Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

“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.

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“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 frustration and disillusionment (or at least disappointment). Because he too has felt—indeed continues to feel—the weight of this “mocking life” and the hunger of the “unsatisfied soul,” Whitman longs to give shape and direction to the “restless explorations” of all men and women of all ages as they “grope” their way through life, grappling with their sense of separation from “nature.” Not content to play the poet’s usual role, Whitman plays the parts of explorer and engineer, prophet and savior (Moses leading others to the Promised Land that he himself could not enter and Christ saving others by sacrificing himself). Above all, Whitman projects himself ahead by looking back to Columbus,...

(The entire section contains 527 words.)

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