Symbolism Used in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      What is Symbolism. Symbolism is an indirect means of communication through which words assume, besides their connotative quality, evocative and emotive aspects as well. Thus the words used by a poet acquire a deeper meaning than what they convey on the surface. A word can be made to call up several associated ideas and images, and evoke certain emotional responses. The use of symbols enriches the texture of a poem and enables the poet to express what may otherwise be inexpressible. Symbolism is part of every great poet’s repertoire to a lesser or greater extent, for the most effective poet is one who suggests the most, who leaves the reader plenty to understand on his own:

      Symbolism is an oblique or indirect method of expression which suggests rather than asserts or, directly describes.

      Whitman’s Recourse to Symbolism. Whitman’s concept of poetry itself enjoined the reader’s participation in understanding it. The poet was not to spell out everything; the reader was required to put in some effort to get at the poem’s meaning in such a way was enjoyment from poetry to be derived. Thus Whitman made use of symbols partly to fulfill his principle that poetry is to be suggestive. Furthermore, he found the use of symbols imperative in communicating what he wanted to convey - (i) his conviction of the “oneness” of all, (ii) his perception of the spiritual reality behind 'the sensuous and the phenomenal, (iii) the feeling of “fluidity”, “liquidity” or “shimmeriness” (in D.H. Lawrence’s words) of solid facts. To communicate all this he had to employ the “seen” objects in such a way that they suggested the “unseen”.

      Images become Symbols which Fluctuate in Meaning. An image is a sensory object in a piece of literary work, i.e. the thing which, involves the sensation of eye, ear, nose, even heat and pressure in some cases. Whitman’s imagery functions on more than one level. In all cases, Whitman uses images to carry the reader from the world of sensory perception to the world of thought in which the former achieves some perspective. From the sensory, he moves to the metaphysical level. The images are, of course, continually becoming symbols whose meanings fluctuate. Thus in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, the mocking-bird is on the obvious level an actual grief-stricken bird; on another level, it symbolizes the actual or imagined experience of the poet himself. What is more, the song of the mocking-bird is the very voice of nature. Whitman sought to apprehend the significance of the universe through the sensations and the intuitions of the poet. He sought to abolish the distinctions between the subjective and the objective. His symbolism can be interpreted in terms of his concept of poetry and vision of life.

      Concept of “I” or “Self”. Perhaps the single most important symbol in Whitman’s poetry is the symbol of “I”. It springs from his perception of “oneness” of all. The other symbols gain their significance from the concept of self or “I”. Sometimes the other symbols seem to be fused in the “I” and then to emanate from it. The “I” of course, stands for the poet himself, the modern American, the modem man, Every man-either by turns or all at once. The “I” is a fusion of several characters - it symbolizes “All”. It may signify
a soldier on the battlefield or even a comet rushing through the heavens. But most of the time the “I” signifies the composite self on its quest of reality. At such moments it symbolizes the traveler exploring the universe, it stands for all humanity undergoing the experience of the universe.

      Symbol of Journey or Voyage: Significance of the Road. The self, in Whitman’s vision of life, is in search of spiritual reality, and union with the oversoul from which every soul originated. Thus the symbol of “quest” or “voyage” is ever present in his poems, many of which present the image of procession. The main symbol of Passage to India is life as a voyage. The voyage is necessary because if we are to find truth we must abandon our concern with superficialities and delve into the uncharted regions of the common psyche; Once the “identification” is achieved, the journey is towards the fusion with the Supreme Being. The physical path thus symbolizes a spiritual path, and the physical voyages are “metaphysical” voyages. The Song of the Open Road exemplifies the spiritual journey. The journey becomes the progressive unity of the voyager and the lands he enters:

To emerge all in the travel they tend to....

      Song of Myself gains depth of meaning only if interpreted as symbolic of the “procreant urge of the world”. There Was a Child Went Forth is a poem which symbolizes the quest and experience of the self as it journeys from innocence to knowledge. The image of journey is vividly caught in the very first lines, and reinforced in the last line - it captures the continuity of the quest or voyage. Thus, as Charles Feidelson observes, “Whitman’s ‘perpetual journey’ is not analogous to a sight-seeing trip, though his catalogs might give that impression: the mind and the material world into which its ventures are not ultimately different in kind. Instead, what seems at first a penetration of nature by the mind is actually a process in which the known world comes into being”.

      The funeral procession of Lincoln in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is more than a long journey through the States of America. It is a journey towards understanding death; thus it begins in gloom and ends in joy and affirmation.

      Symbol of Grass. The reality that the self seeks is sought to be communicated by the poet, through the symbol of “grass”. The very title of his poetical works, Leaves of Grass, assumes symbolic significance. Indeed, the meaning of grass assumes various aspects. The grass grows not only in single blades but also in clusters and clumps - thus it becomes a graphic representation of individuality and kinship with all. It symbolizes the entire creation of God - it is the “handkerchief of the Lord”. In its simplicity, it symbolizes the miracle of the universe - the fact that the mystery of life lies in the familiar and the common, not in the far-off and the marvelous. Thus the grass is a perfect symbol of democracy, which is “individuality in balance with the masses, distinguished singleness in harmony with massive grouping”.

      A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars; it symbolizes all and everything - Man, Nature, the animate and the inanimate. It grows on graves and thus comes to signify the eternal principle, the continuity of life and the truth that death is not an end. It is the “produced babe of the vegetation”. The expression of organic unity was one of Whitman’s major intentions in Leaves of Grass. He wanted to symbolize in his poems the nature of the universe itself and the relation of the “self” to it. The very form of Leaves of Grass acquires significance from the symbol of grass. The relationship among the poems are comparable to those that exist between spears and clusters and varieties of grass. The relationships are many: the poems, like grass, have ‘grown’ organically; like grass they simultaneously celebrate individuality and ‘en-masse’; like grass the poems are evidence of immortality; and as some varieties of grass, like calamus, have special and distinct characteristics, so do some elements of Whitman’s vision. It is necessary here to mention the symbolic significance of the calamus plant. This grass variety grows in “paths untrodden”. It symbolizes rare and uncommon friendship. Furthermore, its long tapering leaves and cylindrical flower are unmistakably meant to evoke phallic connotations. We note that Whitman’s dominant metaphor - that of grass-presents a case for unity and harmony.

      Symbol of Tree. Like the grass, the tree is also associated with the procreative urge. The “rude, unbending, lusty” live-oak in Louisiana has phallic overtones, signifying “manly loves” or the physical symbol of spiritual love.

      Water Symbols. The concept of unity in the universe is further reinforced by the water symbols in Leaves of Grass. The sea-shore, the meeting between the sea and the land (standing for soul and body respectively) symbolizes both the antithesis between soul and body, and the fact that it is only through the body that one can attain to spirituality In Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, the only “drift” cast up by the ocean is the word “death”. But death is also associated with the “old crone rocking the cradle” - a mother figure and hence evocative of birth images. Thus we get Whitman’s concept of the unity in the universe through the close linking of birth and death images. Death is a birth, a rebirth, an entry to the spiritual world. This idea is symbolized, by the sea. The sea also symbolizes a realm of spirituality across which the poet pleads with his soul to venture forth in a voyage

....bound where mariner has not yet dared to go.
(Passage to India)

      The sea becomes the symbol of eternity also to which all rivers and streams (symbolizing a continuous life journey) lead. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry the river becomes a symbol of life as well as time. The water, the current of incoming tide and the time of day (near sunset) have symbolical connotations of life and death. The ocean is spiritual achievement after death, and the rivers and rivulets-bodies of inland waters-represent spiritual achievements in life providing insight into life. The lakes and ponds stand for time arrested or time present (as in Calamus). In Children of Adam, water assumes the symbol of fertility.

      Celestial Bodies: Sun, Moon, Stars and Clouds as Symbols. Whitman includes the heavenly bodies in his poetry as symbols of order and balance amidst chaos. The “self” belongs to the earth, the sky, and everything in the universe. The sexual impulse in man is sublimated through the symbolic union of the earth and sky in Section 24 of Song of Myself.

      The sun figures in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry as a witness to the many generations crossing the Brooklyn. In Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, the sun symbolizes fertility, or the fruitful giver of life. It has the same significance in Drum-Taps.

      As for the moon, it is often associated with death. In Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, the yellow half-moon enlarged and sagging, almost touching the face of the sea, is invested with the sense of tragic loss in death. The mocking-bird invests the sun with feelings of happy life. Thus the common association of day with life and night with death is symbolically conveyed.

      The star is a recurring image in Whitman’s poetry generally symbolizing eternally. In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the “star” appears to have “fallen” but by the end of the poem, the star is seen to be brightly glowing in the western sky - thus signifying the immortality of Lincoln’s memory, and also the eternality of the soul. The clouds, the “black murk”, often hide the stars - thus symbolizing death. But they are temporary. The images of clouds and stars are used by Whitman to explain the mystery of life and death. To quote James Miller, “by their very nature - the star in its fixedness and the cloud in its transience - these heavenly objects symbolize the triumph of the eternal, the illusoriness of death”. The poem On the Beach at Night beautifully presents the poet’s concept of death being a temporary phase ‘through the clouckstar symbols. The fear of death symbolized by the fear of the child for the clouds is shown by the poet (and the father in the poem) to be baseless. Death is not an end, but a deliveress for it cannot touch the immortal soul.

      Symbolic Use of Birds. Whitman frequently used birds as symbols in Leaves of Grass. The most important are the mocking-bird, the hawk and the thrush generally standing for love, democracy and spirituality respectively. In Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, the mocking-bird is associated with love, both fulfilled and lonesome. Its song of loss is the impetus for creative transfiguration within the poet. The hermit-thrush is clearly associated with spirituality, the soul in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The song of the hermit-thrush recalls the poet to the reality of the eternal in the temporal, of the spiritual beyond the material. The hawk in some poems represents the realization of the transcendent fulfillment of primitive nature and uninhibited sexuality. Note the “barbaric yawp” passage towards the end of Song of Myself. The bird symbols are vivid but also complex. But they, like the other images, are generally symbols bridging the gap between transience and eternality, between the seen and the unseen.

      Significance of the City. Whitman was most unlike the English Romantic poets in his fondness for the city with its “populous-pavements” crowds and mobs. The city for Whitman symbolized companionship, and comradeship. It is the breeding ground of the energetic, creative mind. The details of the city most often occurring in his poems are the “walks” and their edges-suggestive of man on the move, traveling the open and endless road.

      Symbols not to be Considered in Isolation. The different symbols used by Whitman, though having sense by themselves, gain significance and contribute more to the meaning of the poem if taken together. Poems such as Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking and When Lilacs Last in the Dooyard Bloom'd, to name just two, can be fully appreciated and understood only if the symbols used in them are seen as parts of a whole. The bird in the former poem only symbolizes the fact of death in the natural order of things. The answer to the meaning of suffering and death has to be sought in the sea which whispers death as well as represents life and birth. In the elegy on Lincoln’s death, several symbols-lilacs, the evening star and the hermit thrush-taken from the natural world in Spring, the time of Lincoln’s death, individually suggest and together reinforce the concepts of rebirth and resurrection and immortality.

      Whitman: Precursor of Modern Symbolism. Whitman has been considered the precursor of the modern symbolist movement. He believed that true art is suggestive, requiring effort from the reader in understanding it. Furthermore, he felt the symbolic mode to be most suitable for communicating his perception of the essential “oneness” of all, the spiritual reality behind the sensuous and the phenomenal and the “fluidity” of the visible and apparently concrete objects. Like the modern Symbolists, Whitman recognized the musical value of poetry. However, he never followed a thoroughly symbolist method in any of his poems. He did not use an object as a mere vehicle for a subjective vision. Objectivity is never completely ignored.

      Key Symbols in Whitman’s Poetry. The main symbols used by Whitman are the stars, the ocean, the birds, grass, the calamus plant, the lilac. In most of his poems, these symbols have an intelligible and universal meaning. (This is a point of difference from the poets of the symbolist movement whose symbols were often subjective to the point of being unintelligible).

      Whitman considered the ideal poet to be “One complete lover”. It is thus easy to see why most of Whitman’s symbols relate to fecundity and growth, birth, death and resurrection.

      More than One Level of Functioning. The symbols and imagery used by Whitman function on more than one level of intensity. The sensory level is composed of the various catalogs of objects. Images are evolved from everyday objects. These images derived from everyday objects are used by Whitman to lead the reader from the world of the senses to the world of thought. Images move from the concrete to the abstract in meaning. Elemental images-sun, sky, birds, flowers, sea and sensuous imagery are used by Whitman to communicate his feelings about the landscape, people, his own body.

      Central Symbol of “I” and “Grass”. Without the “I” Whitman’s poems are almost meaningless. “I” has a symbolic significance and around this “I” are gathered the other symbols, relating to it all the time. Just as “I” symbolizes the individual and the collective self of the universe, “grass” is the universal symbol of the world. Of course, “grass” assumes various meanings within this broad meaning it may be the visible symbol of his self, or his poetic ego, it can stand for God, the Supreme Self; it may stand for man and the hope of the future, equality and comradeship, it can symbolize life as well as death. It is a bridge between the Earth and the heaven, the ordinary and the divine; it is the perfect symbol of democracy in nature, and in its simplicity, symbolizes the miracle of the universe.

      The Sea and the Birds. The sea assumes the ambivalent position of standing for both life and death. Standing for immensity, dynamism and flux, it also symbolizes the unseen, the spiritual, and the universal. The birds which are often mentioned in Whitman’s poems are the hawk (standing for uninhibited sexuality and the realization of the transcendent fulfillment of primitive nature), the mocking-bird (generally standing for creative transfiguration brought about by consuming but unfulfilled love) and the hermit-thrush symbolizing spirituality.

      Importance of the “Voyage” Symbol. Throughout the Leaves of Grass, we notice the image of a procession, a journey, a quest or voyage. The “open road” invites the self towards the goal of uniting with the over-soul or the divine source. The symbol’s importance is clear in Passage to India. Life is seen as a search for reality. The “river” and “stream” symbolize a continuing lifelong journey leading to the “mystic Ocean”

Bathe me o God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee. The “I” or self has to reach the truth that all selves are “One”:

       Conclusion. Whitman’s poetry is replete with symbolism. His images always involve the “unity”. Thus he sang of himself in the early poems as a symbol of universal selfhood, of his nation as an epitome of evolution to date and, in his cosmic poems, of the world as a symbol of a universe in the process of improving, or “realizing”, itself. Whitman’s symbols usually have intelligible, objective and even universal meaning. Most of his symbols are of fecundity and growth or closely akin to birth, death and resurrection, the grass growing out of the rich compost of other lives, the perpetual “journey-work” of stars, the phallic calamus plant and the heart-shaped lilacs, the thrush singing an acceptance of death. The sea splashes him with “amorous wet”, and the sun silently ripens his song.

University Questions

Discuss the symbolism in the poetry of Whitman.
Discuss Whitman’s style with particular reference to his symbols.
Explain some of the major symbols found in the poems of Whitman and show how far they are adequate to the function intended.
Comment on the symbol of sea, bird, and grass in Whitman’s poem.

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