The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Passage to India” was first published in 1871 as the title piece in a book of seventy-five poems (twenty-three of them new) that were subsequently incorporated into the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass as a separately paginated supplement. Slightly revised, the poem became an integral part of Leaves of Grass in 1881 despite Walt Whitman’s having conceived “Passage to India” as well as the poems he planned to add to it as marking a new and quite different direction. Leaves of Grass, he contended, was the song of “the Body and Existence”; “Passage to India” was to be the song of “the unseen Soul,” as the “ardent and fully appointed Personality” that had been the subject of the earlier collection entered “the sphere of the restless gravitation of Spiritual Law.” The decision to incorporate the later intention into the earlier work reflects Whitman’s willingness to expand, revise, and even reshape Leaves of Grass over the years. That decision also reflects, for all the overt optimism of “Passage to India,” the poet’s dissatisfaction as the United States, the nation that he believed was itself the greatest poem, failed to live up to his expectations and failed as well to accept him as “affectionately” as he had accepted it. (Any lingering hopes he still had to make Passage to India the successor to and equal of Leaves of Grass were put to rest by the stroke and partial paralysis he suffered in 1873.)
In its final form, “Passage to India” is a 255-line poem in nine sections, parts of which Whitman conceived as separate, shorter works. This “song,” or...
(The entire section is 678 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Much of the cohesiveness and intelligibility of “Passage to India” derives from Whitman’s elaboration of the conceit introduced in the poem’s title: that of passage or voyage. The poem’s greatness stems from a less obvious and more potent source: Whitman’s artfully artless style. More spoken than written, it is a style at once intense yet diffuse, expansive yet elliptical. Drawing everything into its democratic embrace, it nevertheless tends to blur every “each” into a nearly indistinguishable “all” and seeks to convince the reader by virtue of a logic beyond or perhaps prior to reason. At once ahead of its time and primitive, it sends its “ceaseless” and “repressless” (though “varied”) message via an elaborate system of rhetorical devices.
Whitman’s style is orphic in form and ecstatic in effect. Parenthetical asides and purely rhetorical questions play their parts; more important are the frequent, urgent exclamations and the apostrophizing of everything from architects, engineers, and explorers to generalized facts, abstract truth, the year itself, the planet Earth (“Rondure”), unspecified “enigmas,” and a “Comrade perfect” who may be friend, lover, God, or all three. The repeated apostrophizing is one of several factors that contribute to the poem’s cumulative power. The repetition of individual words is another: In section 3, for example, the word “I” is used twenty-one times in only twenty-seven lines. There is also the breathless rush of Whitman’s long pseudo-sentences rife with commas and syntactically parallel constructions, including the frequent use of participles to create the odd blending of motion and stasis that is one of the hallmarks of Whitman’s Transcendental, oral-oraculor style. Insistent in tone and repetitive in structure, “Passage to India” achieves a nearly liturgical intensity which, like the world it describes, has its own “hidden prophetic intention.”
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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