Walt Whitman American Literature Analysis
When Whitman first thrust Leaves of Grass on an unsuspecting and unresponsive American public, it was clear that he viewed himself as a national bard who would inject something “transcendent and new” into the poetic veins of his country. In the preface, which was strongly influenced by Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1844), Whitman discussed the kind of American bard he envisioned and the kind of poetry that such a bard would write.
Believing that “Americans of all nations . . . have probably the fullest poetical nature” and that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” Whitman’s ideal was a poet whose “spirit responds to his country’s spirit. . . . [H]e incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.” The truly American poet, like the American people, must embrace both the old and the new but must not be bound by conventional poetic forms, whether of rhyme and meter or subject matter. (Whitman had in mind both the didactic verse of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the work of the “graveyard school.”) Rather, the poet must seek to incarnate that which lies deeper than form and which reflects the laws and realities that are implanted in the human soul. Advocating a poetry of simplicity and genuineness, Whitman’s advice to his reader was to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
In successive editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman undoubtedly succeeded in his attempt to articulate an authentic American poetic voice, one which was not dependent on models derived from English literature. Further, by applying the central premises of Romanticism and Transcendentalism in a wider and more daring form than any American poet had done, he created a visionary and prophetic book which ranks as one of the great achievements of nineteenth century literature.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Whitman’s poetry for the modern reader is not its free-verse form, to which readers have become accustomed, but the extraordinary metaphysical thought that underlies so much of it. Whitman is the supreme poet of the expanded self. His poetic persona continually celebrates, as a fait accompli, the achievement of the goal to which Romanticism and Transcendentalism aspired: a state of being in which humankind’s sense of separateness and isolation in the universe is overcome, a state in which subject and object are unified, and the perceiving self feels deeply connected, emotionally and spiritually, with the rest of creation. The “I” in Whitman’s poems, like the figure of Albion in English Romantic poet William Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem (1804-1820), merges with all things and contains all things. Whitman expressed this succinctly in his poem “There Was a Child Went Forth”:
There was a child went forth every day,And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
Whitman’s poetry thus abolishes “otherness.” Although English novelist D. H. Lawrence complained that Whitman had accomplished this only by suppressing his own individuality, this was not Whitman’s intention.
Thoreau was more appreciative, stating that Whitman’s philosophic vision was “Wonderfully like the Orientals,” and several modern scholars have analyzed Whitman’s poetry in the light of the Vedic literature of India. According to this analysis, Whitman’s understanding of the self can best be understood by reference to doctrine probably found in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, that the “atman,” the essence of the individual self, is identical to Brahman, the universal self. It is not known for certain how well Whitman was acquainted with Eastern thought, and it may be that his philosophy was based as much on personal experience as on the reading of books. “Song of Myself ” is notable for its denigration of book learning in favor of the...
(The entire section is 6,525 words.)