Walt Whitman: Greatness as Universal Lover

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      Introduction. In the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman expounded his concept of the poetics and poetry of the future. The concept is totally in keeping with the democratic impulse in him. He propounded the need of an original poetry, corresponding to the democratic life of America as well as the new scientific outlook. Whitman conceived of the poet as a “complete lover of the universe” who draws his materials directly from nature, and does not discriminate between “low” and “high” in his subject matter.

      “The Greatest Poet Hardly Knows Pettiness or Triviality”, declared Whitman who revolted against what were traditionally “poetic” subjects. He felt the subject need not be “noble” in order to be poetized. He asks the Muse to leave the Trojan fields and the voyages of Aeneas and Odysseus and come to more common grounds, for the poet should be able to breathe nobility into the most trivial of things. Indeed, in Whitman’s democratic vocabulary, there is no place for words such as “trivial” and “petty” which imply that there are objects superior. Equality is his watchword, and the poet looks upon everything as capable of arousing interest. Proclaiming one of the cardinal principles in his poetics, Whitman declares: “The land and sea, the animals, fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the forests, mountains and rivers are not small themes but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects ...they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls”. Thus Whitman affirms the necessity of the poet to go beyond objects and to perceive relationships and probe associations, to discover and convey the spiritual significance of the physical fact. In poems such as I Hear America Singing, I Sit and Look Out or The World Below the Brine, we see evidence of this free play of mind over a multitude of “physical facts” to bring out hidden significances and submerged shades of reality.

      Commonness would be the Poetic Theme in the new poetry, said Whitman. No class of person, nor one or two out of the strata of interests, neither love most of truth nor of the body shall characterize the new poetry. No legend, or myth or euphuism accordingly finds place in Leaves of Greiss. Whitman sings of the broadest average of humanity and each of their countless examples and practical occupations. There is a revolutionary change in emphasis from aristocracy to democracy. This impulse is significantly embodied in the very title Whitman chose for his poems as a whole-Leaves of Grass. In that ordinary thing grass-surely trivial and petty to most of us who would not think twice about trampling all over it-Whitman is able to find shimmering shades of meaning. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” - it becomes a messenger of immortality. It is perhaps a uniform symbol hieroglyphic - of all the peoples and races of the world, because it grows in all regions of the globe. It may indicate the existence of God-being his scented handkerchief. In any case, it is a key to the ultimate enigma of Divine Reality (Section 6 of Song of Myself). This is just one example of how Whitman invests an ordinary thing with profound significance. In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard. Bloom’d, once again we see how the ordinary is invested with poetic significance. The lilac is an apt symbol of democracy.

      The poet is like the child of There Was a Child Went Forth, absorbing and assimilating everything he sees or comes into contact with - the lilacs, grass, the bird song, the lambs, the fish, the water, plants, the fields and the trees, the boys and the girls, the men and the women, the river and the tumbling waves. The poet believes

...a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
And the pismire is equally perfect and a grain of sand and the egg of the wren.
And the cow crunching with depressed head ....
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels .... (Section 31 of Song of Myself)

      Belief in Life and Universe. Whitman was a firm believer in life in its physical as well as its spiritual manifestations. Nothing in this universe was trivial to him, for he was the complete lover of the universe. He led the way towards a wider aspect of democracy, out of fusty, lamp-lit libraries into the coarse sun-light and the buoyant air. He accepts the universe as it is as he says in Song of the Open Road:

Strong and content, I travel the open road,

      He accepts all categories of people - all are dear to him. He feels a kinship not only with the living but all the visible objects around him - the ferries, wharves, ships, houses, roofs, porches. The road signifies unlimited freedom of movement enabling one to escape narrow boundaries, enclosing walls and bars. He believed in the cosmic and the commonplace. He identified himself with the elemental and primitive things. He transmuted material which had hitherto been regarded as ‘unpoetic’ for poetry.

      Complete Lover of The Universe. Whitman sees “eternity in men and women”. He tells the to-be poet: “Love the Earth and the Sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, .... have patience and indulgence toward the people....” He speaks for the cardinal principles of democracy-equality, fraternity and liberty. Basic to this democratic attitude is his zest for life, his love for the whole of the known universe. He welcomed science, enjoyed the sense of living amidst ‘vital laws’, the greatest of which, according to him, was the Law of Evolution. Evolution for him meant progress and it represented in his eyes the slow unfolding of cosmic purposes. He was a lover of life, a poet of the body and the soul, a believer in immortality, and a believer in a purposeful evolution. He found good in all things:

In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals, In the annual return of the seasons,
In the hilarity of youth,
In the strength and flush of manhood,
In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age.
In the superb vistas of death.

      We witness an acceptance of a benevolent and harmonious universe, and a strong expectation of a larger and richer life for the common people. His love for human and faith in life is evident even at the close of the war when he affirms:

Those who love each other shall become invincible.

      He advocated an attitude of mind which promoted the sense of wonder, the hearty acceptance of the world scheme, a freedom from conventions, and a glorification of the life of the ‘divine average’. He is the poet who saw grass as the “flag of my disposition”, who saw the ‘scallop’d scum’ and the ‘gutters’ as well as the farmhouse and the ‘slender shoots’, who saw and heard how at the amputation “what is removed drops horribly in a pail”. He told the Muse to come and be

install'd amid the kitchenware....

      Not because he was demeaning poetry but because he felt poetry could be made out of such ‘petty’ things as “drain-pipe, gasometer, artificial fertilizers” as they are all part and parcel of the universe he inhabited and loved. As a poet he could speak of “cities of orgies, walks and joys,” all those “gliding wonders sights and sounds”. If he celebrates himself, he does so because he sees himself as “a kosmos”. If each moment thrills him with joy, it is because of his delight in the universe. The “I” in his poems stands for “all”. Each and every poem of Whitman’s throbs with: his universal love-for he considered love to be the governing principle of life.

      The poet’s self can feel like a blade of grass, a hounded slave, a mocking-bird, or any of the many objects that came before its eyes. It can unite with others-people and nature. Self finds oneness with ants and the mossy scabs. There is identity with all living beings and non-living things. The union between Self and the Soul is like the union between two lovers, as presented in Section 5 of Song of Myself. And this union can give birth to a vision which unites the poet with everything including God. Self is a lover, a cosmic lover. Song of Myself expresses the theme of the vision of love leading to a knowledge of universal brotherhood:

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own.

      Whitman’s Spirit of Optimism springs from his concept of the poet being a complete lover of the universe, cognizant of all its aspects being equally valuable in a poetic sense. Life thrilled him with the ecstasy of a lover. He found in the universe benevolence and harmony. Commonplace things were invested with a certain greatness by his eyes. A leaf of grass, the galaxy of stars, and the human body were all marvelous and miraculous to him. He celebrated all the organs of his body, loved all the faces he saw, invited everyone to join him on his journey along the open road. He sang of the body and the soul with equal zest, he found the mystery of sex as wonderful as it was healthy.

      Mystic Circle of Complete Affirmation. A large naturalism, an affection for all that is homely and of the soil, sets Whitman apart as a distinctively American poet. There is a blend of familiarity and grandeur, a racy but religious mysticism animating all his work. This spirit swings with vigor through Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, beats sonorously through Drum-Taps, whispers immortality through that magnificent melody When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. It lifts with a biblical solemnity Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking as it quickens the Song of the Open Road, with a sense of “the glory of- going on”. It embodies Whitman’s broad and restless affirmation of everything. It is the spirit which pervades the poem addressed to a common prostitute: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you”. It is the quick recognition of the commonplace, the glorification of the unnoticed in a pismire and a grain of sand. This spirit is gross and sensual and at the same time tender and mystical, it calls for life Coarse and rank”, yet it lifts appetite beyond life and death; it is as explosive as a teamster’s oath and as grave as the Psalms which influenced it, its ecstasy, even its exhibitionism, though flushed with a raw and rowdy exuberance, is filled with a “calm, mortis’d granite” It is, possibly, a too all-embracing love which intensifies whatever it touches, an over-vigorous optimism for which even Browning seems anemic. But its indiscriminate acceptance is the very core of its faith, enclosing good and evil, beauty and ugliness, in the mystic’s circle of complete affirmation.

      Significance in the Common and the Trivial. For Whitman no aspect of life was trivial. Every common, superficial cover was a cavern of rich and inexhaustible depths. The roadside running blackberry was “fit to adorn the parlors of heaven”. Nothing was rejected. Whitman had read Blake, Dante, Shelley, the sacred books of the East, and the Bible: His aim was all-inclusive though he celebrated the individual and his separateness, he added the words ‘democratic’ and ‘En-Masse'. All were included in “the procreant urge of the world”. Opposites merge into one, the unseen is proved by the seen; all goes onward and outward nothing collapses. Light and dark, good and evil, body and soul do not merely emphasize but complete each other. According to him, an “adhesive” love, the love of comrades, was the basis on which a broader democracy would be built. His all-inclusive love springs from an undefined pantheism. His whole-heartedness coming at a time of cautious skepticism, hesitancy, and insecurity, is Whitman’s gift to posterity.

      Conclusion. Whitman has been labeled as a “microcosm of humanity” with a Christ-like sympathy. He speaks for all people in all places “The key to Whitman’s attitude,” says G.W. Allen, “is, ‘oneness’ He is the poet of all-all life, all existence, every object and particle in the universe equally necessary, perfect and therefore good ....he mentions the unmentionable, dwells on the ugly, crude, the taboo, not because they are more important than the beautiful or the socially amenable but to force their inclusion in the whole of life, nature and the cosmic scheme.”

University Questions

“The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality” (Whitman). Discuss with reference to Song of Myself and other poems.
“The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet”. Discuss the relevance of this remark to the poems of Whitman you have read.

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