Structure of Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Also Read

      Introduction. Critics and commentators have often pointed out that Whitman’s poems lack form and Structure. Indeed, one commentator has gone to the extent of considering the looseness of form in Whitman’s poems as the expression of “an intellectual anarchism which overthrows all rational order”. Indeed, it is undeniable that Whitman carried the concept of freedom from tradition to the organization of his poems also, besides versification and diction. However, we cannot say that rational order is overthrown either on the intellectual level or on the structural. True, Whitman was a rebel in both subject and style; he spoke for self-reliance and freedom. But his work cannot be called disorderly or wholly “lawless”. His convictions are clear, and he offers a set of new values to suit the New World. On reading Leaves of Grass closely one finds that there is logical organization hidden behind the apparent lack of structure.

      Spears of Summer Grass. It has been pointed out by James Miller that the title of the book suggests that the relationship between the poems are comparable to those that exist among spears and clusters and varieties of grass. These relationships are many: the poems, like grass, have ‘grown’ organically; like grass, they exclude none, accept all; like grass, these poems simultaneously celebrate individuality and ‘en-masse’; like grass, the poems are themselves evidence of an ever-recurring life and immortality; and as some varieties of grass like calamus have special and subtly distinct characteristics, so do some elements of Whitman’s vision .... Whitman’s dominant metaphor presents a case, if not for structure, at least for unity and harmony, a basic component of structure.

      Structure of a Musical Composition. Whitman himself said that his poems “when complete should be a unity, in the same sense.... that a perfect musical composition is”. It has been suggested that the whole book is held together very much as is a symphony by the introduction of and subsequent return to and variations on a number of specific well-defined and recognizable themes. Thus the major parts of Leaves of Grass revolve round the themes of Love, Democracy and Religion.

      One may consider Leaves of Grass as containing the introduction and four important sections contributing to an effect of unity and wholeness. Its beginning has epic overtones with the themes being stated in the Paumanok section the poet summarises the themes as “the greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion”. The first part - the longest of all is comprised of Song of Myself Children of Adam, Calamus, Sea-Drift and By the Roadside. These poems take their unity from their overall dedication to the sketching of the New World Personality, a new conscious selfhood that provides a model for America and for modern man. Song of My self is concerned with the celebration of the individual, an original Personality. Children of Adam presents a fresh relationship between men and women. Calamus calls for a radically new relationship with men. Sea Drift returns to the individual who has understood the real nature of death through sorrow and suffering. In the second part consisting of Drum-Taps, Memories of President Lincoln, and Autumn Rivulets, the New World Personality, the hero of the epic of democracy is related to the particular historical moment - the crisis of Civil War to undergo a test. If individuality and mass were emphasized throughout the earlier poems of Leaves of Grass, in the poems beginning with Drum-Taps there is a concrete realization of this ideal, the “mass” provided by the great army that arose to protect the Union, and the “simple separate person” embodied idealistically in Abraham Lincoln. The third part begins with Proud Music of the Storm and ends with Whispers of Heavenly Death. These poems bridge the way from Life to Death. In the fourth part - From Noon to Starry Night and Songs of Parting - the poet bids farewell to the reader. The additions of Lands at Seventy and Goodbye My Fancy are really miscellanies left over after the main business-building of the Leaves was concluded.

      As one can easily notice, Leaves of Grass does not conform to any particular principle of organization or traditional sense of unity. His technique of writing lines of varying lengths having a cluster of images renders the endless continuity which is at the base of Whitman’s thought.

      Structural Organisation in Individual Poems. Having considered the overall unity of Leaves of Grass, it is also necessary to consider individual poems for their structural pattern in order to refute the charge of ‘anarchy’ against Whitman.

      Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking is a good illustration of the close knit structure Whitman was capable of employing. The prologue states the theme. Then follows the drama of the mocking birds singing happily, and the he-bird’s lament for his lost mate. The main tension of the poem is created by the boy’s intense desire to understand the meaning of the tragedy and death. It is the sea, seeming to whisper the delicious word “death” which provides the answer to the boy’s questioning. With the message from the sea comes the illumination required to make a man and poet of the boy.

      When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is skilfully constructed. Beginning with the lilac, the star and the memory of Lincoln’s death brought by ever-returning Spring, the poem continues with the symbols to create a pattern of birth, death and immortality. From the particular mortality Whitman progresses to the universal immortality by using the evolving symbols of lilac, star and hermit-thrush Spring, the season which brings to mind the memory of Lincoln’s death, is, after all, a symbol of regeneration. By the end of the poem, in which there is nothing irrelevant or illogical, there is perfect reconciliation with the loss which had burdened the poet.

       Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is another poem showing structural wholeness. The Sleepers and Passage to India are two other examples of well-built wholes employing symbols to create architectural symmetry. There are several shorter pieces-Prayer of Columbus, The Wound-Dresser, Come From the Fields Father to name some-which show a good sense of construction. There is unity of thought and singleness of impression and freedom from digression in these poems.

      Song of Myself is perhaps the one major poem which has confused critics and commentators. While most feel that there is no structure in this long poem of fifty-two sections, some critics have endeavored to find a pattern in it. But critics are divided on the thematic parts involving concepts of the Superman and the Self in its relationship with man, God, life and death. Generally, Song of Myself is seen to be divided into five large divisions:

I. Sections 1-18 Introduction of the theme of Self, identification of the self with others; the poet, satisfies, dances, laughs, sings and describes himself.

II. Sections 19-25 The poet calls himself “a Kosmos”, accepts reality, materialism and science. Self is identified, with all including the degraded.

III. Sections 26-38 Self is passive, bathing in a flood of impressions; there is an evolutionary interpretation of life.

IV. Sections 39-41 The superman flows through life, brushing aside the old gods, for god is the “all”.

V. Sections 42-52 There is a flight upward into the unknown. Life promulgates life and all creation ends in God. Thus larger questions of life, religion, faith, God, and death are considered and immortality and happiness are mystically affirmed.

      Another critic suggests that Song of Myself resolves itself into three main units:

      Sections 1-5 form a prologue announcing the themes. Part I (6- 32) is a search for certitude and identity, with the main emphasis on the central symbol of grass. Part II (33-38) is a visionary journey of the self to encompass all time and all life. The movement is linear, straight through countless images, scenes and experiences. Part III (39-50) is the true vision-the ministry of the Poet-Saviour. The poet-narrator is cast in the new role of teacher. He can probe deeply and guess the nature of death. Sections 51-52 form the epilogue with the poet’s departure and bequest.

      James Miller divides Song of Myself in terms of phases of a mystical experience. Calling the poem “the dramatic representation of inverted mystical experience,” the critic interprets the structure of the poems to consist of seven stages: entry into the mystical state (Sections 1-5); awakening of self (Sections 6-16) purification of self (Section 17-32) illumination of the dark night of the soul (Sections 33-37); union with emphasis on faith and love (Sections 38-43); union with emphasis on perception (Sections 44-49); and emergence from mystical state (Sections 50-52).

      Isaac Sequeira interprets the structure of Song of Myself in terms of music; he divides the poem into four movements called the symphony of Self. The first movement (1-5) forms an introduction to and an awakening of self. The second movement (6-16) is an attempt to establish a relationship between the self and the rest of the world. It records the growth and development of the self. The third movement (17-25) recapitulates the matter of Sections 1-5 with the difference that the relationship between the various roles of the Self and the world has been established. The last movement (26-52) forms a second development and coda. The poet has adjusted himself perfectly with his world and now ends on an ecstatic note:

I am an accrue of things accomplished and I am encloser of thing; to be.

      On the whole, we note that Song of Myself owes any sense of unity it has, not so much to a logical development of ideas, but to the personality of the poet. As John Burroughs has pointed out, the presence of the poet’s personality dominates the page. “Without this vivid and intimate sense of the man, or a sane and powerful spirit sustaining ours, the piece would be wild and inchoate”. Leslie A. Fielder feels that Whitman’s mode in Song of Myself is reverie. “What binds Whitman’s poems together is not the logic, of persuasion or pictorial form but what we have come to label a little misleadingly, stream of consciousness; the secret order of repressed wishes and fears that links impression to impression when the conscious mind abdicates or relaxes its control .... (the) alternation of joy and anxiety sets up poles around which his (poet’s) inner flux of ideas and associations take on objective forms.”

      Walt Whitman is capable of writing close knit poems. But we are not to expect the traditional kind of “structure” in his poetry. Leaves of Grass shows a structure of growth. It would be apt to quote Irving C. Story in this connection that the arrangement of the poem roughly outlines “the story of the starting out from Paumanok of Walt Whitman, American, to discover the importance of his own individuality, to experience sex and comradeship, to identify himself with democratic America in its life on the ‘Open Road,’ to become a ‘Pioneer ‘in the Westward Movement of the human race, and to listen to the whisperings of the sea concerning the mystery of death and the oneness of all life. Then to enter into the political world with its corruption, to know war and its suffering and comradeship, to discover the greatest American, Lincoln, and to come through the war with renewed acceptance of death and an intensified belief in America. Then to go on still further into the spiritual world, to understand death as a part of the complete life and as a synonym for immortality.”

University Questions

Is it correct to term Whitman’s poetry as absolutely formless? Justify or refute with reference to some of his poems.
Write a note on the structure in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Comment on the form of Song of Myself.
Analyze the structure of Song of Myself.
Do you agree with the view that Song of Myself has a structure and Whitman is in command of his material?

Previous Post Next Post