Walt Whitman as a Poet of Science

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      Introduction. Walt Whitman was a modern poet who broke away from existing literary conventions to create a new poetry
to suit the New World. He chose to sing about the “present” and that period’s most valuable contributions to the world-democracy and scientific progress. Whitman did not feel shy to adopt fresh knowledge brought by scientific research. Unlike Tennyson who had been deeply upset by certain advances in science (such as the theory of evolution) Whitman welcomed science, enjoyed the sense of living in the midst of “vital laws”, the greatest of which according to him was the Law of Evolution. Evolution for Whitman meant progress and it represented for him the slow unfolding of cosmic purposes. Whitman’s opinions on the relationship of science and poetry are scattered all over his prose pieces, but these opinions are exemplified and put into practice in his poetry.

      Science and Democracy: Poetry’s New Myths. In rebelling against the feudal and aristocratic past of poetry, Whitman was prompted by the feeling that such poetry was out of date. The modern poet must be a poet of science and democracy. Science, to some extent, had encouraged democracy, brought several peoples closer and brought material progress to a larger section of humanity. Thus it promoted a sense of equality. The modern poet must ‘furnish the pervading atmosphere’ in his poems. Science must color his outlook on life, his temperament and attitude. Science must take the position occupied by myth and fable in the poetry of the past. Science must form the frame of reference for the modern poet. Whitman pointed out: “Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support...the atomist, chemist, astronomer, geologist, the mathematician ...are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets, and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem. In the beauty of poems are the tufts and final applause of science”.

      Whitman’s Poetry: The Imaginative Vivification of Scientific Fact. In Whitman’s poems, we find his theory exemplified. His poems are often the “tufts and final applause of science” exemplifying a vivification of fact through the imaginative faculty. Passage to India is a major poem triggered off by the fact of scientific advancement which also resulted in the “democratic” events - the uniting of the old world of Europe with the East by the opening of the Suez Canal; the spanning of the new and vast American continent by rail, and the laying of the Atlantic cable. The work of scientists had brought the peoples of the world closer at least on the level of physical communication. But the material advancement provides just a starting point for Whitman the poet. From this point, the poet takes an imaginative leap to explore the possibility of further “passages”, on the spiritual level, for the soul to mingle with the Divine. Thus he speaks of the poet who can humanize the discoveries of science and technology. Nature and man shall be disjoined and diffused no more, for the poet, “the true son of God, shall absolutely fuse them”. Only such fusion can save humanity.

      Scientific discoveries and inventions often find a place in Wfiitman’s poetry.

We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them....

      Says Whitman in Song of Myself, expressing an awareness of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the solar system and its lasting for years to come. The law of gravitation is fused with his own longing for companionship in the lines:

I am he that aches with amorous love.
Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching, attract all matter?
So the body of me to all I meet or know...

      Meteorology is a source of many of his similies and metaphors, such as in Salut on Monde and The Voice of the Rain. The scientific theory that matter is indestructible is explained thus in Song of Myself:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it.
And ceas'd the moment life appear’d.

      The theory of conservation of matter and energy is translated into imaginative terms - the soul is indestructible, hence there is no need to fear death:

Nothing is realty lost, or can be lost.

      Thus everything - the very smallest thing is of importance. Nature takes care in producing the smallest or the greatest things. Says Whitman:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars...

      Giving poetic expression to the scientific doctrine that nothing is insignificant in nature, that each object in Nature has its specific form and function. In this context the title of his work, Leaves of Grass, takes great significance. The overall nature’s creative process is involved equally creating a single blade of grass and a galaxy.

      Theory of Evolution and Whitman. Whitman welcomed all scientific discoveries with an open mind. Though Darwin’s revolutionary Origin of the Species was published only after Leaves of Grass, there was a vague idea of the theory of evolution in the air. Whitman gave an imaginative interpretation to the theory in Song of Myself declaring Man to be the highest of the created things in the evolutionary process:

I am the acrue of things accomplished and I am encloser of things to be
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs

      That the process of evolution still continues is expressed in the line:

....and still I mount and mount.

      The continuous struggle for existence - Darwin’s theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ is given poetic expression in Song of the Open Road.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? Yourself? Your action? Nature?
Now understand me well-it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

      The struggle, of course, involves much more than existence on the physical level; it involves a struggle towards spiritual goals. As Whitman often said, he, as a poet, is not to stay satisfied with material achievements.

      Scientific Determinism. Scientific determinism or the theory that laws of Nature cannot be evaded, and that there is a plan in which everything has its place, finds expression in Whitman’s poetry. Thus good and evil both have place in his concept of the universe. He sings of both the body and the soul. He says:

.... there is in fact no evil,
(Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the land, or to me, as anything else)

      Furthermore, man cannot evade natural law, and must bear with the results of his action (or inaction).

      Poet’s Role: Beyond Materialistic Science. With all his enthusiastic response to scientific developments, however, Whitman did not feel that those were the sum-total of life. He did not believe that nature is a mechanical process with no intelligence guiding it. He greeted the Scientific discoveries -

Hurrah for positive science. Long live exact demonstration!

      He honors first the gentlemen of science - the lexicographer, the chemist, the mariners, the geologist, the mathematician (Song of Myself, Section 23). But he goes on to say:

Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling
I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling....

      The scientists supplied information; it was the poet who made the knowledge ‘live’ for the people. The poet is a ‘seer’ who sees below the hard crust of fact to the core of reality. The function of the poet is higher than that of the scientist. As has been mentioned earlier, regarding Passage to India, facts are the take-off point for the poet in his quest for spiritual reality. Anne Gilchrist rightly points out: “The man of science finds letters and joins them into words. But the poet alone can make complete sentences. The man of science furnishes the premises; but it is the poet who draws the final conclusions”.

      Conclusion. Whitman had the scientist’s open minds about life and the universe. He looked at everything with a sense of wonder, assured that it all accorded with some great plan. Leaves of Grass has a truth which can only be called scientific in spirit - there are no inhibitions or false shame in the poet. He can sing of the body and the soul boldly, because he sees reality in them both. He celebrated a blade of grass or a galaxy with the same enthusiasm because both were part of reality. He incorporated scientific discoveries in his poems, and applied them to his process of thinking about various issues—in this he was truly a poet of science.

University Questions

Write a note on Whitman as a poet of science.
Science and democracy assume the role of myths in Leaves of Grass, Examine and illustrate.
“Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support.” How far is this to be seen in Whitman’s poetry?
“In the beauty of poems are the tufts and final applause of science”. Discuss Leaves of Grass in the light of this statement.
“The true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science and to common lives”, said Whitman. How far has he succeeded in doing so in the Leaves of Grass?

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