When Whitman first thrust Leaves of Grass on an unsuspecting and unresponsive American public, it was clear that he viewed himself as a national bard who would inject something “transcendent and new” into the poetic veins of his country. In the preface, which was strongly influenced by Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1844), Whitman discussed the kind of American bard he envisioned and the kind of poetry that such a bard would write.
Believing that “Americans of all nations . . . have probably the fullest poetical nature” and that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” Whitman’s ideal was a poet whose “spirit responds to his country’s spirit. . . . [H]e incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.” The truly American poet, like the American people, must embrace both the old and the new but must not be bound by conventional poetic forms, whether of rhyme and meter or subject matter. (Whitman had in mind both the didactic verse of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the work of the “graveyard school.”) Rather, the poet must seek to incarnate that which lies deeper than form and which reflects the laws and realities that are implanted in the human soul. Advocating a poetry of simplicity and genuineness, Whitman’s advice to his reader was to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
In successive editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman undoubtedly succeeded in his attempt to articulate an authentic American poetic voice, one which was not dependent on models derived from English literature. Further, by applying the central premises of Romanticism and Transcendentalism in a wider and more daring form than any American poet had done, he created a visionary and prophetic book which ranks as one of the great achievements of nineteenth century literature.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Whitman’s poetry for the modern reader is not its free-verse form, to which readers have become accustomed, but the extraordinary metaphysical thought that underlies so much of it. Whitman is the supreme poet of the expanded self. His poetic persona continually celebrates, as a fait accompli, the achievement of the goal to which Romanticism and Transcendentalism aspired: a state of being in which humankind’s sense of separateness and isolation in the universe is overcome, a state in which subject and object are unified, and the perceiving self feels deeply connected, emotionally and spiritually, with the rest of creation. The “I” in Whitman’s poems, like the figure of Albion in English Romantic poet William Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem (1804-1820), merges with all things and contains all things. Whitman expressed this succinctly in his poem “There Was a Child Went Forth”:
There was a child went forth every day,And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
Whitman’s poetry thus abolishes “otherness.” Although English novelist D. H. Lawrence complained that Whitman had accomplished this only by suppressing his own individuality, this was not Whitman’s intention.
Thoreau was more appreciative, stating that Whitman’s philosophic vision was “Wonderfully like the Orientals,” and several modern scholars have analyzed Whitman’s poetry in the light of the Vedic literature of India. According to this analysis, Whitman’s understanding of the self can best be understood by reference to doctrine probably found in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, that the “atman,” the essence of the individual self, is identical to Brahman, the universal self. It is not known for certain how well Whitman was acquainted with Eastern thought, and it may be that his philosophy was based as much on personal experience as on the reading of books. “Song of Myself” is notable for its denigration of book learning in favor of the direct intercourse of the self with the natural world.
The doctrine of the self sheds light on another leading theme in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s celebration of American democracy. He admired democracy because it combined individualism with the needs of the whole society, and he believed unreservedly in the wisdom of the common man and woman. The “I” of Whitman’s poetry sees in all people the same divine status that he experiences within himself. Whitman’s poetic program was essentially a democratic one, as is clear from the following passage from the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass: “The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are not better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy.”
Equally important for a full picture of Whitman’s poetry is his attitude toward sex, which shocked his early readers. Whitman did not regard sex as an inappropriate subject for poetry, and he insisted that it was central to the design of Leaves of Grass. He rejected a dualistic view of human life that would relegate the body to an inferior place; on the contrary, he honored sexual desire as a pure expression of the life force that flows through all things. The act of procreation, Whitman believed, furthered the evolution of the human race, and he looked forward to the emergence in America of a race of sturdy, physically healthy human beings who would build a civilization free of the disease and degeneration that, in this view, afflicted the old civilizations of Europe.
As a complement to the love between men and women, Whitman also celebrated, in the “Calamus” poems, comradely love between men, which he called “adhesiveness.” Many readers have taken these poems to be expressions of homosexual feelings, although in Democratic Vistas Whitman insisted that such love would help to spiritualize the nation and offset the vulgar aspects of American democracy. The Calamus poems, therefore, take their place in the grand vision that Whitman held of Leaves of Grass as a new bible, with every leaf contributing to a new heaven and a new earth.
“Song of Myself”
First published: 1855 (collected in Leaves of Grass, 1855)
Type of work: Poem
A celebration of the human self and all that it can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, intuit, and contemplate in the human and natural world.
“Song of Myself,” the longest poem in Leaves of Grass, is a joyous celebration of the human self in its most expanded, spontaneous, self-sufficient, and all-embracing state as it observes and interacts with everything in creation and ranges freely over time and space. The bard of the poem, speaking in the oracular tones of the prophet, affirms the divinity and sacredness of the entire universe, including the human body, and he asserts that no part of the universe is separate from himself—he flows into all things and is all things.
The “I” of the poem is quite clearly, then, not the everyday self, the small, personal ego that is unique and different from all other selves. Rather, the persona who speaks out in such bold terms is the human self experiencing its own transcendental nature, silently witnessing all the turbulent activity of the world while itself remaining detached: “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, . . . Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” This “I” is immortal and persists through numberless human generations and through all the changing cycles of creation and destruction in the universe. It cannot be measured or circumscribed; it is blissful, serenely content with itself, and needs nothing beyond or outside itself for its own fulfillment.
In “Song of Myself,” this large self continually floods into and interpenetrates the small, personal self, including the physical body, and becomes one with it. It is this union of the absolute self with the relative self that allows the persona of the poem to express such spontaneous delight in the simple experience of being alive in the flesh. “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” announces the persona in the very first section of the poem. This is a state of being that does not have to perform any actions to experience fulfillment; it simply enjoys being what it is: “I exist as I am, that is enough,/ If no other in the world be aware I sit content,/ And if each and all be aware I sit content.”
It is in this context that the persona’s celebration of the pleasures of the body should be understood. Lines such as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,/ Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,” do not signify mere sensual indulgence. The human body is a microcosm of its divine source, in which there is always perfection, fullness, and bliss. There is no dualism of soul and body, because, as William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), a prophetic work which bears a strong resemblance to “Song of Myself,” “that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five senses.”
Hence the Whitman persona can declare that “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul”; he will not downgrade one in order to promote the other. The senses are “miracles,” no part of the body is to be rejected or scorned, and sexual desire should not be something that cannot be spoken of: “I do not press my fingers across my mouth,/ I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,/ Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.”
This perception of the divine essence in the physical form extends to everything in the created world, however humble its station:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey- work 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’uvre for the highest,nd the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven.
Heightened perception such as this also extends to other human beings, all of whom are viewed as equally divine by the persona. It is this conviction of the shared divinity of the self that enables the persona repeatedly to identify and empathize with other human beings, as in section 33: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
In the worldview of the persona, humankind and nature interpenetrate each other in the most intimate way. The cycle of death, rebirth, and transformation is endless and unfathomable. The grass may, the persona muses, be made from the breasts of young men or from the hair of old people; he bequeaths himself to the earth and counsels the curious reader to look for him “under the boot-soles.” This points to a paradox, one of many in the poem. The self is immortal, yet it will also go through many transformations (“No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before”); similarly, the universe is complete and perfect at every moment, yet it is also perpetually flowing onward in dynamic transformation and evolution. Finally, the self merges with everything in the world yet also stands aloof and apart from the world. Paradoxes such as this cannot be rationally explained, but they can, the persona would argue, be spontaneously lived through.
Scholars have discussed whether “Song of Myself” has its origins in Whitman’s own mystical experiences or whether the persona is solely a literary invention designed to embody the kind of universal, all-seeing American bard that Whitman believed was appropriate for a vast and still expanding land. Such questions are impossible to answer with any certainty; however, it might be noted that in section 5, the Whitman persona records a significant moment when the transcendent soul seemed to descend and envelop him in an intense, almost sexual embrace, as a result of which “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.” He then knows, as an immediate fact of awareness, that his own spirit is a brother of the spirit of God, that all humankind are his brothers and sisters, and that the whole universe is bound together by love.
Attempts have also been made to discern a structure to the poem, but these have not, in general, proved satisfactory. Rather than trying to find a linear progression of themes, it is perhaps more useful to think of each of the fifty-two sections as spokes of a wheel, each expressing the same theme or similar themes in diverse ways, from diverse angles. As the persona states, “All truths wait in all things.”
First published: 1855 (collected in Leaves of Grass, 1855)
Type of work: Poem
In a dream vision, the persona moves among a varied group of people as they sleep, sympathetically identifying with their inner lives.
“The Sleepers” has been called a surrealistic poem. Although it certainly possesses the disconnected incidents and imagery characteristic of dreams, however, it also has a discernible, tripartite structure that suggests a myth of initiation, death, and rebirth. In the first part, which consists of the first two sections, the persona wanders freely at night and sympathetically identifies with a wide variety of sleeping people; in part 2 (sections 3-6) the persona experiences vicariously the destructive and painful aspects of human experience; part 3 (sections 7-9) celebrates the night world of restoration, rebirth, and cosmic unity.
In section 1, as the persona overlooks the sleepers—drunkards, idiots, the insane, a married couple, a mother and child, a prisoner, and others—the night in which they sleep is presented almost as a mystic presence which “pervades them and infolds them,” rather like the Oversoul in the thought of Emerson. The speaker then undergoes some kind of initiation: He pierces the darkness, new beings appear, and he dances and laughs in a bacchanalian whirl, accompanied by divine spirits. The result is that he is able to become the people he is observing and dream their dreams with them. This mystic expansion of the self into all things is similar to the central idea in “Song of Myself.”
Part 2 consists of three unconnected visions. First, a beautiful, nude, male swimmer is caught in a tide which draws him to death; there is also a shipwreck, and the persona desperately tries to effect a rescue, but no one survives. Second, the persona goes back in time to the defeat of General George Washington at Brooklyn Heights in August, 1776. He pictures Washington on two occasions: weeping in defeat with a group of officers around him, and embracing his officers in a tavern when peace was declared. The third vision is a memory from the persona’s early life, when a beautiful Indian woman came to the family homestead one breakfast time. She was received with warmth by the persona’s mother, who regretted having no work to give her. The squaw left in the afternoon, never to return, much to the mother’s regret.
Perhaps this incident was meant to symbolize the loss of an old way of life, in which pure and generous social intercourse was the norm.
In the first version of the poem, it is clear that at this point in his experience, the persona is in a state of psychic disintegration. Three verse paragraphs followed, including the line “Now Lucifer was not dead . . . or if he was I am his sorrowful heir.” All three paragraphs were omitted in the version of the poem published in Leaves of Grass in 1871.
Part 3 marks a change of atmosphere, beginning with images of sunlight, air, summer, and the burgeoning fullness of nature. Travelers of all nations are returning to their homelands, including the lost swimmer, the Indian squaw, and others with whom the persona has earlier identified. Sleep and the night have restored them and made them all equal, peaceful, and beautiful. The speaker realizes that such is the true state of things.
Section 9 presents a fine vision of the night as an experience of transcendental unity. As the sleepers lie at rest, people of all nations “flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as they lie unclothed”: The chain of unity includes the learned and the unlearned, father and son, mother and daughter, scholar and teacher. All those who were diseased have been cured. The poem concludes with the serene thoughts of the persona, who is happy to take part in the day world of conscious activity but feels no fear at the thought of returning to the secret regenerative powers of the night, now suggestive of a nourishing earth mother.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
First published: 1856 (as “Sun Down Poem”; collected in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1959)
Type of work: Poem
Observing the sights and sounds of a mass of people crossing from Brooklyn by ferry, the poet contemplates the link between past and future.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a subtle, oblique attempt to transcend time and persuade the reader of the simultaneity of past, present, and future. Whitman shed light on the poem in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “Past and present are not disjoin’d but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. . . . He . . . places himself where the future becomes present.” The poem is also rich in imagery that suggests the coexistence of opposite values, such as fixity and motion, rest and activity, time and eternity.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is divided into nine sections. In the first section, the poet observes the crowds of people crossing the East River to Manhattan by ferry and thinks of those who will be making the crossing in years to come. He develops this thought in section 2, as he contemplates the ties that bind him to the people of the future. In a hundred years, others will be seeing the same landmarks, the same sunset, the same ebb and flow of the tides. The speaker also hints that the scene he contemplates forms part of a grand, spiritual “scheme” of life, in which everything possesses its own individuality yet is part of the whole. That sense of wholeness has power to impart glory to all the poet’s daily activities and sense perceptions. The poet makes this hint explicit at the end of the poem.
Having evoked the passage of time and underscored it with images of flux—the tide, the sunset—the poet in section 3 does everything he can to negate it: “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,/ I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.” Whatever future generations might see, the poet has also seen. He recalls the many times he has crossed the river by ferry, and he catalogs the sights that met his gaze: steamboats and schooners, sloops and barges, circling seagulls, sailors at work, the flags of many nations, the fires from the foundry chimneys on the shore. Most notable in this section are the images that combine motion and stasis and that reinforce the theme of time which is no-time. The poet pictures the people who stand still on the rail of the ferry “yet hurry with the swift current,” and he observes the seagulls “with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies.” Underlying the whole section (indeed, the whole poem) is the great central symbol of the river, forever flowing, yet forever appearing the same.
After the recapitulation that makes up the fourth section, sections 5 and 6 take the theme to a more intimate level. The poet again asserts that time and place do not separate. Now, however, instead of evoking sense perceptions only, he asserts that the thoughts and feelings experienced by future generations have been his, too. His soul knew periods of darkness and aridity; he, too, experienced self-doubt, and he committed most of the sins of which humanity is capable. In this respect he was one with everyone else, whether present or future.
Section 7 is a direct address to the reader of the future. The poet’s tone becomes increasingly intimate and personal as he suggests that he is drawing ever closer to the reader. Three rhetorical questions follow, the last of which suggests a linking of past and future that is at once mysterious and mystical: “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?” This implies that the fullest human self is part of a larger entity which is not subject to the limitations of time or space and which endures through all things. Because of this, the awakened consciousness of the poet (or of any man or woman) may perceive past, present, and future fused into a single enlightened moment.
The rhetorical questions continue in section 8, at the end of which the poet hints cryptically and conspiratorially that his purpose has been accomplished obliquely: The reader has accepted what the poet promised, without him even mentioning what it was. Poet and reader have accomplished what could not be accomplished by study or preaching.
The final section begins with an apostrophe to the river—which also symbolizes the world of time and change—urging it to continue its eternal ebb and flow. More apostrophes follow, in excited and exclamatory vein—to the clouds at sunset, to Manhattan and Brooklyn, to life itself. This section is both a recapitulation and a renewed celebration of what the poet has earlier described—the everyday sights and sounds encountered while crossing the river—but now with the separation between past and future irrevocably broken (or so the poet would believe) in the reader’s mind.
In the final lines of the poem, the poet reveals the deepest reasons for his wish that the myriad phenomena of the natural and human world should continue to flourish, with even greater intensity, in the vast sea of time. They are all “dumb, beautiful ministers”: Through the material forms of temporal life, the poet and the reader (now no longer referred to as “I” and “you” but as “we”), having engaged in the process of revelation which is the poem, are able to perceive the eternal, spiritual dimensions of existence. This conclusion has already been suggested by a marvelous image in section 3, when the poet, looking into the sunlit water, sees “fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head.” In section 9 the image is repeated and universalized: Those who gaze deeply into the flux will also see their own heads aureoled in splendid, radiating light.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”
First published: 1859 (as “A Child’s Reminiscence”; collected in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1959)
Type of work: Poem
The poet describes an incident from his childhood in which he first realized that his destiny was to become a poet.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a poem of reminiscence, in which the poet, at a crisis in his adult life, looks back to an incident in his childhood when he first became aware of his vocation as a poet. The structure of the poem owes a great deal to music, particularly grand opera, which Whitman loved. He once said that without opera he could not have written Leaves of Grass, and an anonymous review in the Saturday Press in 1860 (which was actually written by Whitman himself) commented, “Walt Whitman’s method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of Italian opera.”
The musical quality of the poem can be seen in the opening section of twenty-two lines, with its incantatory rhythms and wavelike quality, the latter suggesting the restless motion of a turbulent sea. This is most notable in the buildup of pressure in lines 8 to 15, each of which begins with the word “from”; the effect is like the inexorable rising of a powerful wave before it crests, breaks, and laps quietly onto the shore in the final half-line (“A reminiscence sing”). The meaning of the opening section is simple: Under moonlight on an autumn evening, the poet, caught in a moment of personal despair, has returned to a place on the seashore that he had known as a young boy. The scene reminds him of a moment of great significance in his life.
The next nine lines are the equivalent of the recitative (or narrative portion) in opera. The poet recalls that as a boy he spent many days one spring on Paumanok (the Indian name for Long Island), closely observing the nest of two mockingbirds. Recitative now alternates with the arias of the mockingbirds, who at first sing of their togetherness. One day the she-bird disappears, and all summer long the boy listens to the solitary song of the remaining bird.
The boy interprets the song as the bird calling for his absent mate, and now as a man he claims that he, a poet and a “chanter of pains and joys,” understands the meaning of the lonely song better than other men. Lines 71 to 129 are a long, unashamedly sentimental lament by the mockingbird; the natural world seems to be rejoicing in love, but he cannot do so. He convinces himself that every vague shape in the distance must be his mate, and then he persuades himself that he has heard her responding to his song. Finally, however, he realizes that his quest is useless, and he ends sorrowfully.
The boy listens to the aria in ecstasy and in tears because he feels that its meaning has penetrated to his soul. From that moment, he is awakened; he knows his purpose and his destiny, and a thousand songs—poems—begin to stir within him. He, too, will sing of unsatisfied love and explore “the sweet hell within,/ The unknown want.”
Then a new revelation comes as the boy learns to listen to the sea. All night long the sea whispers to him only one word, “the low and delicious word death,” and this has a profound effect on him (which is emphasized in the poem by the repetition of the word nine times). The knowledge of the universality and inevitability of death—that all of nature is a field of death—comes upon him not with anguish but like a gentle, loving caress. The final, immensely evocative image is of the sea “like some old crone rocking the cradle.” The image is striking because it suggests both age and infancy; it makes clear that the first stirrings of life are also a movement toward death. The sea, although it perpetually whispers “death,” is a mother nevertheless (elsewhere in the poem, the sea is referred to as a “fierce” and “savage” “old mother”), and the rocking of a cradle is a soothing and comforting motion.
Whitman has been called the poet of death—although such a description hardly does justice to the massive life-affirming vision of his greatest poems—and sometimes this poem has been interpreted psychoanalytically as a regressive wish to return to the unconscious, to the undifferentiated security of the womb. It might also be argued that such a conclusion runs contrary to the poem’s main theme, which, in the terms used by psychologist Carl Jung, records an important moment in the process of the individuation of the self: The poet discovers his personal destiny.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
First published: 1865 (collected in Drum-Taps, 1865)
Type of work: Poem
This work elegizes President Abraham Lincoln.
Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in the months following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Whitman felt the loss of Lincoln personally. He had observed the president on a number of occasions in Washington, D.C. Once he saw him chatting with a friend at the White House and commented, “His face & manner . . . are inexpressibly sweet. . . . I love the President personally.” The elegy contains many of the elements that make up the traditional pastoral elegy, including the expression of grief and bewilderment by the poet, the sympathetic mourning of nature for the dead person (expressed by means of the pathetic fallacy), the rebirth of nature, a funeral procession, the placing of flowers on the bier, and finally, reconciliation and consolation.
Whitman’s elegy is also about how the poet transmutes his sorrow, which at the outset is so great that it prevents him from writing, to the point where he can once more create poetry.
The elegy centers around four symbols: the lilac, the evening star, spring, and the hermit thrush, a bird that sings in seclusion. These symbols recur in varied forms throughout the poem, like musical motifs. The poet first declares his grief and invokes Venus, the evening star, which has now fallen below the horizon and left him in darkness and sorrow. He then develops the lilac symbol: In the dooryard of an old some farmhouse, a lilac bush blossoms. Each heart-shaped leaf (a symbol of love) he regards as a miracle, and he breaks off a sprig. The fourth symbol, the thrush that sings a solitary song, is introduced in section 4.
Section 5 describes the coffin of Lincoln journeying night and day across the country (as it did in reality on its journey from Washington to Springfield, Illinois), as spring bursts through everywhere. Church bells toll, and as the coffin moves slowly past the poet, he throws his sprig of lilac onto it, although he makes it clear that this act is not for Lincoln alone (who is never mentioned by name in the poem) but for all who have died.
After an apostrophe to the evening star, which, in sympathy with the poet’s state of mind, is sinking in woe, the poet returns to the song of the hermit thrush. Although he hears and understands the call, he cannot yet sing with the thrush, because the star (now clearly associated, as “my departing comrade,” with Lincoln) still holds him. Eventually, as he looks out one spring evening on a serene landscape, an understanding of the true nature of death comes upon him like a mystical revelation. He personifies the knowledge of death, and his own thoughts about death, as two figures walking alongside him. Now he is able to interpret the song of the bird as a “carol of death.” A long aria, reminiscent of the song of the bird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” follows. Death is described as soft, welcome, delicate, blissful, and as a “strong deliveress.”
In section 15, the poet sees a surrealistic vision of a battlefield, on which lie myriad corpses and whitened skeletons. The poet sees that the dead are at rest and do not suffer; it is only those left behind—families and comrades—who suffer. He leaves the vision behind and is also able to leave behind the birdsong, the lilac, and the evening star. The meaning of all these symbols now remains a permanent part of his awareness, however, so the elegy can move to its stately and moving close: “For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,/ Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
“Passage to India”
First published: 1871 (collected in Passage to India, 1871)
Type of work: Poem
This poem celebrates the progress of human civilization and the spiritual evolution of the human race.
“Passage to India” is a salute to the idea of the evolutionary progress of the human race; it celebrates the scientific achievements of the age, looks forward to the imminent dawning of an era in which all divisions and separations between people, and people and nature, will be eliminated, and heralds the spiritual voyage of every human soul into the depths of the inner universe. Whitman himself described the meaning of his poem, saying “that the divine efforts of heroes, and their ideas . . . will finally prevail, and be accomplished, however long deferred.”
The poem begins by celebrating three achievements of contemporary technology: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, and the growth of the American transcontinental railroad. These achievements outshine the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; however, the poet still hears the call of the ancient past, embodied in the myths and fables of Asia, with their daring reach toward an unfathomable spiritual truth. The refrain “Passage to India” therefore suggests the theme of inner as well as outer exploration.
Section 3 elaborates on two of the new wonders, picturing the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal and the grand landscapes through which the American railroad passes. The poet has been careful to establish that the great works of the present should be celebrated not merely for the human skill and knowledge to which they testify but also because they mark an important stage in the fulfillment of the divine plan: the human race coming together in unity. The section ends by flashing back to the past and invoking the name of Christopher Columbus. Whitman liked to present himself as an idealized Columbus figure, exploring new literary and psychic worlds, yet rejected by his countrymen. Perhaps he had in mind Thoreau’s injunction in the conclusion to Walden (1854): “[B]e Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
Section 5 is central to the poem because it conveys Whitman’s vision of the role of the poet in human evolution. Whitman first stretches the reader’s awareness by evoking the vast earth “swimming in space/ Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty.” He then describes the troubled history of the human race; the myriad restless, dissatisfied, questing lives. He alludes to the Transcendentalist idea that humankind and nature have become separated. No connection is perceived between the human, feeling subject and the apparently unresponsive external world: “What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours . . . ).” Yet the divine plan remains and shall be achieved, with the help of the poet, who is the “true son of God.”
Coming after the inventors and the scientists, the poet will justify them (a deliberate echo of seventeenth century English poet John Milton, who wrote that he sought to justify the ways of God to humankind) by fully humanizing a mechanized world: He will soothe hearts, open all secrets, and join nature and humans in unity. Whitman thus reiterates the poetic manifesto contained in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “Folks expect of the poet more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects . . . they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.”
After section 6 has presented a panorama of some of the great events in human history and again invoked Columbus, section 7 develops the theme implicit earlier in the poem, of the poet as spiritual explorer. This theme carries the poem through to its conclusion. The poet must journey, in partnership with his soul, to “primal thought,” beyond all limitations of the physical body, to the infinite regions of the cosmic mind. The restless desire to expand, to voyage on the ocean of Being, becomes more and more urgent in the final section of the poem. The poet and his soul have lingered long enough. Now is the time to be bold and reckless, for the cosmic seas are safe: “[A]re they not all the seas of God?”
“Song of the Redwood Tree”
First published: 1876 (collected in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1959)
Type of work: Poem
A dying redwood tree sings of the night and virtue of the coming human civilization.
In “Song of the Redwood Tree,” the poet injects himself into the consciousness of a century-old California redwood as it is being felled. In a musical structure that Whitman often used, the song of the tree is presented as a grand operatic aria, and it alternates with passages of recitative in which the poet repeats and expands upon the message that the great tree imparts. The poem testifies to Whitman’s belief in the evolutionary growth of the universe toward perfection, culminating in the new land and peoples of America. These themes are particularly evident in Whitman’s poems written after 1865, such as “Song of the Universal,” “Pioneers, O Pioneers,” and “Passage to India.”
In Whitman’s universe, consciousness pervades everything, even vegetable and mineral forms, and the sensitive soul of the poet can tap into the consciousness of the nonhuman world and interpret its meanings. Thus the death chant of the tree, which is accompanied by wood spirits who have dwelt in the woods of Mendocino for a thousand years, is unheard by the workers who are felling the tree, but the poet hears it.
The tree chants not only of the past but also of the future. It sings of the joy it has known throughout all the changing seasons in its long life—it has delighted in sun, wind, rain, and snow. It confirms that it, too, has consciousness and a sense of selfhood, as do rocks and mountains. The tree declares that it and its companions are content to abdicate their position to make room for the arrival of a “superber race,” for which they have been long preparing.
The tree then gives expression to Whitman’s belief in the special destiny of the American people. The new race has emerged peacefully to inherit a new empire. It has not come from the old cultures of Asia and Europe—the latter, stained with the blood of innumerable wars, is particularly unfit to give birth to a new kind of men and women. The building of America is the fruition of a long process of hidden growth. Deep within the continent has lain a secret, national will, working below the turbulence of surface events in order to manifest itself. Here in California, sings the tree, may the new man grow and flourish in freedom, “proportionate to Nature,” acting on his own inner promptings, not bowing to the moral formulas and creeds of others. A new woman will emerge also, and she will be the nourishing source of life and love.
Listening in the woods, the poet catches the message of the “ecstatic, ancient and rustling” voices of the tree and its accompanying dryads, and in sections 2 and 3 he takes up and amplifies their themes. He celebrates America, with its fields and mountains bathed in healthier air, from Puget Sound to Colorado. He praises the new race that arrived after “slow and steady ages” in which the earth was preparing itself for them. He lauds American civilization but states that the achievements of American technology are useful only because they help to push the race on to a state of perfection in which the ideal (the spiritual level of life) is lived in the midst of the real (the material world).