Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”