Epic Element in Walt Whitman’s Poetry Leaves of Grass

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      Introduction. It has been pointed out by several critics that Leaves of Grass is ‘an epic of America’. W.D.O’ Connor said: “To understand Greece, study the Iliad and Odyssey, study Leaves of Grass to understand America.” And at the outset it must be noted that Whitman’s work is epical mainly in embodying the reality and ideal of American life and not in imitating ancient epics in totality.

      Epic Quality of Recording the Times. Epic writers always showed fine awareness of historical perception. Whitman conceived of history as both chronological and spatial. The old world, according to him, had poems of myths, feudalism, conquest, caste, dynastic wars, and splendid exceptional characters, because the old world was feudal and aristocrat centered. The new world, on the other hand, was based on science and democracy, thus science and democracy were the ‘myths’ of the new age. And the hero of a New World epic would be Man, simply the human being. There is no doubt that, with this conception of poetry in mind, Leaves of Grass is the modern new world epic, serving America as the great epics of the past served their countries. As Richard Chase observes, “Whitman really is an authentic spokesman for the tendencies of his country”. Leaves of Grass holds a mirror to contemporary American life, influenced by science and democracy. The work embodies America’s first terrible trial in the shape of the Civil War and it progresses the greatness of America.

      To understand Whitman is to understand America, said one critic. It is high tribute, indeed, but not exaggeration. In Whitman’s poetry, one can sense. The America has sung by the poet:

.... the varied carols r hear,
Those of mechanics, ....blithe and strong,
The carpenter .... Themason .... The boatman .... (Hear America Singing)

      A picture of the American Scene and Its People emerges from the pages of Leaves of Grass. Their people, their varied occupations housebuilding, shingle-dressing, ship-joining, iron-smelting, cotton-loading, etc. the whole wide range of the American physical scene - the Northern ocean, Georgia, prairies and plateaus, the peaks of the Rockies, the long Pacific coastline - all these are pictured vividly in his poems. He succeeds in conveying to the reader “a broad panoramic grasp of America’s spaciousness, her opulence and her varied multitudinous life.”

      Subject and Theme of ‘Leaves of Grass’: New Dimensions to the Epic Hero. There is a striking similarity between the beginning of the first poem of Leaves of Grass and the beginning of various classical epics in the use of “I sing”. Whitman begins:

One’s-self I sing a simple separate person
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse

      The subject is dearly stated. His Muse is not to be content with any one portion. His poetry is to embrace.

The Female equally with the Male ....
and he proudly states
The Modem Man I Sing

      In the second poem As I Ponder‘d in Silence, the Muse is invoked and reassured. Thus, the tradition of epic poetry is not discarded. Only in actual subject Whitman parts with convention. He is not to sing of the traditional kind of hero-aristocratic, noble, feudal. His hero is Modern Man, or Humanity inclusive of man and woman. The “I” of Leaves of Grass is at once the poet as an individual and as the representative of humanity, both the historical Whitman and Democracy’s superman. The ideals enshrined in this hero are the ideals within the reach of the common man. Whitman wanted his country’s people to believe that every one of them was potentially an epic hero if only he could become aware of the latent richness of his selfhood.

      Wars and Battles of ‘Leaves of Grass’ on a New Front. The epic hero of the past engaged in wars and battles of bloodshed. Whitman’s ‘epic hero’ is also to engage in war and battles. The Muse has told him that the “ever enduring bards” sing of war - “the fortunes of battles”, “making of perfect soldiers”. These are, indeed, Whitman’s themes but on a general and symbolic level. His battlefield is the world and the battle is “for life and death, for the body and for the eternal Soul”. The war in Leaves of Grass is fought, not for worldly glory, but for the complete transformation of the individual, for the salvation of America and mankind. He wants to raise the level of the “divine average”.

      Whitman’s Modern Man of the New World represents a reconciliation of the paradoxically opposed ideals of democracy individuality and equality (separateness and ‘en-masse’); so his epic hero exemplifies both traits in war. In Drum-Taps one sees the triumph of the American epic hero “en-masse”. The emphasis throughout is on the ranks, the large mass of men welded together in comradeship and a common national purpose. No individual is singled out from the others for heroic deeds. But the Civil War, which proved the heroic quality on an epic scale of America’s “Children en-masse”, also demonstrated democracy's ability to produce individuality of epic-proportions. In Memories of President Lincoln and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom‘d, an individual, Abraham Lincoln, is celebrated; but the hero at the same time is shown to possess qualities similar to those of the soldiers “en-masse”. “He is the powerful western fallen star; he is the captain of the ship who is universally mourned; he is the dear commander of the soldiers; but he is above all the departing comrade who possessed an infinite capacity for love”, as James Miller observes.

      The Gods and Myths of ‘Leaves of Grass’. The epic poem involves myths and fables. It has gods intervening in human actions. In Leaves of Grass, democracy and science form the mythical framework, replacing the religion of the past. Gods do not intervene in the action, but God’s presence is felt throughout. The Self’s goal is to merge with God, though not to lose his own identity in Him. God becomes ‘Elder Brother’, as presented in Passage to India. God is the final comrade. The background to the self’s journey is the science and democracy of the contemporary world. Whitman cheers “positive science” and “exact demonstration”. He praises the scientists for their achievements, but these “physical” achievements are the stepping stones towards spiritual goals. Whitman’s Muse is to guide him in his task of singing the “greatness of Love and Democracy” and a religion of a wide universal order.

      Form and Structure and Style: Departure from Convention. The poet of Leaves of Grass departs from epic convention as far as style is concerned. Whitman completely ignores the ornamental similes and elaborate descriptions and “high” style which characterized classical epics. His language is racy and concrete - it is the language of the people. His style is suitable for his vast American theme and corresponds to the democratic and scientific outlook. He has little use for meters. His work has an organic unity of the whole rather than in parts. He uses repetition to give pattern and rhythmical effect to the poems which simultaneously celebrate individuality and “en-masse” - a quality so well symbolized by grass. Thus Whitman’s work is not characterized by a formal structure.

      Epic of the New World. Walt Whitman wanted freedom for self-realization for himself and all the millions who populated the world. Quite early in his career, he came to understand the way that such self-realization could be achieved, in poetry. It would have to be in a new American poem which would celebrate American culture so as to make the power for self-realization for the first time spontaneously available to all. His readers would thus become celebrants; with him they would celebrate themselves in their world, hence really come to know themselves. As he said in his Preface, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the Earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem....Here is the hospitality which for ever indicates heroes The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality, life breathes into anything small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer,.... he is individual.....he is complete in himself...But folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects....they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls”.

      Whitman obviously felt that he had finally discovered the way to the poem made out of that living language which would warm the world with one moral soul. Such a poem must be epic in scope. It was to do for modern man what the epic did for men of the outworn past. Yet its form could not be self-transcending, like that of the traditional epic; its form had to be like its heroes. If all the men are heroes, then the heroism of modern society has infinitely more aspects and qualities than can be fused in the single hero of the traditional epic. Thus Whitman conceived of an American equivalent of the epic. An American epic would have a spirit which would totally satisfy the needs of democracy in the aggregate. The working of its form and language had to be so managed as immediately to relate the reader to the milieu and the culture which the form and language project. It was the feeling for the deep need of his culture to find an adequate poetic image that prompted Song of Myself. This poem is the clearest, surest and complete product of his desire to create an American epic.

      Conclusion. Leaves of Grass has several qualities which link it to the epic tradition. It is an epic of new dimensions. It is “America’s epic, a reflection of her character and of her soul, achievements and her aspirations, Leaves of Grass transfigures what it reflects, that is because its poet wanted to dwell not on the reality but on the ideal”, says James Miller. We may add that Leaves of Grass goes beyond being a national epic; in many ways, it is ‘a universal epic’ - an epic of human life.

University Questions

Write an essay on the ‘epic’ elements in Whitman’s poetry, with special reference to the poems you have read.
Discuss Leaves of Grass as an American epic.

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