Merits of Walt Whitman Toward American Poetry

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      Introduction: A Many-sided Genius. The poetry of Walt Whitman is difficult to assess as it is the work of a many-sided artist. He attempted to be a spokesman of each individual American, and such an attempt naturally involved a comprehensive vision. He is at once the poet of the family and home, of uninhibited sexuality, of democracy, of science, of mysticism, and of religious tone. Above all, he was a revolutionary - a crusader, who sought new pastures for the subject as well as style of poetry.

      Autobiography sublimated to Include All. The comprehensive vision began with the autobiographical element. He said in clear terms about his Leaves of Grass:

Camerado, this is no book
Who touches this, touches a man....

      But the “man” is not just Whitman, he is at once less and more than Whitman. The “I” whom he celebrates is the average American also the American Everyman. He saw his own personality as tallying with “the momentous spirit and facts of his immediate days and of current America”, in his Preface of 1855, he says about himself that he “celebrates natural propensities in himself, and that is the way he celebrates all”. Thus, despite the subjective and lyrical element in his poetry, Leaves of Grass has been called the epic of modern America. The movement of his verse is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people

      Themes of Whitman’s Poetry: Democracy on All-Fronts. The major themes of Whitman’s poetry are union, equality, human dignity and progress.

      The sentiment of unity, with respect to the nation, humanity, the world order is in Whitman a direct lyric expansion of the vital sympathy he felt for the democratic masses. To this theme of unity is related the feeling of political unity as expressed in the war poems and the feeling of brotherhood with Americans as expressed in poems celebrating comradeship. But not only democracy is part of the unity theme; “the theme unfolds in an opulent lyric bloom, in the form of verses on the oneness of nature, the sea and the universe. This motive, indeed, that of a union with material nature, is accorded in Whitman a simpler, more direct and immediately lyric treatment than in any other poet of modem times.” The idea of unity assumes mystical dimensions in the theme of death. Death, in Whitman’s poetry, is a means of happy fusion with the material universe. It is an optimistic feeling springing from the conviction that each man is traveling a path along which others will continue after him - the classical sense of succession and survival. The best expression of this is perhaps in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard. Bloom’d, the elegy for Abraham Lincoln, leader and hero of American democracy.

      The themes of equality and human dignity are obviously interlinked. Whitman does not consider anything unworthy of the Muse’s attention. The title of his poetic work Leaves of Grass aptly suggests equality and dignity of the individuals. To Whitman all are equal. And that is why he is the poet of the body as well as the soul. The “spiritual” man is not superior to the flesh-and-blood being. The body is thus exalted in Whitman’s poems-he sings of the glory of all organs. This exaltation of the body is interwoven with the development of a broader motive - that of the assertion of human dignity. Very much part of this strong assertion of equality and human dignity is the attitude in Whitman’s poetry towards women. For the first time in the history of English poetry a poet sings of woman’s equality with man.

      Another important theme in Whitman’s poetry is Progress. Whitman’s poetry expresses a faith in future possibilities resulting from a conquest of nature by contemporary science and democratic expansion. He was the first to introduce the theme of labor in poetry. Of course, the material progress is celebrated but Whitman looks forward to the progress of the soul as well. Passage to India is a comprehensive expression of Whitman’s concept of progress.

      Whitman: A Poet of Joy and Optimism. In the treatment of his themes, Whitman is a poet of joy and optimism. His mystic awareness of the unity of the universe and the continuity of everything leads to an optimistic viewpoint. Man, in Whitman’s mind, was evolving towards greater and greater progress. In such a context death is not an end but a re-birth into a better life. It is his optimism which conceives of a universal brotherhood, a free democratic world:

A reborn race appears - a perfect world, all joy!

      He sees the discoveries and inventions made in the field of science and geography as part of the evolutionary progress of man. The conviction is expressed in Pioneers! O Pioneers! as well as Passage to India.

      Revolutionary and Original. Whitman obviously was a revolutionary poet in his glorification of democracy, and his celebration of the equality of all things, and the importance of the commonest object. He made a bold transfer in subject matter for poetry; from kings and nobles, he brought the Muse to live among common men. He sang of freedom, fraternity and equality - the ideals which would benefit the common man. “Through him the common man not only began to speak individually and alone, but collectively, with a million voices, thus making himself heard. The wars and battles of traditional poetry are given new dimensions in Whitman’s poetry-they are being fought to improve the self. The theme of love is broadened and expanded to include besides the conventional man-woman relationship, love between man and man, and universal love.

      Bold Treatment of Sex. Perhaps, the most striking aspect of Whitman’s originality and revolutionary aspect is his courageous treatment of sex in his poetry. He called Leaves of Grass “the song of sex.” He is uninhibited in the treatment of sexual love, and he recognizes the urge in women as well as in men. Sexual imagery runs throughout his poetry - he calls God his loving bed-fellow and speaks of Earth as “voluptuous” and writes:

Press close bare-bosom’d night....

      But his sexual vision, which includes unconventional areas such as homosexuality, “connects with his mystic vision; for the first leads to the universal identification that the second assumes in achieving spiritual union.” Thus the sexual element is sublimated in Whitman’s poetry. Sex symbolizes the divine purpose of regeneration and love.

      Originality and Innovation in the Technical Sphere of Language and Versification. Whitman’s revolutionary spirit is not confined to the subject matter of poetry alone; he brought innovation to the sphere of style as well. He has been called, with justice, the father of free verse or vers libre. He seldom writes in conventional verse forms or meters. His is “cadenced” verse of a unique kind. As Gay Allen remarks, in “practically all of Whitman’s poems the basic prosodic form is parallelism, or thought rhythm, as in ancient Hebraic verse, though he may not have got it directly from the Bible. Here the unit of structure is not fundamentally either accentual or temporal, though Whitman had a good ear for both time and accent. In his verse, the line is the unit (notice the usual comma at the end of each line). The second line balances the first, completing or supplementing its meaning”.

      Whitman called Leaves of Grass “a language experiment.” In many ways, his poetry is, indeed, a language experiment. As Wordsworth too did before him, Whitman brought simplicity to the language of poetry. He aimed at increasing the expressive range of language; to this end, he drew freely from the life of trade, commerce and business of the average American. He coined words, improvised them from foreign languages, and freely used slang which he considered as the common man’s experiment with language. His long ‘omnivorous’ lines and catalogs suitably convey a sense of the teeming multitudinous masses of America and their life.

      Whitman’s mode of expression was symbolism long before the symbolist movement began. His vision of the universe as a unity necessarily demanded “indirection” as a means of communication. As D. Mirsky points out, Whitman was a “thorough going innovator" in form and these innovations are directly derived from his novelty of content. “Whitman’s language is that of the prosaic and democratic scene about him. The linguistic novelty of his poems springs from a new store of themes; the new words that we find there are for the most part the names of objects which upto his time had been held to be unpoetic”. Within the close syntax of his free verse, which does not admit of such variations, as arise from a carry over of the thought from one stanza to another, Whitman achieves great variety indeed.

      Whitman: A Poet not a Propagandist. Ultimately, Whitman’s fame is as an artist and not as a spokesman or a prophet with a system. The important thing is not his views and theoretic collection of ideas, but rather those concrete forms to which he brought all the depth and strength of his emotion. He created a poetry of human dignity, a practical vision of a full man. The growing and maturing of art is of great importance in the case of Whitman. His poetry deepened as his imagination reached out of his too physical world on hearing another song “covering the Earth and filling the spread of the heaven”. Death began to appear as important as life and religion more important than self-expression. His poetry attained depth as his imagination was chastened into reaching far beyond and beneath his sensory experiences. Whitman is assuredly a poet first and an apostle of love, democracy, and death only because of his poetry.

      Conclusion. The mosaic of ideas in T.S. Eliot, the stream of consciousness in the modern novel and all those extraordinary subtle devices through which the mode novelist and poet have toiled to explore ways in which an individual sensibility can be modulated into an inclusive consciousness, are in the tradition of Whitman. How to escape the prison of the self and cultivate simultaneously self-consciousness and sympathy, using the sense of self-identity as a means of projecting oneself into the identity of others - that is Whitman’s valuable legacy to modern literature. Whitman rises above his defects. The reader forgets “the lesser flaws, the lumbering failures; the illumined phrases bum clear: the pictures, once etched upon the imagination, are there to stay. Above all, the effect remains, an effect not reducible to phrases, a sense of realized power, irresistible and benevolent, immense in affirmation.... Such poetry whatever its lapses, bas the stuff of permanence. It will persist not only because of its rebellious and compelling power, but because the poet has transcended his material. Whitman’s work was larger than die man. He was not boasting when he claimed to contain a multitude. Although Whitman regarded himself as the poet of his own age and his native America, there are poems which are so representative of human nature in all ages that they assume universal significance.

University Questions

A General Estimate of Whitman as a Poet of Merits
Assess Whitman’s contribution to American poetry.
How far do you agree that “Whitman was chiefly a propagandist and only afterward a poet.”
Do you regard Whitman as a great poet? Give reasons for your answer.

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