me love! Therefore I to you give love! O unspeakable passionate love! Thruster holding me tight, and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other” (Section 21 of Song of Myself, The Walt Whitman Archive). Disregarding social taboo by openly discussing his lustful desires, in this case with a man, Walt Whitman ignores social expectation and focuses instead on the cravings of his own soul – the craving to satisfy his human nature by intimately connecting with his partners. This blatant literary eroticism was uncommon for Whitman’s time and often met with controversy and disdain from the outspoken of America’s conservative mindset, wherein sex was stigmatized (The Walt Whitman Archive) as an act of guilt, domination, and overall impurity if done outside the confines of religious law. Whitman, however, continued discussing sex and ultimately human nature throughout his work, ignoring the criticism he received as his poems deviated from the genteel Eurocentric standard.
One example of this is his portrayal of a woman watching twenty-eight young men bathing naked in a stream, her heart and soul filled with the desire to join them and experience the beauty of human touch. “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore… twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome. Which of the young men does she like the best? … You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room. Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather, the rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them. An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies, it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs” (Section 11). It is neither modest, nor appropriate, for a woman to bathe naked with a group of strange men. Playing on the human desire of sexual discovery, however, Whitman ignores the social and religious expectations of modesty and virtue, describing in detail the lonesome woman’s burning desire to simply enjoy herself with the group of bathing men. Whitman attempts to unveil the woman’s “forbidden voices… of sexes and lusts” (Section 24), believing that sexual guilt and fright are harmful emotions, despite the stigma revolving around the public expression thereof. Following his own beliefs, Whitman seems to encourage the woman to forget the societal expectation of modesty and pursue her own path, forged from her own desire, sexual ambition, and timid experience with life; he seems to encourage her to take to the water with the men, sharing not only her body but also her emotion and desire of intimacy. Overall, openly discussing sex is, and was in Whitman’s time, often considered taboo. Acting as an open-minded sexual pariah, however, Whitman attempted to normalize the discussion and love of sex, both homo and hetero, causing ripples among the conservative American mindset of the time which had ultimately condemned it, embracing his personal desire as he forewent societal and religious expectation of modesty to express to his audience his love of communionship, which is only bolstered by sexual interaction.
In this manner, Walt Whitman, in his American epic Song of Myself, explored the gap between personal aspiration and societal expectations through the perspective of religion and through his controversial, yet natural, sexual imagery – both of which defied the common, conservative American standard of the time. As one of the most significant American writers to this day, having popularized American literature in an era where European-traditionist writing was the main consumption of literate Americans, Whitman’s influential message of choice and individuality has a rather widespread sphere of influence across the American public. He encourages his readers, above all else, to take the reins of their own lives, to rely not on institution, nor holy books, nor ancestral teachings and traditions to mold readers’ paths. He advocates individuality and the denial of conformity and of the embracing not only of oneself, but of “every caste and rank” of every nation in this great Nation of Nations that we call the United States. Walt Whitman, through his literary work, teaches not only how to live, but how to love without fear of stigmatization, how to embrace nature and enjoy the purity and the beauty of the Earth, and most significantly how to exist spiritually not only within oneself, but of oneself. One should ultimately embrace the very essence of who he is, love nothing more than the fat which sticks to his own bones, and forge his own path in this game of life, with desire and ambition leading the way.
Walt Whitman: The Center of the American Literary Canon
Through his work in poetry, literature, and other media, Walt Whitman is often considered one of the most significant American writers and theorists. He arguably popularized all-American literature with his work, injecting American writing into an era where only genteel and European-traditionist literature was taught in college. As evident by his epic from Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” in which the speaker is not the voice of one man but of the common people as a whole, Whitman believed in the sameness of all men, in the natural right of diversity, in the power and strength of the democratic process, and in deism. Furthermore, Whitman’s writing style thereof successfully created an unique American character who represented people of all castes, religions, and backgrounds. Because of his captivating social expositions on the dream of “freedom” in American society and his ability through his literature to give the common American people a “voice,” Walt Whitman is considered the center of the American literary canon and the poet of democracy.
Many might say that Walt Whitman was ideologically “ahead” of his time; a progressive in an era that preceeded the progressive movement of the early twentieth century. Unlike the influential oligarchs of the Gilded Age, who bought and sold audiences and politicians at will with their massive amounts of industrial wealth, Whitman was a proponent of the power of the common man and of his influence in the democratic process; he effectively gave new meaning to the common man, through his literary works, empowering them to recognize their own significance in society. He preached confidence and individuality to his readers, “[Inculcating] the lesson of ennobling self-esteem. He [taught] the negro that ‘there is no sweeter fat than sticks to his own bones.’ He [urged] him to accept nothing that ‘insults his own soul.’ This sort of self-esteem would lead ultimately to the voicing of new literary modalities, distinctively black in origin” (56, Whitman and the Black Poet). Whitman attempted to show Afro-Americans, who at the time were living in the shackles of both racism and slavery, that their plight mattered and that although their bodies were in chains, their souls were free.
Furthermore, he elevated American literature above the ignorance of the prevalent African-American aesthetic. In modern American literature, blacks were portrayed as either helpless, heavily stereotyped, brutish, or as victims of their own fate and suffering. Whitman, however, exalted his work to a more free and open level, disregarding this common “black aesthetic” in American literature and choosing instead to portray blacks in his work as mere equals to everyone else, be it the worker, the businessman, or the curious woman. For example, in “Song of Myself”, the speaker harbors and cares for a dedicated runaway slave on a journey northwood, sitting together at the dinner table as equals while “[his] fire-lock lean’d in the corner,” (Whitman, section 10), as it would when any amicable guest was visiting. This denial of racial exclusion in his work, which Whitman was famous for and which further contrasted heavily with the blatant ignorance and racism in nineteenth-century America, is what elevated Whitman to the center of the American literature scene. He defied the literary norms of his time, subsequently inspiring blacks with his voice to find one of their own, helping create the vital genre of black American literature, which would eventually resonate with the thinkers, artists, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Overall, Whitman overcame the literary pretensions established by the American elite by writing from the perspective of the common man, thrusting him into the spotlight as his poems inspired a new subgenre of black authors and reformed the American literary scene.
As the “poet of democracy”, Whitman wrote not as a single speaker or representation of any caste or group, but as the collective cry of all American people for the sake of their own social advancement. He embraced the very essence of American democracy – a government comprised of the people responsible for the protection of our “nation of nations” – by congregating what he believed were the woes, troubles, suffers, and desires of common Americans into a singular, uplifting, and inspirational voice. As an American epic, “Song of Myself” personifies the very structure and foundation of America and her ideals of the representation of all men. “Song of Myself” is not solely about Whitman himself, therein he follows the stories and the lives and the dreams and the struggles of many Americans, from the raving lunatic, to the lonely and lustful woman, to the farmer, the trapper, the officer, the butcher, the lawyer, the performer and the singer, the actor, the slave, the machinist, and many, many other common American people.
Homoeroticism in Leaves of Grass
American poet, essayist and journalist, Walt Whitman, worked to expose his readers to his unique, personal thoughts on the body, nature, and the human experience. Whitman was a humanist, and incorporated both transcendentalism and realism in his work. He is often referred to as the father of free verse. Whitman’s most praised work is Leaves of Grass: a collection of poetry, published in 1855. The poems in Leaves of Grass are seen as Whitman’s celebration of life and humanity. Whitman chooses to explore and praise the many pleasures that life has to offer, even those which may be considered immoral. Choosing to write about such subjects, both directly and indirectly, allowed for a great deal of interpretation to be made by his readers. One of the most repeated and more explicit ideas taken from his poetry regards Whitman’s sexual preference. There are several poems in Leaves of Grass that contain homoerotic imagery. Though the imagery is subtle, it is a part of his work which cannot be ignored. Through simplified and subverted word play, Whitman twists homoeroticism into his work without actually making a definitive statement about his sexual preference, never revealing whether he is homosexual or bisexual, and at the same time explores sexuality as a whole.
The majority of Whitman’s poems which contain allusions to homoeroticism are part of a section in Leaves of Grass entitled “Calamus.” Though this section contains most of the poems which are dominantly erotic, we must first question why Whitman chose “Calamus” as the title for this collection. There are a few reasons why this section can be seen as a reflection of Whitman’s sexuality and view on sexuality. First, the Acorus Calamus is a tall perennial wetland monocot. It is a plant in the Acoraceae family, which grows in the same shape as an erect human penis. Many would assume he chose this title for this section of Leaves of Grass for the erotic imagery the plant creates. Second, in Greek mythology, Kalamos, the son of the river god, Maeander, loved Karpos, who was the son of Zephyrus and Chloris. When Karpos died in a drowning accident, Kalamos was so full of grief that he himself turned into a reed (Calamus). The imagery and meaning of the word “calamus” may therefore be seen as an intentional choice made by Whitman to represent male homosexual love, both physical and emotional. We know that Whitman focuses upon the physical and emotional aspects of human life in his poetry, so it is only appropriate that this may be seen as the reasoning behind why he chose this as the title. As we look further into the poems in this section, it becomes more apparent that this is in fact his intention when writing this section.
Whitman’s poem “Behold This Swarthy Face,” in “Calamus,” is the first to hint at homoeroticism in this section. In this poem, he writes of an encounter with a man in New York City, and the interaction between them upon this meeting. Whitman is sure to emphasize the masculinity of the individual he is regarding. He assures the reader that the person he is interacting with is indeed a man, and confirms it to us with a physical description very early on in the poem. “Behold this swarthy face—these gray eyes, This beard—the white wool, unclipt upon my neck” (Whitman, 149)
Whitman begins using a physical description to ease his readers into the actual nature of this piece. He makes it very obvious what type of person is to be loved in the poem. Whitman continues: “Ye comes one, a Manhattanese, and ever at parting, kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love, And I, on the crossing of the street, or the ships deck, give a kiss in return;” (Whitman,149)
Whitman is much less delicate here than he is the beginning of the poem. Though this can be interpreted as an experience of his “bonding” or assimilating with the city he is in and the people in it, he clearly writes about a physical, faintly erotic experience with this man he has encountered. In “Behold this Swarthy Face,” the homosexual aspects are implanted so subtly that it is possible for them to be interpreted as something else, however, interpreting the writing directly brings Whitman and his work into a totally different light. Not only does writing this reveal aspects of sexuality and perhaps Whitman’s desires, but it defines him and his writing as highly progressive and open for the time period it was written in.
Also in “Calamus,” we see physical interaction and subtle homoeroticism in Whitman’s poem, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand.” The poem is significant because it takes the time to directly communicate with the reader. The poem deals with a love which is physical and spiritual at the same time. Whoever you are holding me now in hand, Without one thing all will be useless, I give you fair warning before you attempt me further, I am not what you supposed, but far different. (Whitman,135) The first lines of the poem can be seen as somewhat of a “confession” of Whitman’s sexual preference. When he says, “whoever you are” (Whitman, 135), he maybe be speaking to someone unknown, defining them as a stranger, or recognizing “whoever” as everyone reading the poem. The fact that Whitman says, “I am not what you supposed, but far different,” (Whitman,135) can support the idea that he is admitting to homosexuality. The fact that we live in a heteronormative world, and during the time Leaves of Grass was written, heteronormativity was much more dominant, we can define homosexuality here as something that would be seen as “different.” By saying he is not what one would assume he is (heterosexual), we can view this line as a sort of “coming out” to his readers. Eventually, we see the actual revelation of male interaction: “Who is he that would become my follower? Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?” (Whitman,135) The actual use of the pronoun “he,” and again with the actual written action: “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you, With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss, For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.” (Whitman,135) Whitman is taking on the role as the husband of the other party in the poem. Marriage is more than just a physical linking between two human beings, there is an infinite love and spiritual connection that is not always present in casual romance. By desiring both the physical and spiritual connection with another man, or “comrade,” we can assume that Whitman does not only want a casual meeting, but a full on matrimonial bond with a man.
Finally, references of bisexuality in “Calamus” begin to peak in Whitman’s poem “To a Stranger.” In this piece, we see Whitman begin to speak of the pleasure and privileges of knowing both sexes: Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you, You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,) I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you, (Whitman,151) Whitman tells us that he has lived a life of joy with “you,” meaning either men or women who have been a part of his story. By saying this, he is assuring his readers that he has experienced the pleasure of fully exploring sexuality as a whole. Whitman can be considered sexually “whole,” for he has indulged himself physically and spiritually in every aspect of sexuality. He confirms that the experiences he has had were indeed physical by stating: All I recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured, You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me, I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only, nor left my body Mine only, You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take my beard, Breast, hands, in return. (Whitman, 151) The emotional intimacy Whitman and the unnamed person in the poem have faced match their physical closeness, which we can assume is sexual due to the context of most of the poems in “Calamus.” Whitman’s sexual experience knows no bounds. By stating these things about himself, and knowing Whitman highly praised the human body, we can assume he has indulged in all the sexes have to offer.
Whitman’s poems have a tendency of speaking for themselves. There are a handful of other poems in Leaves of Grass that dance around the same ideas of sexuality and homoeroticism, but not as blatantly as the collection in “Calamus.” Whitman understood human existence in a unique way, and completely broke away from sexual and gender norms during the period of his writings. Leaves of Grass, and particularly the section “Calamus” uses imagery, and both subtle and blatant context clues to make a solid statement about sexuality as a whole. By doing this, Whitman separates himself from a heteronormative society and presents to us limitless poetry.
Works Cited Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: New York UP, 1965. Print.
The Thrust of Nature: An Examination of Walt Whitman’s Poetic Realm
Walt Whitman’s “Spontaneous Me” (Norton 2151-2152) crystallizes his attempt to create poems that appear natural, impulsive and untamed. The natural effect is a carefully crafted technique that appears throughout his writing, hinting at a philosophy of life while seeming to simply offer observation. As in “Song of Myself,” Whitman weaves together carefully chosen images to create the illusion of untamed totality. What is important about his complete vision is that it seems somehow essential, as though a natural state is unveiled. He crafts a language that stems from natural rhythms, like the familiar feel of breathing. Human impulses become universal pulses and vice versa. This creates an elemental rhythm that governs the craft of the poem and much of its subject matter. “Spontaneous Me” is a deeply erotic meditation on the self. An important aspect of the poem is its whispered confessional quality. There is the sense that Whitman is searching for answers, if not redemption. The natural world provides the necessary soothing, making his poem a self-reflexive examination of the human as an earthbound element. The poem answers itself, by paralleling the greater natural world, which is established as an answer for everything. This is Whitman’s message. He demands that we turn simultaneously inward and outward in pursuit of the truth, crafting a human being who is both a reflection and an embodiment of nature.
One of Whitman’s characteristic techniques is his listing of images, ideas, and moments. The poem seems at a glance to be a list of images and ideas, a gathering of disparate thoughts. Practically every line begins with ?The,’ and continues with subjects encompassing people, objects, smells, sounds, and ideas, to name a few. Although this is a concrete structure, more rigid poetic schemes such as rhyming would create a more artificial tone to the poem. The list-like organization masks the craft of the poem but also achieves a distinctly democratic sensibility. “The loving day,” (l.2) “The hillside whiten’d,” (l.3) and “The real poems,” (l.8) are fixed on the same plane of ideas, equal in the eyes of writer and reader. The simplicity of this technique also makes the poem seem accessible. It allows the reader to see each idea separately before fitting them all together, and refuses to mystify with circuitous sentence structure or intricate poetic verse. Beyond equalizing, the listing tactic creates a hypnotic rhythm. This is one of Whitman’s most subtle and effective qualities. He makes the poem seem basic in its structure, charms the reader with the continuity of repetition, and fills the almost breathing beats with his vision of the world.
There are many more aspects in communicating the natural poem beyond this effective structure. Whitman builds the cult of nature by making his poem seem an instinctive act. The sense that his writing flows unrestrained from the human mind helps convince the reader that the poem is more nature than art. This begins with the title “Spontaneous Me,” which already suggests that the poem is an unexpected occurrence. The suggestion is enriched in the opening line: “Spontaneous me, Nature,” (l.1) which expands on the two word title and makes Nature a subject as much as the speaker. The simple separation of the two ideas by a comma, on the same line is a masterful subject heading for a poem that will work hard to equalize precisely these two disparate parts. The individual and nature will henceforth wax and wane, in longer lines, but still separated by commas and stated directly in fragments. There are moments as obvious as the title in Whitman’s attempt to create a spontaneous quality. After several lines of nature imagery, there is the sudden and self-aware “Beautiful dripping fragments, the negligent list of one after another as I happen to call them to me or think of them” (l.7). Here we are told that these thoughts just “happen” to the writer. Whitman clearly wants his reader to see these ideas as a constant “drip,” that has seen only “negligent” organization in this poetic form. In the last lines, the poem is called “this bunch pluck’d at random from myself,” (l.44) that he will now “toss carelessly to fall where it may” (l.45). We are left with “plucked at random” and “carelessly” to qualify what has come before. These are examples of an obvious de-emphasis on the unnatural aspect of organizing ideas into poetic language. This solidifies the sense of poetry as a natural and continuous state accessed by the writer’s mind, like a man dipping a cup into a flowing stream.
To create this stream, the poem has a flowing quality. The repetitions tripping forward over comma after comma build into a forward-moving current of thought. Whitman communicates and even refers to a sense of constant human “torment, the irritable tide that will not be at rest,” (l.29) in the form of unmanageable erotic impulses. The poem builds towards a climax of “The young man that wakes deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what would master him” (l.32) and soon after “The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers” (l.34). The alliteration in the ?p’s drives home the sense of physical pulsation with hard, fast, consonant beats. Here, Whitman uses sexual release to create the sense of natural human impulse. This is an elaboration of a very solid corporeal connection early in the poem: “The poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry,/(Know once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty lurking masculine poems)” (l.10). These lines may have explanatory purposes outside of the human impulse theme, but they still contribute to this sense of consistent nature. Whitman brilliantly makes his poem an actual extension of the human body. It is not only a physical body part, but a natural secretion, an impulsive release that cannot be contained.
The use of sexual release, specifically masturbation, creates the action of peering beneath social decorum to reveal natural behavior. Whitman often connects human sexuality to the behavior of animals. It is clear that in all the human preoccupation with “Love-thoughts, love-juice love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers,” (l.12) remains the vital and essential need for sexual release. This litany on love travels into a deeply erotic image from nature illustrates what dwells behind all of these romantic notions: “The hairy wild bee that murmurs and hankers up and down, that gripes the full-grown lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself tremulous and tight till he is satisfied” (l.17). Moments like these connect human beings to animals, and remind the reader of the universal natural drives that flow constantly through the world. Although the descriptions of human love are indeed beautiful and poetic, they are overpowered by the physicality of masturbation and the movement of a poem that reaches climax and then satisfaction in “relief, repose, content” (l.43). Whitman is thus capturing the flow of natural desires as well as describing the actions in which the flow erupts. His poetic self-exploration is like the physical self-exploration described in another masturbatory moment: “The curious roamer the hand roaming all over the body, the bashful withdrawing of flesh where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves” (l.26). Like the hand that roams, the poem probes unexplored human spaces. Its repetitions are like soothing pauses, slowly pulling at protective layers, trying to poke at the pulsions that lurk beneath.
To get at purely natural moments, Whitman takes us behind closed doors. This is the bashful aspect of the roaming, into private, half-lit spaces where the flow of nature is allowed free reign. The hesitation to expose is clear in the anxious atmospheres created for erotic freedom. There is a focus on “The mystic amorous night,” full of “strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,” (l.33) as the space where human nature conquers social controls and breaks free. This darkness is the setting for “The real poems (what we call poems being merely pictures,)/The poems of the privacy of the night” (ll.8-9). Here, in spaces too dark and essential for pretty pictures, human beings are as free as the poem to seek release. The “Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across and below the waist of the other,” (l.19) are only discovered by the poem, casting its view like a linguistic searchlight. This moment contrasts an earlier image, when the cover of night is not present: “The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,/The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder” (ll.2-3). In the glaring light of day, the arm stays idle and innocent. Another specifically sunlit image is the idyllic vision of “the twin babes that crawl over the grass in the sun,” (l.36) an image sweet enough to greatly temper the vulgar grit in scenes of masturbation and sexual climax. This innocent vision shows how Whitman is not necessarily condemning the daylight decorum. He is simply including the other side, the truth that comes out in animals, in sleep, in the night, and in poetry.
Whitman does not just turn to nature for explanation. He shows how the natural world contains its own controls, in less oppressive forms than society’s use of shame. A subtle quality of this deferral is the use of nature for its calm and soothing beauty. Just as nature allows for both day and night, the poem tempers its own pulsing rhythm with calming imagery. This comes in brief, punctuating images that counter the deeply erotic moments. The litany on human love pauses for “Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west” (l.16). The erotic bee moment is met immediately, after a pausing semi-colon, with “The wet of the woods through the early hours” (l.18). The sleepers in the night are contrasted with “The smell of apples, aromas from crush’d sage-plant, mint, birch-bark” (l.20). In these situations, the non-sexual sensuality of nature is used to temper the violent eroticism of the human release. Whitman is artfully demonstrating the ability of nature, and the poem, to both release and contain inevitable instinctive needs. He even takes this tempering into the realm of redemption. The image of the masturbating “young man all color’d, red, ashamed, angry;” (l.34) is met directly by “The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked” (l.35). This soothing sea water leads directly into the image of the babies in the sun, and leads the poem out of its nighttime lust into daylight pondering. This tempering, redeeming counterpoint reveals Whitman’s faith in the totality of the natural world.
The rhythms and cycles of nature are simply the systems governing Whitman’s poetry. His focus remains the individual human being driven by such systems. His great love of the natural world combines with a passionate love of humanity to develop a unique vision. Like many of his other works, “Spontaneous Me” urges its readers to embrace each other and the world around them. The inward and outward ebb and flow whittles away at boundaries like flesh and shame to cast light upon every part of its human subject. There is more than just a celebration of sexual release in the climax and subsequent satisfaction of the poem’s final lines. The bee upon the flower is instinctively contributing to the progress of the natural world, just as Whitman ?spontaneously’ thrusts ideas into his cultural world. We are reminded in the final lines that the poem is left behind, extracted from him in a procreative manner. Unlike the secretive and frustrated masturbation practiced behind closed doors, the poem is a public outpouring of interiority. It is an injection of Whitman into the world at large, the world of human thought. In its subtle complexity and natural flow, it is entirely successful in both satisfying and fertilizing our minds.
Reconciling Disparate Objects in “Leaves of Grass”
Walt Whitman’s begins this excerpt from Leaves of Grass by describing an elusive ‘this’: “This is the meal pleasantly set . . . . this is the meat and drink for natural hunger.” These two clauses that are set next to each other describe ‘this’ as very different things. “A meal pleasantly set,” evokes a quiet table in a genteel household. In contrast, “the meat and drink for natural hunger,” recalls a more rugged table at which the food will be consumed after strenuous activity. How can one thing–‘this’–have such opposing properties? The entire excerpt is defined by the outward contradictions such as this one. Whitman’s poetic rhetoric, however, attempts to create an internal unity from the contradictions. By unifying things that seem diametrically opposed Whitman emphasizes the possibility for reconciliation between disparate objects.Whitman places two contrasting ideas next to each other at all levels of the excerpt. The most prominent level at which he does this is in the images, as in the first line. He continues setting contrasting images on either side of ellipses when he again describes the ‘this’: “This is the touch of my lips to yours . . . . this is the murmur of yearning.” The contrast here is between the corporeal sensation referenced in the first clause, and the more internal emotive sensation expressed in the second clause. Two contrasting ideas again appear in the larger theme of the excerpt. In the beginning he makes a list of people with very different characteristics, and says that he will “make appointments for all.” The inclusivity of the early moments is in sharp contrast to the exclusivity of the last line of the excerpt where he says, “I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.” On the largest scale, Whitman creates a contrast in the structural elements of the poem. The poem begins with a disorganized array of clausessome set around ellipses, some standing alone. There is no consistency in the meter, which makes it feel more like one of the catalogues Whitman frequently uses. On the other end of the poem, the last two lines are structured as a neat couplet.He explicitly seeks to unify all of these contrasts when, after the cataloguing first stanza in which he has mentioned so many objects, he explains, “There shall be no difference between them and the rest.” Whitman perpetuates this idea in a much more fundamental and convincing waythrough his poetic rhetoric. Whitman’s famous catalogues are the first step in creating this unity. By placing seemingly disparate things next to each other and by recognizing no difference other than that inherent in the descriptionas he does with the two dining tablesWhitman places the objects in an equality, even if it only is on the page. While the reader may be taken aback by the initial equation, through repetitionthe essence of the catalogueWhitman dulls the readers reaction to the contrast between objects. He thereby covertly lulls the reader into accepting a fundamental unity. In this particular excerpt Whitman reinforces this idea by his ubiquitous use of “this.” By making everything a description of some un-named “this,” Whitman emphasizes the fact that all of these seemingly disparate objects can come together in one unified form. As with the catalogues, through describing “this,” as so many things, Whitman dulls the reader’s guard against the improbability of the descriptions.Rather than telling the reader how to view these contrasts, then, Whitman demonstrates how to view them, and forces the reader into believing that “There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”
The Significance of Death in Walt Whitman’s Poetry and Prose
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the best fulfiller of his own call for an ‘immenser’ poet who would write ‘great poems of death’ (Democratic Vistas). His poetry, as much as it celebrates and endorses sexual liberation, consciously ‘beat[s] and pound[s] for the dead’. Whitman’s writing on death is conscientiously political, aiming to promote democracy to a disjointed America, ‘a teeming Nation of nations’. Whitman’s vision of death is a seductive one, which levels all of humanity through time and space, giving ‘similitude to all periods and locations and processes’ (Preface to 1855 Leaves of Grass), and Whitman’s death is therefore an egalitarian process. For Whitman, the fear of death is a barrier to progressive society, as it causes people to turn away from the ‘union of the parts of the body’ (1856 letter to Emerson) for fear of damnation in some form of afterlife. This fear can only be overcome by a process of deconceptualisation of the self. That is, by eschewing obsession with the continuity of personal identity (similar to Emerson’s ‘mean egotism), and instead accepting one’s place in a more profound, universal ‘mass identity’. This acceptance is also the route to a truly democratic state. The successful poet, according to Whitman, should be the consummate example of such self-deconceptualisation. Whitman, as a speaker in his poems, atomises himself to the extent that there is little trace of him as an isolated and whole entity in any of his poems.
Aspiz writes that ‘Walt Whitman is a great poet of the joys of life, but he is equally a great poet of death.’ It seems, however, that Whitman’s success in writing about death is not in spite of his success in writing about ‘the joys of life’, but because of it. Whitman presents life as vivid and intensely pleasurable: ‘My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs’ (‘Song of Myself’). This has the effect of throwing death in his poems into relief, accentuating the dialectic between these two forces. Whitman locates his dialectic between life and death in a vast, natural universe, full of eternities and infinities. In ‘Song of Myself’, Whitman looks out of his ‘scuttle’ to observe ‘multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems. / Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, / Outward and outward and forever outward.’ The infinity of the universe is stressed by Whitman to contextualise his discussion of death, as another eternity existing in a universe of eternities. ‘[W]hat does eternity indicate?’, Whitman ponders in ‘Song of Myself’, if we as a human race have ‘thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers’ and there are sure to be ‘trillions ahead’ and ‘other births’ to replace us. By highlighting the presence of eternities and infinities existing around us, Whitman makes death a more comprehensible, or at least a more familiar, subject to the reader.
Whitman draws heavily on nature in his design of immortality. Michael Moon observes that, in Whitman’s poetry, ‘death is…a recurrent phase in the flowings and ebbings of a generally reconstructed nature’ (1991). Whitman notices nature’s cyclical rejuvenations in his poetry: ‘ever-returning spring’, ‘lilac blooming perennial’ and the rain which ‘eternal…rise[s] impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea, / Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed, and yet the same, …forever, by day and night, [it] give[s] back life to my own origin’. The poet then extrapolates these observances of nature and applies them to human mortality. Given that ‘all else [is] continuing, the stars shining, / The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing’ (‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’), then the spirit of humanity, according to Whitman, must logically continue also, and not be truncated by death.
There is a distinct element of eroticism in Whitman’s vision of death. It goes without saying that much of Whitman’s poetry is steeped with eroticism, and has a strong focus on ‘the procreant urge of the world’. Whitman makes an effort, however, not to create a concrete boundary between sex (‘the living’) and death, but instead often puts them in apposition to one another, for example in ‘Song of Myself’: ‘Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.’. Here the two traditionally opposing concepts are brought into close proximity. Such pairing is also found in ‘Scented Herbage of my Breast’ where ‘love’ and ‘death’ are said to be ‘folded inseperably together’ and the question is posed: ‘what indeed is finally beautiful except death and love?’ Eroticism, then, imbues Whitman’s vision of death. In ‘The Sleepers’, the poet ‘call[s]’ on ‘darkness’ (a representation of death) who arrives, and promptly ‘take[s] the place of [her] lover’. In an settling subversion of expectations the speaker prefers the ‘darkness’: ‘you are gentler than my lover, his flesh was sweaty and panting’. The element of eroticism is continued in ‘The Sleepers’ in the line, ‘the sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed’. Whitman’s conscious decision to render ‘the sleepers’ naked indicates a decisive erotic element to death, which pervades Whitman’s poetry.
The presence of eroticism in Whitman’s poetic deaths carries through into a certain quality of sensuality/aesthetic appeal in the passages concerned. Havelock Ellis postulates that Whitman ‘aspires to reveal the loveliness in death’. The term ‘loveliness’ is inaccurate for the exact presentation of death that Whitman hopes to achieve: that of death as ‘exhilarating’ (‘Scented Herbage of my Breast’). In ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ the sea ‘lisp’d’ the ‘low and delicious word death’ in ‘hissing melodious tones’. Here, death – the concept and the very word itself- are made to seem sensually attractive to the reader. In ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, death is even more explicitly seductive. It is ‘lovely and soothing’ and ‘undulate[s] round the word’ with ‘sure-enwinding arms’. Indeed, the speaker is ‘laved in the flood of [death’s] bliss’ – which is disconcertingly similar to the erotic description of the ‘young men’ who ‘souse’ the speaker with ‘spray’ in ‘Song of Myself’.
Descriptions of death, according to Whitman, demand a certain ‘serenity or majesty’ (Preface to 1855 Leaves of Grass), and this is just what he provides them with. Most strikingly, in ‘The Sleepers’, a drowning is described in overwhelmingly aesthetic terms:
‘The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him away, they roll him, swing him, turn him, / His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is continually bruis’d on rocks, / Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.’
It is clear, then, that Whitman did not view death as something morbid, and completely other to the pleasure of life. Instead, he equated it on some level with sex, in terms of the exhilaration it can provide.
The fear of death, a form of repression directly related to sexual embarrassment in Whitman’s poetry, is a force which stilts the process of a progressive society and acts as a barrier to democracy. In Democratic Vistas Whitman summarises this ‘shuddering at death’ as one of the ‘low, degrading views’ that presently ‘rule the spirit pervading society’. Because individuals are so ‘rule[d]’ by their fear of death, and preoccupied by the existence (or non-existence) of an afterlife, they avoid earthly pleasures in order to gain themselves a place in some hypothetical heaven. This leads to the ‘lack of an avowed, empowered, unabashed development of sex’ which Whitman highlighted as being essential in a letter to Emerson (1856). Social castes, the enemy of democracy, are created not only on the basis of a hierarchy of ‘sinful’ to ‘Godly’, but also due to a forgetfulness of the uniting qualities of the human race. Sex reminds us that we are all part of a ‘procession’ of animals. Indeed, Whitman looks to animals for an alternative to this repressing state of fear. In ‘Song of Myself’ he admires how animals ‘do not sweat and whine about their condition, / They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins’ nor to they spend their time ‘discussing their duty to God’. This is the disinterested attitude towards death that Whitman wished America to reach.
Whitman offers, in himself, an alternative to such a state of fear. He bravely proclaims that ‘the churches are one vast lie’ (letter to Emerson 1856) and states that ‘no array of terms can say how much [he is] at peace about God and about death’. Death, cannot ‘alarm’ him. Whitman achieves this attitude by not dwelling on the unknowns after death (he cannot answer this question), and instead living for the present. ‘Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave’ should ‘know he has enough’ (‘The Sleepers’), because simply being ‘surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh’ is enough (‘I Sing the Body Electric’).
Death serves a democratic function for Whitman. Death is, in Aspiz’ words: ‘a vital component of [Whitman’s] gospel of universal brotherhood and sisterhood [democracy]’. America, in Whitman’s mind, was a fractured ‘nation of many nations’ that needed to be made ‘indissoluble’ (‘For You O Democracy) through democracy. Death, in Whitman’s poetry works as a tool of democracy in two key ways. The first method by which death can have a democratic impact is more literal. In ‘Death of Abraham Lincoln’ Whitman writes: ‘the grand deaths of the race – the dramatic deaths of every nationality – are its most important inheritance-value’, suggesting that the death of an individual can have great political repercussions. This thought is then expanded and clarified as Whitman writes that ‘one man’s life’ was the catalyst for the ‘terminus of the secession war’ and the ‘seal of the emancipation of three million slaves’. Therefore, in this poem, Whitman’s imagining of the death of Abraham Lincoln, democracy, the ‘genuine homogenous Union’ is seen to arise from the death of one man.
There is a second, more nuanced way in which democracy springs from death. Men are united by their mortality, and death is a force that renders individuals classless. Whitman stresses that all humans, whether they are ‘the meanest on in the laborer’s gang’ or one of the ‘dull-face immigrants’, have their place in ‘the procession’ (‘I Sing the Body Electric’). By this he means the homogenous and, to his mind, eternal continuation of humanity: ‘The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion’. Because all men are not just solitary selves but the continuation of and future potential for the eternal stream of the human race, this levels each individual’s value. As such, one should not place ‘a man’s body at auction’ (i.e. in the slave trade) because ‘whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it, / For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant, / For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.’. Each person alive is the product of ‘quintillions of years’ of progression. Moreover, each person alive is universalised temporally and spatially: women and men are ‘exactly the same to all, in all nation and times, all over the earth’. Death homogenises us; in death ‘the stammerer, the sick, the perfect-form’d, the homely…the criminal…the fluent lawyers’ are ‘liken’d’ (‘The Sleepers’).
In order to spurn the fear of death, and to accept the democratic nature of death, a large hurdle must first be overcome. Namely, the deconceptualisation of the self. To accept one’s temporal and spatial continuity of identity, one must accept that the self is not necessarily an entity, ‘I’. This idea is explored in section 6 of ‘Song of Myself’ in which the speaker states ‘What do you think has become of the young and old men? / And what do you think has become of the women and children? / They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death’. This again has the speaker observing nature – ‘the smallest sprout’ – and generalising this to humanity. As long as ‘young and old men’ and ‘women and children’ exist somewhere: both in temporal and spatial planes, then ‘all goes onward and outward, nothing collapses’. This idea is developed in ‘One the Beach at Night Alone’. The poet details ‘a vast similitude [which] interlocks all’, claiming that this similitude hold together ‘all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe, / All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future’. Again, Whitman is seen to break down the linearity of time to create an eternity that functions on the same plane as the infiniteness of space. Aspiz writes that Whitman does ‘not view [death] as a total cessation of personal identity’ (2004), but this reading is not quite nuanced enough. Whitman does accept the sacrifice of personal identity, but transfigures it instead into a form of democratic mass identity.
The posthumous transfiguration of personal identity into mass identity is clear in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’. In this poem a disembodied speaker observes passengers ‘cross[ing] from shore to shore’ and has a sense of ‘certainty’ in their ‘life, love, sight, hearing’. The speaker is confident that his personal identity, his past experiences are being continued in a form of mass identity, through the experiences of others. The speaker sees this situation stretching far into the future, toward eternity: ‘Others will see the islands large and small; / Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross… A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them’. Most important is not what the passengers ‘see’ but that they feel the same way too (‘Just as you feel… so I felt’). The continuity of mass identity is also described in terms of species continuation. In ‘Ages and Ages Returning at Intervals’, the speaker, a ‘chanter of Adamic songs’ wanders ‘immortal’ with ‘the potent original loins’, ready continue the identity of the human race. This idea is clarified in ‘I sing the Body Electric’. In the poem, Whitman explains that no man is ‘only one man’ but rather ‘the father of those who shall be fathers in their turn’ so that each man is ‘the start of populous states and rich republics’ and of ‘countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments’. Woman, too, is ‘not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mother’s’. In this way, identity is continued throughout generations, as the human species is maintained. This idea is again linked to a democratic sentiment as there is no way of knowing ‘who shall come from the offspring of [a man’s] offspring through the centuries?’ nor do we know who we have derived from, if one were to ‘trace back through centuries’ (I Sing the Body Electric).
The concept of reincarnation is important in Whitman’s vision of death. In ‘Song of Myself’ Whitman questions: ‘To be in any form, what is that?’ immediately following this query with the parenthetical statement ‘(round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither)’. It is clear that the idea of reincarnation, as a way of overcoming the issues posed by the concept of identity continuation after death, interested Whitman. This frame of mind allows the speaker, later on in the poem, to ‘[believe] I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years’, which liberates him from the concerns of chastising his mortal flesh in order to attain a place in some heaven. Because the speaker has ‘No doubt I have died…ten thousand times before’, he is not afraid of death.
Identity continuity after death is not, however, an uncontested idea in Whitman’s poetry. In ‘Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances’ the speaker worries that ‘may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only’. It is clear here, and more widely throughout Whitman’s writing that he is not entirely sure on his standpoint of what happens after death, merely emphasising the importance of enjoying life. Whitman ‘cannot answer the question of…identity beyond the grave’, but regardless he is ‘indifferent’ and ‘satisfied’: an attitude toward death that he advocates to the reader.
The poet’s continuity of identity is particularly intriguing in Whitman’s poems. Whitman, the speaker, seems to be atomised: diffused completely across time and space. He is present at the loading of the ‘slow-drawn wagon’ at ‘harvest-time’, ‘stretch’d atop of the load’; he is ‘handcuff’d’ next to the ‘mutineer’; he lies ‘gasp[ing]’ next to the ‘cholera patient’; he even embodies the ‘shroud in the coffin. Like a pantheistic God, Whitman ‘effuse[s]’ and ‘merge[s]’ himself into everything. He has the ability to ‘loosen’ himself and ‘pass freely’ (‘I Sing the Body Electric’). Whitman has been liberated from the incarcerations of the body, and from bodily mortifications and fears. As a result, ‘nothing can jar him…death and fear cannot’ (Preface to 1855 ‘Leaves of Grass’). In making the defiant proclamation against death: ‘I exist as I am, that is enough’, Whitman shows that fear of death can be overcome through self-deconceptualisation.
In Whitman’s poetry and prose, death is presented as ‘sane and sacred’, a democratic force that homogenises humanity of time and space. However, fear of death functions as a form of repression, that hinders on from enjoying life encouraging us instead to turn to chastising forms of religion in the hope that this will guarantee us a place in heaven. In order to fully access the benefits of death, an individual must deconceptualise themself, accepting their part in the wider ‘procession’ of humanity, and being satisfied that their identity will find continuity after their deaths in the eternal mass identity of the species. Whitman, as a speaker in his poems is ‘disintegrated’ and yet ‘part of the scheme’ (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’), allowing him both to deconceptualise himself but also to write active poetry. The atomisation of the poet is the consummate transcendence, and allows Whitman to achieve ‘the finest blending of individuality with universality’ (‘The Bible as Poetry’) which is conducive to the production of a democratic state.
Walt Whitman and the Divine Average: “Starting from Paumanok” in Context
When one considers the word ‘divine,’ the next word that comes to mind is not naturally ‘average.’ Something divine is holy, otherworldly, and godlike – the exact antithesis of something average. Why, then, in his poem “Starting from Paumanok,” does Walt Whitman combine these antonyms and proudly declare, “O, divine average!” (Whitman)? This divergence from the popular interpretation of the word ‘divine’ provides readers insight to Whitman’s understanding of the world: Whitman saw divinity in everything, from the awesome power of the cosmos to something as average as a blade of grass.
Unlike “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” says nothing about “divine average.” Upon first reading “Song of Myself,” one might assume Walt Whitman believed divine forces – that is, a godly force – existed exclusively within him. The poem is saturated with religious imagery, most of which puts the narrator, presumably Whitman himself, in the shoes of God. One of the most breathtaking examples of this inflates Whitman to an inhuman scale: “I travel….I sail….my elbows rest in the sea-gaps, / I skirt the sierras…. my palms cover continents” (Whitman, Reynolds 23). Other lines liken Whitman to a sacrificial Christ figure – one who sees pain in others and accepts it as his own or, in other examples, supports other men and women with his supernatural strength. “To any one dying,” he writes, “I dilate you with tremendous breath… I buoy you up” (Whitman, Reynolds 35). Phrases like these imply Whitman considered himself to be similar to – if not the embodiment of – God and Jesus Christ. He believed himself to be divine.
The word ‘divine’ is derived from the Latin divus, which has a similar origin as deus, or God (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘divine,’ then, as “Of or pertaining to God or a god” (“Divine”). Webster’s 1828 dictionary offers a broader, yet equally powerful, definition: “Godlike… apparently above what is human” (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). Regardless of definition, the word ‘divine’ carries heavy connotations – thoughts of noble kings, wise soothsayers, and pious clergymen often come attached to the word. So when Walt Whitman – a poet, not a king – writes lines like, “Divine I am inside and out” (Whitman, Reynolds 17), it is easy to dismiss his claims as the products of rampant egotism.
This apparent egotism extends beyond religious imagery. Phrases like “I celebrate myself” (Whitman, Reynolds 1) and “I dote on myself” (Whitman, Reynolds 18) might easily be construed as arrogant. However, nowhere did Whitman claim to be the only one with divine features that deserve to be celebrated. In fact, he explicitly wrote that God is within all persons: “In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass” (Whitman, Reynolds 42). The most direct definition of Whitman’s religious beliefs might be that he saw the divine in the abstract human self – something that belongs to every living person.
If ‘divine’ means to be “above what is human,” how is it possible every man and woman can carry such a powerful label? The answer might lay in the theology of deism, a set of beliefs that influenced Whitman’s life and writing (Pettinger). Deists often reject the beliefs of most organized religions, instead seeing God and divine forces through nature and human reason (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). In his research about deism, Peter Byrne wrote, “The link between the mind and God is strengthened through the thought that the existence and content of natural instinct makes us partakers in God’s nature” (Byrne 33). Perhaps this statement, that human reason is God’s work, might explain Whitman’s belief that we are all divine.
Take Webster’s 1844 dictionary definition of ‘divine:’ “Pertaining to the true God; as, the divine nature; divine perfections” (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). Considering the revivalist America in which this dictionary entry was written, it is fair to assume “the true God” is that from Christian tradition. In fact, most popular uses of the word ‘divine’ – divine right, divine providence, divine law – at least connote organized religion, if not Christianity specifically. Whitman, however, did not identify as a Christian (Pettinger). Perhaps it is ignorant, then, to analyze Whitman’s use of ‘divine’ from the angle Webster’s 1844 dictionary offers. Perhaps, to a man who did not subscribe to traditional religious beliefs, the word ‘divine’ meant something entirely different than its dictionary definitions.
In “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman used the word ‘divine’ four times, all of which are incongruous with Webster’s definition. “Eternal progress,” he wrote, “the kosmos, and the modern reports. This, then, is life… Underfoot the divine soil – overhead the sun” (Whitman). Notice how Whitman did not describe the sun, something humans have worshipped since the dawn of mankind, as divine, but instead gave the label to measly soil. Later in “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman used the phrase, “O divine average!” in a section describing not only the power of religion, love, and democracy, but also the simple pleasures of “a daily kiss” (Whitman). According to Whitman, divinity is not exclusively reserved for the largest forces in our universe – God, the “kosmos,” or love – but for things as seemingly insignificant as the soil.
What, then, does it mean to be divine? Is a bean plant as powerful as a human, and is a blade of grass as consequential to the universe as the sun is? Whitman seems to have carelessly thrown around the word in his writing. These examples from “Starting from Paumanok” even clash with the principles of deism; Peter Byrne wrote about the divinity of human reason, not dirt.
If the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘divine’ as “pertaining to God,” and if Whitman believed everything in the natural world came from a god, it makes sense that he considered soil to be divine. This explains his repeated, nearly casual, use of the word, and his belief that everything is divine. Divinity cannot be measured; one either has it or not, and, according to Walt Whitman, everything in the universe is divine.
In “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote, “Do I guess I have some intricate purpose? Well I have… for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has” (Whitman, Reynolds 13). Later he mused, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars” (Whitman, Reynolds 22). Divinity and significance are not synonyms, but to Whitman, it seems the two are interchangeable. To him, everything was created for a specific and important purpose, and to remove even one element from the universe would create chaos. Perhaps a blade of grass is not as big or complex or smart as a human brain, but the same supernatural force created both, and therefore both are indispensible to the universe.
A modern reader can only imagine how offensive this theory must have been to the puritan America to which it was presented. Patrick Henry, who died twenty years before Whitman’s birth, once said about deism, – a philosophy that is, arguably, a more watered-down version of Whitman’s personal theology – “our country… is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism, which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity” (Emily Dickinson Lexicon). Imagine Henry’s reaction to Whitman lines like “If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body” (Whitman, Reynolds 18) or “nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is” (Whitman, Reynolds 41). Religious readers must have thought Whitman’s poetry – full of imagery that likened himself to God and claims of personal divinity – to be offensive to their puritan sensibilities.
Whitman’s use of the word ‘divine’ was not accidental. It is a complicated word, and one that may have several different definitions depending on whom is asked. Consider, again, the phrase, “O divine average!” A devoted Christian, for example, may think it is blasphemous to use a word so associated with God to describe mundanity; whereas a nonreligious person may interpret the quote in a completely different manner. We, as readers, must ignore our own backgrounds and biases when interpreting a text, else risk misunderstanding an author’s entire message.
Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: the Legacy of Deism.
Routledge, 1989. “Divine.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, www.oed.com/view/Entry/56127?rskey=ragbiJ&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid.
“Emily Dickinson Lexicon – DI-VINE’.” Emily Dickinson Lexicon, edl.byu.edu/webster/term/2426609. Pettinger, Tejvan.
“Walt Whitman Biography.” Biography Online, Oxford, 22 Jan. 2010, www.biographyonline.net/poets/walt-whitman.html.
Whitman, Walt, and David S. Reynolds. Leaves of Grass. Oxford University Press, 2005. Whitman, Walt. “Starting from Paumanok.”
Bartleby.com, Bartleby.com, www.bartleby.com/142/10.html.
American First, Mystic Second: Whitman’s Western Patriotism in “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman begins his poem, “Song of Myself,” with: “I celebrate myself /And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (lines 1-3). In these lines, Whitman shows that everyone is equal. Equality is a quintessentially democratic and thus American ideal. But in the Editor’s Introduction, Malcolm Cowley does not believe the poem is American or democratic. Instead, he claims Whitman referenced Eastern texts, which tethers to the poem’s mystic and ecstatic qualities. However, considering Whitman’s patriotism, democratic beliefs, and his own rendition of spirituality, his poem is actually more Western than Eastern. Cowley fails to provide a concise criticism of “Song of Myself” in his reference to Eastern ideas and texts, and in turn fails to acknowledge Whitman’s love for America.
Through his analysis, Cowley aims to shatter stereotypes of Whitman, but instead denies part of his identity. He writes: “The poem is hardly at all concerned with American nationalism and political democracy, contemporary progress, or other social themes that are commonly associated with Whitman’s work” (xiv). Though Whitman is a revered American poet due to his patriotism. He truly believed in the potential of his country. In line 312, he writes vividly about the Fourth of July, a time where all Americans feel love and pride for their country. His praise is obvious: “what salutes of cannon and small arms!” (313). Additionally, Whitman includes descriptions of all the states in chant sixteen, celebrating the diversity of the country. He calls America “one of the great nations, the nation of many nations – the smallest the same and the largest the same” (330), further displaying his admiration for America. He refers to himself as a comrade of the citizens which shows he is a common person just like them, connecting with the theme of democratic equality.
Even though Cowley denies the democracy of the poem, as stated in the previous quote, he attests to it. He writes: “Another point explained by Indian conceptions is the sort of democracy Whitman was preaching in ‘Song of Myself.’ There is no doubt that he was a democrat politically” (xxiv). Here, the editor contradicts himself, after stating earlier that the poem is “hardly associated with” political democracy. Another error in his statement is that democracy is not associated with Indian conceptions, as it is typically seen as an American belief. He classifies Whitman as “a Jacksonian democrat…then a liberal but not a radical Republican (xxiv), yet at first wanted to stray away from that part of the author’s identity. Also, Cowley says the poem does not preach “rebellion or even reform,” (xxiv) in associating those ideas with democracy, but those lean more towards anarchy. The democratic idea of equality is more relevant, serving as a theme of the poem. In chant fifteen, Whitman lists a myriad of people, such as “the prostitute [who] draggles her shawl” (302) to “patriarchs sitting at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them” (319). Obviously, one is of higher social status and more respected than the other, yet Whitman disregards this notion by putting them in the same stanza. By placing these contrasting images together into one section, he is reveals that they are equal because they are all the divine creation of God.
Though Whitman sounds religious at times, it is often confused spirituality with Eastern religion. Cowley says: “What he [Whitman] preaches throughout the poem is not political but religious democracy, such as was practiced by the early Christians” (xxv). While he inserts an excerpt from Philosophies in India, he does not explain what religious democracy actually is. On top of that, he connects the practice to early Christians, yet Whitman did not agree with organized religion. In fact, the church would not approve of the poem due to its explicit sexual content. For example, Whiteman writes: “I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning/You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me/And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart/And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet. (78-81). Such vivid imagery about the body goes against religious principles. Although his nature imagery can be likened to biblical symbolism, Whitman really had a deep appreciation for nature, as many Romantic poets of his time shared. Like Cowley, critics who make those connections forget his ideals. Whitman mentions God and Christ in the poem, yet he it is his own idea of what God should be, rather than the Christian God. When considering his opposition with Christianity, focusing on religion does not make sense. Even though the transcendental imagery bears similarities to Eastern concepts, Whitman creates his own personal spirituality separate from any religion.
By honing all of his analysis through Eastern texts, Cowley completely misses the point of the poem. Despite its mysticism, the author never confirmed his reference to Eastern texts or philosophies. What everyone does know is his love and hope for America and its democratic principles, through which he creates his own spirituality. He pins Whitman down, which is what he would not have wanted, and tries too hard to come up with a profound meaning. In this process, he disproves some of his arguments. Whereas Whitman may understand his misreading, for he also “contains multitudes” (1315), he is a patriot before he is a poet.
Cowley, Malcolm. Editor’s Introduction. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1959. vii-xxxvii. Print.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1959. 25-86. Print.