(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)