The Age of Walt Whitman and it's Influence on Him

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      Introduction to the Ages of the American Nation during the sojourn of Whitman will be necessary to get an insight into the Man and the Poet Whitman. It becomes essential to make a study of the times which provoked Whitman to be what he emerged as the poet of Mankind.

      Scientific Advancement. There was a rapid expansion of the Nation with new States and territories. The idea which was predominant in the air was to achieve material prosperity. It was a period of unrest, struggle and compromise. The underlying current was the slave problem. Some of the elite of the society felt slavery an absolute necessity. Many were against slavery. They regarded slavery as a moral evil. This became a bone of contention between the South and the North. The entire nation was in turmoil. Its unity was shaken. The ship of State needed a strong person at the helm and there emerged Whitman’s ‘Captain’ Abraham Lincoln.

      Naturally, the literature of the period reflects the pulse of the times. It mirrors the recovery, and the reconstruction of the Nation, and the progress of the Union and democracy. The turmoil of reconstruction is reflected in the prose and poetry. Yet, the great writers traced their ancestry to the founders of the State. It reflected the ideals which the Nation followed from the beginning.

      ‘Passage to India’ proves the advancement in scientific progress, which would automatically lead to material prosperity. The poem was occasioned by three events of the greatest international importance: the completion of the Suez Canal, connecting Europe and Asia by water; the finishing of the Northern Pacific Railroad, spanning the North American continent; and the laying of the cable across the Pacific Ocean, thus joining by canal, rail and cable Europe, North America and Asia. In celebrating these achievements, he mirrored the times he lived in. As Egbert. S. Oliver stated, “Whitman saw the present world as but a growth out of the past... Like the saint and the religious prophet he saw the United States on the highroad of the world furnishing the free individual”,...

      Whitman being an optimist tried his best to free America from melancholy. He wanted the Nation to become conscious of its position in the world. As John Lovell said, Whitman was determined to continue to beat against the door of the heart of mankind, demanding entrance for the faith that would glorify man if man would open his heart.

      American Transcendentalism. William J. Long aptly picturizes the fervent mood of the age: “The unrest of the age, its passion for reform, its determination to win complete spiritual freedom, are all epitomized in the philosophic movement known as transcendentalism.... The movement began at the time when the whole civilized world was shaken by the American and French Revolutions. These two fundamental conceptions - that the individual soul is of supreme importance, and that nature is but the symbol, the garment, the changing expression of one changeless spiritual force-colored with something of the hues of heaven the whole romantic movement in American literature. Transcendentalism came to America by various channels - by the works of Coleridge and Carlyle, and by numerous translations of European and especially of oriental literature. The last named emphasized an ideal view of the world. Their teachings were largely accepted by Emerson and the transcendentalists. Transcendentalism was an earnest reaffirmation of ideal truth. Sublime and authoritative, it valued the individual soul above all institutions, it sought in nature a divine presence, and in religion a divine companionship, it insisted on culture, reverence, virtue and simplicity. Its influence on all subsequent thought and literature in this country is beyond measure.”

      Whitman’s Entrance on the American Scene. The stage was set. Whitman made his grand entrance on the stage. His poems on Nature for instance show the harmony in Nature. His work also has a halo of mysticism, which is a result of the influence of oriental literature. His poems reflect the Nation in the making. It shows his admiration towards the Leader of the Nation. He speaks of Mankind in general. He glories in the soul and the body. The soul transcends the physical limits. It assumes cosmic dimensions. The poet Whitman becomes a poet of the entire universe when he identifies himself with all animate and inanimate objects in the world. His works expound his acceptance of the supremacy of the Divine Force - the Creator. He neither cross-examines nor questions about God. He accepts God as the Supreme Power the excellent Mechanic and Maintainer of the whole universe.

      The National spirit is also mirrored in his poems. The works of Whitman, especially Leaves of Grass, do stand the test of time. The theme is such that, it will appeal to all peoples of all times of all nations. Thus he may be called an international poet of mankind.

      Faith in Mankind: ‘Passage to India’. John Lovell’s assessment of Passage to India justifies the statement of Whitman’s faith in mankind, the advancement of science and technology; the circumnavigation of the soul and the belief that God is Supreme. Passage to India is an excellent poem. It is a fine introduction to Whitman as the promoter of hard work by skilled hands without which the divine dreams, which are the first stage in every man’s transformation, remain unfulfilled. It is a chart of man’s evolutionary growth over several periods. More than a chart of progressive civilization it indicates
the motive power of progress, man’s insatiable passion for the next higher stage, and the reasons for the illimitability of that power, the constant urging from God. The poem also demonstrates that man and soul can idealistically and realistically rise above all problems of the world.

      Awareness of Modern Times. Whitman was wide awake to his times, and aware of “the rhythms of modem life”. His poems which picture that life appeal to everyone. His poems also exhibit, as John Burroughs said, “a series of sorties into the world of materials, the American world, piercing through the ostensible show of things to the interior meanings, and illustrating in a free and large way the genesis and growth of a man, his free use of the world about him, appropriating it to himself, seeking his spiritual identity through its various objects and experiences, and giving in many direct and indirect ways the meaning and satisfaction of life”.

      Relationship between Self and ‘Selves’: “Song of Myself”. The poet authentically states in the opening inscription, ‘One’s self I sing’ his concern of building up relationship of self, to other selves; to the outside world of nature; and to the periods in time. David Daiches talking of Whitman’s innovations emphatically said: “Song of Myself is like so many of Whitman’s poems full of these enormous catalogs of Americana, sweeping over the country describing its cities, sounds, scenes, in various geographical regions and professions and walks of life. These catalogs have a purpose. They are not simply there in order to build up a picture of the size or complexity or diversity of the country. It is an endeavor to cultivate a kind of awareness of other people so complexly developed that your own stream of consciousness while you are in the act of contemplation takes you outside of yourself and achieves a new kind of relationship between your ineradicable self (which remains the core and center of all Whitman’s poems) and the external world ...”

      Stream of Consciousness. It might almost be said that Whitman is the father of that stream of consciousness technique which has been so popular in twentieth-century fiction. His aim was to make his consciousness into that sort of servant by posing it in a certain way as one poses a camera at a certain angle. Whitman himself said in his Prefaces that an individual confronts the time. After he trains his sensibility, with awareness of self, it would be possible for him “to achieve a cosmic vision which relates all time and all space to the individuals”.

      Whitman pictured his times in the poems in an optimistic manner. He saw a bright future for his country. He had many admirers. He not only shaped his country through his work but unconsciously he had started a new trend in the field of literature also. The words of David Daiches justifies this: “I myself believe that the mosaic of ideas in Eliot, the stream of consciousness in the modern novel, and all those extraordinarily subtle devices through which the modern novelists and poets have tried to explore ways in which an individual sensibility can be modulated into an inclusive consciousness, are in the tradition of Whitman. How to escape the prison of the self and cultivate simultaneously self-consciousness and sympathy, using a sense of self-identity as a means of projecting oneself into the identity of others - that I think is Whitman’s most valuable legacy to modern literature”.

      Whitman regarded himself, his country, and his age, as the most perfect as he always believed that all creation is constantly advancing and progressing.

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