Passage To India: by Walt Whitman - Summary & Analysis

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      Passage to India is a long poem in nine sections, published in 1868. It is a poem steeped in profound thoughts with the basic theme of spirituality. Its scope is universal, integrating, as it does, the present with the past and the future, and uniting the peoples of the world.

      Summary. Beginning in the present, the poem Passage to India, goes on to deal with journeys through space, the exploration of the physical environment by explorers, navigators and adventurers (Sections 1 to 3). In Sections 4 to 6, the poem presents a journey through time. The growth of man’s culture and civilization is explored; the past, the present and the future are fused. Sections 7 and 8 elaborate the theme and explore the divine and the mystic merger of the human soul and the over-soul which can happen only after death. In Section 9, the poet makes a fervent appeal to his soul to go out and achieve the spiritual union for which the circumnavigation of the world has been a preparation. The message of the poem is “passage to more than India” - a passage to the divine self.

1. The past-the infinite greatness of the past:
For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?

      These lines suggest the quality of time. There is no beginning nor middle, nor end to Time. It is boundless. The past, present and future are interconnected, forming an endless chain. Whitman while stressing the scientific advancement in the poem Passage to India emphasizes the validity and importance of the past of any country. A sound past can help the present to have firm foundation over which a better future could be built. The scientific progress the poet feels is not a sudden discovery, but it is a result of deep thorough study and findings from the past. If a modern man may he be a scientist, a scholar, or an engineer-gains and motivates his country towards some progress it would be mainly due to the rich heritage of the greatness of the past. Hence the present is a picture which is a result of the past glory or “a growth out of the past”.

2. Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,
The road between Europe and Asia

      These lines gives evidence of the Pacific railroad laid. While traversing it, the poet finds it bridged the four thousand miles of land travel ‘tying the Eastern to the Western sea’. In doing it, he crosses the Rivers, the plains of Laramie, the deserts, the Monument mountain, the Eagle’s Nest, the Humbold range, the Tahoe lake etc. He enjoys all the scenes, which life presents the railroad had brought the East and the West nearer. Similarly, Europe and Asia are brought nearer. He is happy that people and their respective cultures are brought nearer. There could be an intellectual cultural exchange, between people of different nations and different countries. Technology made these pathways easier says Whitman in his Passage to India. The purpose of man was thus achieved.

3. Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad Progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations

      The title Passage to India is significant. It is a tribute to the land of the Vedas. The poet feels and asserts that the field of science definitely gives material comforts to man. But it can never give solace to the mind of man. That spiritual happiness is got in opening a passage to India. India epitomizes the rich culture, tradition, and all philosophic studies. It shows the pathway to reach the ultimate i.e. God. These lines also harp the same idea that the progeny of Adam and Eve first descended from Asia and enveloped the entire Earth. This progeny of Adam and Eve were filled with questions, seeking what life is. What is the purpose of life? They are forever seeking curiously the wonders in the world and its whereabouts. They are desirous of learning something new. Scientific inventions clarify many of their questions. But it is self-realization, a knowledge of the soul and the belief in God which would contribute to their happiness completely.

4. Doubts to be solved, the map incognita, blanks to be fill'd,
The poet of man unstay’d the hands never at rest.
Thyself O soul that will not brook a challenge.

      Whitman had a blind lover’s liking for India. He never visited India. Yet he gives a brief survey of the past glory of India. He mentions of Brahma, Buddha, the many invasions on India, the visits of traders, explorers, the Arabs, Portuguese inspite of reading history, and many pieces of research conducted but there were still many doubts to be solved, maps to be scanned and blanks to be filled, Man is busy still unearthing the pages of history. But it is not the same case with the soul. The soul is above all challenges. The soul itself is a challenge to man, who has to strive hard in understanding it. It is complete in itself. One has to have self-realization in understanding the soul. Hence a touch of comparison is here showing the soul is unchanged, but the activities of man always have a challenge. Though the challenge is solved, it always has a halo of doubt around it but it is not the same with the soul.

5. O soul, repressless, I with thee and Thou with me,
Thy circumnavigation of the world begin,
Of man, the voyage of his mind’s return.

      The poet invokes the soul, and says in an unrestrained manner, he the soul would circumnavigate the world. He wants to wander with the soul to know the ultimate reality of this life. The poet in Passage to India after mentioning the advancement in Science leading to material comforts, emphasizes the importance of self-realization. After self-realization, the poet wants the soul to circumnavigate the world and move beyond it. By transcending the limits of the mortal world, the soul would merge with the Divine Soul. Man would get happiness only after this realization of the self and soul.

6. O soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Ah more than any priest O soul we too believe in God,
But with the mystery of God we dare not dally.

      The above lines show the belief of the poet in soul and the acceptance of the existence of God. In Passage to India, after showing the exploration of mankind, the scientific achievements, the poet gives a spiritual parallel showing the circumnavigation of the soul. It is the journey of the soul in search of a pathway to reach the ultimate reality-God. After one gets the self-realization, the poet says one gets peace and happiness in making one’s soul search for the supreme Entity-God. Here, he is happy with the soul. The soul is equally exhilarant with the poet. They form a harmonious couple. They need no priest to advise them of God. They are conscious of God’s supremacy. They do not like to dally about the mystery of the Universal Being-God. They accept the ways of God. They do not question nor cross-examine the mystery of God. That would lead only to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Ecstasy lies in accepting the Being of God and his ways, and take pleasure in living in harmony in his creation.

7. As fill’d with friendship, love complete, the Brother found
The younger melts in fondness in his arms.

      These lines epitomize the gist of the poem Passage to India. The poem describes the material comforts given by science to man. Man is not happy only with this to attain peace of mind and spiritual happiness; he looks towards India - the land of Rishis, Vedas, and Scriptures. India becomes an elder brother in giving companionship and love to those who come to it.

      The poem elucidates profound thoughts about self, soul and God. The poet says the soul like a younger brother seeks solace in the arms of the elder brother-God. The poet shows the journey of the soul transcending Time, Space and Death, seeking God. It is a moment of bliss, when the soul has a spiritual union in God. Thus these lines delineate the spiritual union in a superb manner.

8. Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the slip overselves and all.

      The soul, the poet says, is reckless, boundless, and immortal. He wants it to go on an unheeded manner, bold and dauntless in search of God. He says, he and the soul would search out in the waters of the seas, where no mariner had set sail. He is talking of the spiritual voyage of the soul to sail towards God in Passage to India. He wants the soul to explore the path to reach the supreme Being. Man with his brains and efforts could find a passage to reach other countries and learn many things. But it is the soul only which is able to go on a spiritual journey to locate God. The soul is beyond all pain, trouble, time, space and death. It is immortal. Only it can perceive and mingle with God. The happiness of mankind also lies in the fact of accepting the Being of God and his supremacy.


      Inspiration behind the poem. What inspired Whitman to write this poem was, firstly, the completion of a railroad from East to West across North America; secondly, the laying of the transatlantic cable; and, thirdly, the opening of the Suez Canal. These scientific and technological achievements brought areas of the world closer and made it more compact. These achievements of materialistic science are seen not in the materialistic light alone; they are seen first as a means of reaching the past (specifically Asiatic), secondly, as a means of bringing lands and people together in the present and, finally, as vehicles of establishing a new spiritual bond between the immortal soul of man and the otherwise alien universe in the future.

      Theme of Spiritual Fusion. Whitman calls for an achievement of the soul to match the marvelous achievement of the land. The poet’s vision encompasses the spatial (climaxing in the “tableaus twain” of Section 3), the temporal, or a view of time, as it has been embodied sequentially in myth and as it has been set forth in history. In Section 7, the poet’s desire approaches that of the mystic to transcend time and space to merge with the transcendent. The mystical merging that can be sensed in life is but a foretaste of Union attained in death. Material achievements bring bodily comfort but it is the belief in the soul, the knowledge of self, the trust in the over-soul which brings inner peace and happiness. Scientists cannot help one to overcome the ultimate death; only the poet can explore the soul, or life beyond death.

      Significance of The Title: Passage on Many Levels. On California’s shores man looked not to new lands, but back to the cradle of civilization, the land of “budding bibles”, to man’s physical and spiritual origins all symbolized by India. India stands for cultural heritage and spiritualism. It is the land of a spiritual richness which has survived through the ages, whose scriptural glory has outlived the assaults of war and trade. The passage, of course, is not merely on the physical plane; it is a spiritual journey signifying the search of the soul for the Divine - the basic theme of the Bhagavad Gita. The term “passage” refers firstly to the links between nations, secondly, in time, and then from life to death. From the intellectual level, the poem passes on to the philosophical. In the end the passage is to more than India to a world of spirituality in which space-time limitations do not exist. Thus the title expresses the theme of the poem which is that knowledge leads inevitably to faith. The passage moves from the physical to the intellectual to the religious and finally to another “actual” one-from life to death.

      Threefold Meaning. Prof. Stovall in “American Literature” Volume VI has aptly commented in this connection: “Passage to India has a three fold meaning, physical, spiritual and intellectual. In the first place, it celebrates the physical union of the nations of the Earth. Life began, the poet presumes, somewhere in Asia, possibly in India itself. Thence man spread eastward and westward until the two movements came together in America and so completed the circle, of the Earth. The American nation, therefore, may expect to become the greatest in the world, beginning in the culmination of a long process of political and economic evolution.” From the physical vision of East and West there should follow eventually an intellectual union. Indeed, such a union is essential to the fulfillment of the vast purposes he assigns to America:

For what is the present after all but a growth out of past

      But even more than for the body and the mind, India has food for the soul of men. Man’s long search for a passage to India is made to typify the soul’s long and baffled search for truth and for God; the discoverer is the type of poet who plumbs the depths of the spiritual universe. For the soul then, this voyage is passage to more than India. As the body and mind return for completion to the place of their origin, to India and the east, so the soul must return for completion to the place of its origin, in God. The awareness of self, the realization of the soul, the acceptance of a Divine Being who masterminds the entire universe, are the themes which get an authentic and fine treatment by Whitman in his Passage to India.

      Importance of the Poet. Whitman said: “The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet.” It is the job of the poet to find a passage of happiness for mankind. Whitman defines the profession of a poet, when he says: “The greatest poet does not moralize or make applications of morals. He knows the soul. The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own.... The poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future.... They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul”.

      In the spiritual quest running parallel to the physical journeys, the poet helps. It is the poet who makes others understand the soul, self and God. The progeny of Adam and Eve - the entire mankind are busy in a mechanical way of life and are unable to answer questions such as:

Wherefore unsatisfied soul?
And whither O mocking life?

      It is the poet who supplies answers to these questions, showing the philosophy of life to the people. The poet helps man to realize the self, soul and God, and bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual planes. He shows mankind that the soul is immortal and that in death the soul mingles with the divine.

Bathe me O God in Thee, Mounting to Thee
I and my soul to range in range of thee,
O thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath Light of the light....

      The soul transcends time, space and death. India being a ‘moral, spiritual fountain-affection’s source-thou reservoir’, emanates the philosophy of life.

      Voyage of the Soul. The journey of the soul is beyond the reaches of mankind:

Passage to more than India O brave soul
O farther farther sail

      The understanding of the significance of such a “passage” can result from the knowledge of death.

      Mystical Significance of the Poem. Whitman certainly had an element of mysticism which makes itself felt in his poetry. Jamas Miller stresses the strain of mysticism in Passage to India and says quality of all mysticism, whether Christian, secular or oriental, is its apprehension of unity pervading all the universe. Mystics frequently attempt to explain their experience as some kind of merger or union with one other which is All. Whitman’s poetry tends constantly in this direction, proceeding from diversity to unity. His endless catalogs which sometimes seem indiscriminate inventories of the things in the world, always move towards some kind of unity, either in the poet’s imagination or in the spiritual world it constructs... But it is in Passage to India that Whitman’s mysticism most clearly stresses Union. From the physical or material union of the world achieved by the engineers, the poem moves swiftly and surely to the spiritual union that is the province of mysticism. The poet calls to his soul to venture further and further, to transcend the barriers of time and space”.... There is a mystic merger between God, the soul, ‘nameless’ ‘transcendent’, the ‘fibre and the breath’. Miller further says; “By its endless extension into eternity and by its unlimited expansion into infinity, the poet’s soul apprehends directly the union sought by all the mystics throughout all lands and ages. The poem hence is a ‘passage to more than India’. It unravels the supremacy of the Divine over mankind. The poem is a passage of the soul towards the Divine Being.

      Complexity and Richness in the Poem. Passage to India is a rich and complex poem mainly because of the use of a number of
complex, evolving symbols. The figure of Columbus emerges as a compelling one; firstly, he is the Genoese who dreams of India, then becomes the failure who achieves ultimate justification long after death, and provides a permanent model for the poet for sailing the eternal waters of time, space and death.

      India assumes rich symbolic overtones. First, it is simply the geographical East, east of the Suez and beyond the ‘mighty railroad’. It becomes the past of religions, bibles, legends, and fables, all symbolizing spirituality or rather the spiritual quest of the soul. Thus it symbolizes the ‘garden’ from which the quest began. The associations with the Garden of Eden are unmistakable. It is finally a rich land that will be man’s resting place, an area of “primal thought” in which man can recover original innocence and be in harmony with nature.

      “Passage” too acquires rich complexity of meaning. It is firstly the “procession of steamships” on the physical level - the actual exploration by sailors and adventurers by steamships and railroads. Secondly, it is a symbol fusing the past, present and future-standing for man’s expeditions all through history and his ceaseless exploration to seek God since his departure from the Garden of Eden. Thus it becomes an intellectual exploration and a spiritual quest as well.

       The unity and intensity of the poem is reinforced by the water symbols and figures-voyages, “swimming in the space” “flowing literature” the poet “sailing” upon uncharted seas, and then the all-absorbing ocean of God, “spiritual fountain-affection’s source-thou reservoir”. The very structure of the poem is a dramatization of a voyage-through Space (Sec. 1-3), Time (Sections 4-6), Death or the Soul’s Circumnavigation in Sections 7 to 9.

      Conclusion. Passage to India is the poet’s dramatization of his voyages through space and time to reach a destination outside both. The voyages (or meditations on time and space) lead to a mystical insight into death and an affirmation similar to that arrived at in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom‘d.

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