Element of Mysticism in Walt Whitman Poetry

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      Mysticism is not really a coherent philosophy of life, but more a temper of mind. A mystical experience, according to Bertrand Russell, involves insight, a sense of unity and the unreality of time and space, and a belief that evil is mere an appearance. A mystic’s vision is intuitive, he feels the presence of a divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of sense perception. He feels that God and the supreme soul animating all things are identical. He sees an essential identity of Being between Man, Nature and God. He believes that “all things in the visible world are but forms and manifestations of the one Divine light, and that these phenomena are changing and temporary, while the soul that informs them is eternal.” The human soul, too, is eternal. Transcendentalism is closely connected to mysticism, for it emphasizes the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical.

      Whitman’s Poetry is Full of Mystic and Transcendental Strains. He was deeply influenced by Emerson, the American transcendentalist. His thought was intuitive and not systematic like a logician’s. He wrote like a mystic:

Wisdom is of the Soul, is not susceptible to proof, is its own proof.
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities, and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things and the excellence of things.
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the Soul.

      Whitman believed the soul to be immortal. He felt an identification with all animate and inanimate things around him. What is interesting about Whitman’s mysticism is that, as Schyberg observes, “in his book we can find the typical characteristics of absolutely all the various mystic doctrines.” But generally, Whitman, unlike other mystics, can describe his mystical experience in specific and concrete terms without resorting to ambiguities and hyperbole.

      Leaving aside Song of Myself and Passage to India which are dearly mystical, we have When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d which ends on a note of mystical affirmation. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rv.: king provides vital information about the meaning of death. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry presents a world perceived through all the senses that lead to spiritual assertion.

      Whitman is a Mystic with a Difference. One cannot call him a pure mystic in the sense of oriental mysticism. He is not a ‘praying’ man. Like all mystics, he believed in the existence of the soul, in the existence of the Divine Spirit, in the immortality of the human soul, and in the capacity of a human being to establish communication between his spirit and the Divine Spirit. But he differs from the oriental or traditional mystics in that he does not subscribe to their belief that communication with the Divine Spirit possible only through denial of the senses and mortification of the flesh. Whitman declares that he sings of the body as much as of the soul. He feels that spiritual communication is possible, indeed desirable, without sacrificing the flesh. Thus there is a great deal of the sexual element in Whitman’s poetry especially in the early poetry - Section 5 of Song of Myself is a case in point where the sexual connotations are inseparable from the mystical experience. To Whitman the mystical state is achieved through the transfigured senses rather than by escaping the senses. In Section 11 of Song of Myself, once again a mystical experience is symbolically conveyed through, piece of sensuous experience. In Section 24, the poet becomes the spokesman of the “forbidden voices” of “sexes and lusts, voices indecent”. He loves his body and is sensitive to another’s touch. Both the lady and the prostitute enjoy equal position in his poetry, for the inner reality, the soul has been created by the same god. “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred”, he says in I Sing the Body Electric. He celebrates all the organs of the body-male and female.

      The Material World is not Denigrated. Whitman does not reject the material world. He seeks the spiritual through the material. He does not subscribe to the belief that objects are elusive. There is no tendency on the part of the soul to leave this world for good. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, we see the soul trying to play a significant role in the administration of this world of scenes, sights, sounds, etc. Whitman does not belittle the achievements of science and materialism. In Section 23 of Song of Myself, he accepts the reality of materialism and says:

Hurrah for positive science!
Long live exact demonstration!

      He honors the men of science. But these “facts”, though useful, are the stepping stones towards goals beyond the world of facts and science. In Passage to India once again the achievements of technology are celebrated but we are given to understand that the human soul must not rest with the conquering of the Earth; it must seek God through the universe, until it finds Him, and Nature and Man shall be disjoined and diffused no more.

      Seeking the Divine Reality. Whitman accepted the Theory of Evolution but could not believe evolution to be a mechanical process. In the slow process of growth, development and change that science was revealing, Whitman saw God making Himself evident and unmistakable to man. The soul of man finds full satisfaction only in seeking out the reality behind the manifestations. As he says in Passage to India:

Bathe me O God in thee, mounting thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.

      At the end of the journey the soul meets with God-or the “Great Camerado” as he says in Song of Myself.

      Whitman’s Sense of Unity of the Whole: His Cosmic Consciousness. Whitman has throughout his poetry shown his faith in the unity of the whole, or “oneness” of all. This sense of the essential divinity of all created things is an important aspect of mysticism and is also closely related to Whitman’s faith in democracy calling for equality and fraternity. Song of Myself is replete with lines proclaiming this “oneness”. He knows

.... that dll men ever born are also my brothers .... and all the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.

      He praises, not merely We, but the absolute war of every particular and individual person, every real existing being. Thus his “cosmic consciousness is the result of the expansion of the ego. The “I” assumes an enlarged universal connotation embracing the smallest and the greatest things in the universe as perfect and of great value. Whitman equates all opposites, and accepts evil as much as good as part of Reality.

      In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the poet has achieved the unity of all mankind: “The simple, compact, well-joined scheme myself disintegrated, everyone disintegrated yet part of the scheme”. In Passage to India, East is fused with the West, and the Old with the new - “As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand”. Time becomes one in Whitman’s poetry. Past, present and future are merged into a spiritual continuum. Thus in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he says:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
Or ever so many generations hence.

      Mysticism Governing the Images and Symbolism of Whitman’s Poetry. The mystic quest for Reality and communion with the Divine easily lends itself to be represented in terms of the voyage image. The “Open Road” forms a basic image in Whitman’s poetry as does the open sea. The Song of the Open Road is a poem whose theme is a journey symbolic of an exploration of the spiritual as well as the physical universe. Passage to India is famous for symbolizing the mystic quest for Reality and the ultimate discovery of the meaning of life - a passage to more than India. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking as well When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d use symbols and images designed to affirm the importance of Death. Death is seen as a deliveress because it leads to new life, and the poet having the mystical experience of this truth, seeks to be a “uniter of here and hereafter”. In Passage to India, the imagery of the soul in flight and the symbolism of immortality recur. The poet and his soul float through Time and Space and Death, mounting to God-

Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O Soul, thou actual Me,
And Io, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
All fillest, swellestfull the vastness of Space.

      As G.W. Allen points out, the “attempt to indicate the path between reality and the soul very nearly sums up Whitman’s whole intention in Leaves of Grass". The mysticism here is obvious. The cosmic “I” of Whitman’s poems is on a perpetual journey. His soul is but a fragment of the world-soul. The mass of images which race through his poems symbolize the unity and harmony in himself and all creation. The spear of grass assumes mystical significance through its symbolic value-celebration of individuality and the en-masse, exclusion of none, exception of all. In some parts of his poetry, the indirection and symbolism-inseparable with the techniques of communication of a mystic are only too obvious. In Song of Myself Whitman speaks of God as his beloved and his “bed-fellow” sleeping at his side all night. The mystical experience is conveyed in terms of highly charged sexual imagery.

      Whitman seldom lost touch with the physical reality even in the midst of mystical experiences. Physical phenomena for him (as for the Transcendentalists) were symbols of spiritual reality. He believed that “the unseen is proved by seen”; thus he makes use of highly sensuous and concrete imagery to convey his perception of divine reality. He finds a purpose behind natural objects-grass, sea, birds, flowers, animals-for,

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death


....a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars

      Indeed, one might say that mysticism constitutes the very poetic form of Whitman’s poems. He looked upon the universe as constituting a unity of disparate objects, unified by the Divine Spirit; thus his poems are “Leaves of Grass” signifying at once separateness and unity. Whitman’s dominant metaphor of grass presents a case for unity and harmony, a basic component of structure.

      Mystical Structure of ‘Song of Myself’. Song of Myself is perhaps the best illustration of Whitman’s mysticism influencing meaning, form and symbolism. Says James E. Miller: “When viewed in terms of the phases of the traditional mystical experience, Song of Myself takes on a comprehensive structural shape”. He goes on to trace this shape. In Sections 1 to 5, the poet enters into the mystical trance by “observing a spear of summer grass”. Sections 6 to 16 cover the poet’s awakening to other and higher levels of consciousness whereby self-identities with all mankind. In Sections 17 to 32 self reaches towards purification. In Sections 33 to 37 illumination of the dark night of the soul takes place. The poet transcends space and time. In Sections 38 to 43 there is knowledge of Union through faith and love. In Sections 44 to 49, the poet’s “supreme power” is explained - it is the power of mystic insight into the fundamental questions of existence. In Sections 50 to 52, there is the emergence from the mystical state. The poet can only hint at the significance of what he has learned:

It is not chaos or death-it is form, union.
plan-it is eternal life-it is happiness.

      The reader can rediscover what the poet learned by observing his own spear of summer grass and by launching his own mystical journey. Song of Myself is an “inverted mystical experience” - While the traditional mystic attempted to annihilate himself and mortify his senses in preparation for his union with the divine, Whitman magnifies the self and glorifies the senses in his progress towards union with the Absolute.

      Conclusion. Whitman is a mystic as much as he is a poet of democracy and science, but a “mystic without a creed”. He sees the body as the manifestation of the spirit which is delivered by death into a higher life. A spear of grass is not an inert substance for him but God’s handkerchief, the flag of my disposition. Often in his sensibility, matter is dissolved, trees become “liquid” and contours fluid. The real is transmuted and he has cosmic visions. He becomes a comet traveling round the universe with the speed of light:

I depart as air, I shake my white Jocks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies,
And drift in lacy jags.

      If Leaves of Grass has been called a “Bible” of America, it has a great deal to do with its mystical strain. True, Whitman’s brand of mysticism is not identifiable with the selflessness of the Christian variety or the passivity of the Oriental. What we may call Whitman’s mysticism is “democratic” mysticism available to every man on equal terms and embracing contradictory elements. But it is undeniable that mysticism is central to the meaning of Leaves of Grass.


Comment on Whitman’s mysticism. Or
Bring out the transcendental aspects of Whitman’s poetry. What is original in his mysticism?
“Whitman’s faith in a reality that transcends logic and the senses does nothing to belittle or denigrate the world of experience” Discuss.
“Mysticism not only constitutes the fundamental meaning of Whitman’s poems, but it also determines their poetic form and symbolism”. Discuss.
Whitman may be a mystic, but he is also a materialist. Discuss. Introduction: What is Mysticism.

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