Mysticism, Love & Sex and Death in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Also Read

Mysticism Theme

      Mysticism is not a philosophy, or doctrine, but rather a temper. Whitman had no coherent philosophy of life, but he certainly shows a strong note of mysticism and transcendentalism in his poetry.

      Not a Pure Mystic. Whitman could not be the traditional mystic. He did not subscribe to the negation and denial enjoined by
traditional mysticism. He believes that the spiritual experience is possible and even desirable without sacrificing the senses. Whitman is a transcendentalist but he celebrates sex and the senses at the same time. Song of Myself and several of earlier poems show this strange fusion of spiritualism and sensualism. His acceptance of the body makes him different from other mystics. In I Sing the Body Electric he sings of the human body and senses.

      Quest for the Divine. In his later poetry, mysticism in its purer senses, is evident. Passage to India celebrates the progress of the human soul conquering the Earth, but there is the belief that the soul should seek God through the Universe till:

Nature and Man shall be disjoined and diffused no more.

      In poems such as Prayer of Columbus and Whispers of Heavenly Death’ too, mysticism is dominant.

      Faith in the Unity of the Whole, Oneness of All. Whitman’s concept of Self, the “I” of his poems, is a part of the poet’s mysticism. The “I” of his poems is easily identified with the smallest created object as well as the greatest. This feeling of “oneness” with all, this sense of divinity of all created things, is a mystical element. 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”. The vision is intuitive. The “oneness” and unity extends to the sphere of time-past, present and future “are joined”.

      The mystical element in Leaves of Grass is clear, even though it seems difficult to reconcile it with Whitman’s strong materialism. On the whole, Whitman’s temperament is “unsuited to the passivity of the Oriental... It is possible that Whitman, out of the multiple obscure sources, and out of his own soul, creates a unique mysticism designed for America - a “democratic” mysticism available to every man on equal terms, embracing both the body and the soul, science and myth, life and death, the active and passive, material and spiritual. But whatever the ultimate nature of his mysticism, it must be granted a central role in the meaning of his greatest poetry, in the Leaves" (James Miller).

Theme of Love and Sex

      Sexual Love Basic Metaphor. Wait Whitman has been called the prophet of sexual love. He was a fearless pioneer in treating sexual love with a healthy frankness in his poems. Love is necessary to the poet’s understanding of the universe as it must be for anyone who tries to see into the heart of creation.

      Sex in all its Aspects. Whitman’s rebellion was particularly directed against the traditional approach and Puritanism that forbade “moral” lapse. He speaks for frankness and realism in his poetry:

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I
Voices indecent by me clarified and transformed.

      Sexual love is vital to the human personality. Life is incomplete without it. And through it, one may find meaning in the universe. Whitman explores the terrors and inversions of sex as well as its sunny aspects. Sex is an equalizer.

      Realism in Treatment of Sexual Love. Whitman is bold and vivid in his singing of sexual love. He glorifies the body and thrills at physical contact. He celebrates the turbulent appetites of the flesh with exhilarating frankness. However, one cannot term this open treatment of sexual love indecent or obscene.

      Sexual Love is Part of His Concept of the Self Seeking “Oness” in all. Sexual love is a relation between two willing souls based on perfect understanding and mutual agreement. This is a step towards unity. Sex is necessary for procreation; it is linked with the life force of Nature; it is an aspect of Love which permeates all things.

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies,
pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals

      Rejection of sexual love is a rejection of God in Whitman’s opinion, for sexual energy is connected to the concept of cosmic unity; it is linked to the pulsating force that vitalizes all. Body and soul are of equal importance, and Whitman glorifies in the body. And every person completes himself by uniting with others.

      Love Extends to Man and Man: Touch of Homosexuality. Love between man and woman alone is not celebrated by Whitman.
The imagery of his poems testifies to homosexual tendencies which must have shocked (and probably do so still) the prudish reader. The feeling of comradeship between man and man is infused with real passion, involving sexual delight and ecstasy, by Whitman in his poems. The Calumus poems deal with “manly attachment”, “types of athletic love” and “the need of comrades” They are also starkly autobiographical. But this love between like objects extends to love between soul and soul, and once again the physical is enlarged into the spiritual.

      Self-love or what is called “Auto-sexuality” by psychiatrists also pervades Whitman’s poetry. The Self-absorbed other things of the world through the medium of love. In Song of Myself he says -

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

      But this self-love extends to love of all mankind. It is a case of diffused love, as the poet is the symbol of every person.

      Development in the Treatment of Love. Whitman began with the pleasures and joy of the senses only. He was more the poet of the body than of the soul. In the second stage, he turned more to the spiritual realities of life. In the last period, his concept of love became all-inclusive, assuming cosmic dimensions.

Theme of Death

      Death: Ever-re current Theme. Whitman was fascinated by Death. The theme haunts his Leaves of Grass. Thus he becomes as great a poet of death as of life. Perhaps, his contact with disease, suffering and madness and death left an indelible impression on his sensitive mind. But this closeness to death did not warp his mentality.

      Death does not Evoke Fear in Whitman. It is a reality to be faced and understood. It is no more to be feared than birth, for both, Whitman felt, are simply stages in the everlasting cycle of life. The idea of the immortality of the soul reduces the fear of death. Death is not an End to Life, for Whitman is a poet of continuity, of eternal progress. Death merely brings renewal, freedom, and evolution. Death is not an end, for it is part of an endless cycle. Death merely leads to a greater reality; it merely causes change:

For it is the real to the ideal tends.

      Whitman’s Mystic Leaning informs his concept of death. He believes in the immortality of the individual soul. He believes:

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.

      Death delivers the soul into the realm of immortal Beauty, as presented in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard, Bloom‘d. Life and death are closely related in the world of Walt Whitman. Life, love and death are seen as joined inseparably.

Previous Post Next Post