Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“There is more of me, the essential ultimate me, in [‘Passage to India’],” Whitman explained to his friend and follower, Horace Traubel, “than in any of the [other] poems. There is no philosophy, consistent or inconsistent, in that poembut the burden of it is evolutionthe unfolding of cosmic purposes.” In addition to underscoring the value the poet himself placed on the poem, Whitman’s comment establishes the poles within which the poem operates: the cosmic and the personal.

“Spurning the known” and giving himself over to “unloos’d dreams,” the poet (or, more accurately, an anonymous but nevertheless autobiographical narrative “I”) attempts to make the “voiceless earth” speak in order to clarify (“eclaircise”) God’s “inscrutable purpose.” As Transcendentalist and as cosmic evolutionist, Whitman takes as his aim something more than Puritan poet John Milton’s efforts “to justify the ways of God to men” in the seventeenth century Christian epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Neither God’s apologist nor His amanuensis, the Whitmanic persona is God’s alter ego and democratic equal. His self-appointed task is not so much to justify God’s ways as to explore them and to engineer the overcoming of doubt and death through the mystical fusion of time and space, self and other.

Against the poem’s great outpouring of cosmic energy and optimistic expectancy runs a strong undercurrent of...

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