Themes and Meanings
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.
“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, praised here as much for the neglect he suffered as for the country he discovered.
An entry in Whitman’s notebook on the poem’s “spinal idea” helps clarify Columbus’s role in “Passage to India”: “That the divine efforts of heroes, and their ideas, faithfully lived up to will finally prevail, and be accomplished however long deferred.” Having already waited sixteen years for America to accept its own Transcendental role (as envisioned in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass) and to acknowledge the author as its bard, Whitman seems to have grown doubtful regarding the outcome. In “Prayer of Columbus,” published three years later, after Whitman had suffered a stroke, the title figure, now depicted longing for death, is unsure whether his dream of future fame and vindication is the vision of a prophet or the raving of a madman. A similar though clearly more muted self-doubt propels “Passage to India” away from the pains and disappointments Whitman actually suffered and toward cosmic evolution, universal brotherhood, and a “Comrade perfect” who patiently waits, listens, and understands—the poem’s ideal reader, or perhaps only its idealized, self-projecting author.