"I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy; / By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms" (lines 506–507). Describe the democratic project of the poem: What does it include? For whom are the things it accepts catalogued, and why? Whom does the poem seem to be addressing, and to what purpose? Consider the confident tone of the poem's voice: "In vain the speeding or shyness, / In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach, / In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powder'd bones, / In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes, / In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low" (lines 674–78). The shapes, sizes, and dangers in this passage are often taken as the sublime, something to be regarded with awe and terror. How does Whitman treat the sublime in this poem?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Whitman and his American literary brethren arose in response to the hidebound, constrictive, and myopic culture of the Old World. The oppressive weight of the trappings of European culture and its attendant baggage could not stand.

This explains these references to human individuality, yet interdependency, and our collective place within...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Whitman and his American literary brethren arose in response to the hidebound, constrictive, and myopic culture of the Old World. The oppressive weight of the trappings of European culture and its attendant baggage could not stand.

This explains these references to human individuality, yet interdependency, and our collective place within a benign creation. We, and all the contextual fabric of our cosmos, as opposed to Whitman’s micro-level of sensual detail, are completely at one with nature, as well as with the Divine. Spirituality and democracy are conflated, essentially to express a spiritual elevation and a moral exceptionalism in reaction to stifling past customs. The nascent American socio-political experience is reborn elementally into a living, communal, all-embracing and pantheistic ideal:

I will also be a master of my own kind, making poems of emotions, as they pass or stay, the poems of freedom, the expose of personality—singing in high tones democracy and the New World of it through These States.

The “password primeval” is our holistic origin, figuratively going back to Eden, or the Big Bang—whatever creation theory or myth one subscribes to. This attitude inherently accepts that no social hierarchy, caste system, or pecking order exists or can exist. All is compassion.

Bear in mind that “Leaves of Grass” launched the fame of a poet that affected an "Old Man of the Mountains" persona, and emerged from a time when celebrity preachers were considered lively public entertainment; these orators left their stamp on the apprentice-aged Whitman.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team