Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy and Science

Also Read

      Introduction. Whitman, the representative poet of America, is primarily the poetic spokesman of Democracy. True, the English Romantic poets had been vigorous supporters of the democratic ideals, but where Whitman differed from them was in his more pragmatic, down to earth approach. His ideal of democracy was no visionary’s dream but had a practical approach to it. On the political plane, he denounced all prerogatives and vested interest; on the social plane he visualized complete harmony between the individual and society; but, above all, Whitman was what may be called a ‘spiritual democrat’ who saw in true democracy possibilities of universal peace, toleration and brotherhood. The most authentic specimen of humanity was the common man, “the divine average”, and Whitman as a poet was not interested in any special favors that he could not share with “all”. While Whitman gave a defense of Democracy in his prose treatise Democratic Vistas, which is an invaluable commentary on his Leaves of Grass, the poems themselves illustrate, both in content and form, his ideal of democracy.

      Subject Matter of Whitman’s Poetry is the Common Man and His Environment. Whitman rebelled against conventional poetic subjects such as kings or nobles. He sings of the common American engaged in homely tasks - the blacksmith, the Negro teamster, the butcher, the farmer, the mother, the soldier keeping watch on the battlefield, in his poetry, we hear the hum and clatter of house-building, shingle-dressing, ship joining, ferrying, mining, iron-smelting, stone-cutting and cotton-loading. And in these “labor of engines and trades, and the labor of fields”, he found “the developments” and the “eternal meanings”. These homely activities had great significance for the film. To him the whole “Kosmos” was beautiful, and nothing was so trivial that it could not be a subject of poetry. It is noteworthy how he emphasizes the word “En-Masse” in Section 23 of Song of Myself. He uttered not only his personal credo but the manifesto of the new generation in his Song of Exposition where he calls upon the Muse to “Migrate from Greece and Ionia”, leave aside “those immensely overpaid accounts... of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas and Odysseus’ wanderings”, for

...a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide,
untried domain awaits, demands you....

      Celebration of Average American Through Himself: The All Embracing Concept of I. Whitman celebrates himself. This may seem contradictory to any concept of democracy, but the significance becomes clear in these lines from Song of Myself;

I see something of God
Each hour of 24 and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women
I see God and in my own face in the glass.

      In singing of himself, he sings of all, for he identifies himself totally with the average American. He celebrates himself in the section “Walt Whitman” of Song of Myself, but it is Walt Whitman as representative of his fellowmen. What he sings as worthy and glorious is what he possesses in common with all others, and not what differentiates him from others, In Section 24 of Song of Myself, he declares:

Whoever degrades another degrades me...

      and that he will -

accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms.

      The “I” in Whitman’s poetry is not so much personal reference as a fusion of several characters, a composite character, who exists in no place other than in the poem, as James Miller observes. The T is identical with the “Modern Man” of whom sings - it is the collective ego, a composite of the varied humanity of America. It signifies Whitman’s acceptance of humanity as a whole - for the poet is a ‘complete lover of the universe’. In I Hear America Singing, the voice of that nation is shown to be manifest in the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deck-hand; in other words, in the average American and it is with this common man that Whitman identifies himself. By celebrating himself he celebrates all. Indeed, in the 1872 Preface, he could even conceive of the hero of his book as omnisexual: “Leaves of Grass.... is, in its intentions, the song of a great composite democratic individual, male or female”. The ‘I’ of his poetry may be “a dramatization of the typical American, or the cosmic poet, a dramatization of a soldier on the battlefield, or of a comet rushing through the heavens. Whatever it is, the ‘I’ is always something more-and something less than the historical Walt Whitman”. The ‘I’ is Everyman, a creature of contradictory impulses and instincts, both good and bad; the ‘I’ contains multitudes, embracing many minds and even many nations.

      Celebration of Liberty and Fraternity and Equality: Faith in Human Dignity. As a prophet of democracy. Whitman manifests in his poetry the basic ideals of democracy-liberty of the individual, fraternity or brotherhood and equality - all based on the basic belief in the dignity of the human being. He sings of the need to be free and self-reliant, to break off from dead conventions. It is only when he is “free” in the true sense of the term that the individual will be able to understand the truth of the universe. Thus he says.

I loafe and invite my soul....
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

      He must be free of the “creeds and schools” to think and act freely. ‘Loafing’ and reflecting on a spear of grass can lead to great conclusions on the equality and need of brotherhood in man.

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a Kelson of the creation is love.....

      Says Whitman in Section 5 of Song of Myself. In Section 7, he calls himself “the mate and companion” of people whom he regards to be as immortal and fathomless as himself. He is interested in all kinds of people - the proud, the old maid, the mother, the sweetheart, the prostitute, the lunatic, the felon; and he is interested in them equally. None is superior to another, for the individual suggests a group, and the group a multitude. Each individual is important and the individual’s personality is to be developed; but none is more important than another. Men and women are seen “en-masse".

      The faith in the inherent dignity and nobility of the common is at the root of Whitman’s concept of democracy. And this is the basis of his being the first poet, perhaps, to boldly speak out for the equality of man and woman, body and soul:

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.

      Feeling of Sympathy and Comradeship the inevitable offshoots of the true democratic impulse, pervade Whitman’s poetry. The poet’s sense of identity with humanity “en-masse” is complete,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

      He sings of mankind’s ‘common’ heritage which may be acquired through freedom and progress. He will accept nothing of which all cannot share “on the same terms”.

      Anyone without sympathy for his fellow human beings, in “Whitman’s opinion, “walks to his own funeral in his shroud”, and

.....there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.

      Whitman expresses his “dear love of comrades” in I Hear it Charged Against Me. In Song of the Open Road, he lists the Negro with his woolly head, the diseased, the felon, the mechanic, and a lot more to indicate his kinship with all. He welcomes all to come with him on his journey along the “open road”. His feeling of comradeship - what has been termed “adhesiveness” as different from “amativeness” - merges into love of man for man. Perhaps, an element of homosexuality is undeniable, especially in the Calamus poems, but basically it takes root in the democratic principle. For Whitman, there is no real evil in the universe, and if there is, it is as important to all as anything else.

      Pantheistic Democracy: The Significance of The Grass Symbol. In Whitman’s poetry, the poet’s sense of identity is not confined to the other human beings; it extends to all created objects of the universe. His democracy is universal and pantheistic. As Schyberg observes, “Whitman is directly led away from the political aspect of democracy towards transcendental, pantheistic democracy... The basic emotion in Whitman’s lyricism is a feeling of kinship with all creation, evidenced in the very title Leaves of Grass”. The grass is the great symbol of democracy in nature and it is by lying on it and observing it that the poet begins to reflect. By the end of Song of Myself, the poet departs bequeathing himself “to the dirt to grow from the grass I love”. If he is wanted again, “look for me under your bootsoles”. It is the spear of grass that enables the poet to understand the eternal cycle of life and death.

The smallest sprout shows there is realty no death.
All goes onward and outward .... and nothing collapses
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

      The grass is a true symbol of democracy and expresses commonality most suitably.

      Spiritual Democracy. Whitman approaches democracy from a new angle. His democratic faith is related to his conception of the mystical self. He believes that democracy must yield spiritual results. He takes recourse to metaphysical doctrine to discuss the material world. Undoubtedly the concept of equality had its origin in the surface world of American democracy, where it had been an ideal since the Declaration of Independence. But Whitman considers equality to be much more than a political ideal, with him it is art eternal fact in the real world of unlimited personalities.

In all people I see myself-none more and not one barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.

      Whitman sees in democracy the possibilities of universal peace, tolerance and brotherhood. The immense potentialities of the human being are given a chance to develop only in a democracy. Passage to India demonstrates the possibilities of spiritual democracy. Whitman’s democratic creed has very little of Christian doctrine. He, like Emerson, rejected original sin, atonement, and the special authority of the Christian scriptures. Like Emerson he did not recognize distinctions between natural and unnatural, bad and good, wrong and right, low and high, inferior and superior. The Christian concept of equality is not the same as Whitman’s, for it recognizes a scale of values. For Whitman, the soul is limitless, and this limitlessness itself speaks for equality. The equality is potential. The grass is the symbol for this prophet of democracy. He is a crusader for the establishment of a new order of society in which all should be equal and all great.

      Technique Reflects Democratic Spirit. Not only in his ideas is Whitman democratic, but his poetic technique too reflects his democratic impulse. It is significant that he rejects the conventional forms of poetry which he felt to be associated with its feudalistic and aristocratic past. His freedom with poetic form reflects his advocacy of freedom for the human soul. The free flow of words, the lines of uneven length, all express the sense of development inherent in democracy.

      Another important aspect of style is the use of catalogs. Practically all of Whitman’s poems reflects this tendency to catalog persons or things. Selection seems forbidden to him. He had to itemize every detail, place and name of American life. If he names one race of mankind, the name of all other races press into his page; if he mentions one trade or occupation all other trades and occupations follow. The “en-masse” does not stand for a formless bulk but for a concourse of individuals. The symbols chosen by Whitman are from familiar life-grass, lilacs, stars, the sea, the birds. The language is truly democratic-for it often makes use of slang which Whitman felt to be the common man’s experiment with language.

      ‘Leaves of Grass’: A Bible of Democracy. Whitman believes in the common people for salvation of society. It is they who make a nation. He asserts that “these can be unnumbered Supremes; and that one does not countervail another .... “He opposed institutionalized religion and suggested a new religion of humanity. He upheld:’’ There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done..... A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things”

      It is not without reason that Leaves of Grass is considered the ‘Bible of Democracy’. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a chant of democracy. Section 24 of Song of Myself is an explicit statement of the poet’s democratic impulse.

....I give the sign of democracy ....

      Through him “many long dumb voices” will find expression. If he feels he could live with animals, it is because-

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth (Song of My self - Section 32)

      He would certainly destroy old institutions which were dead and inhuman. He would in their place establish a world order based on comradeship, brotherhood and equality. He would establish -

Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades. (I Hear it was Charged Against Me)

      Thoreau declared that Whitman “is Democracy”. Anne Gilchrist points out that the Calamus poems exemplify the love of man for his fellowmen. The practical democrat in Whitman which prompted him to go and personally attend to the wounded soldiers of the Civil War, speaks with feeling of the thousands of suffering soldiers.

      Conclusion. Whitman, it has been remarked, is more of a nationalist than a truly democratic poet. True, he confesses to “chant America the mistress”, and visualizes modern America being the centre of science and democracy, to be the true hero of his poetry. Edward Dowden feels that his feeling for individual personality overmasters his pantheistic tendency towards the oneness of all. But if he sings of America, it is precisely because he associates the nation with democracy. In this connection one cannot help noting what he says in the poem The Sleepers where “the sleepers” of different kinds and nations are united with one another by the bond of spiritual love. It would be most apt to endorse the opinion of John Burroughs: “The reader who would get at the spirit and meaning of Leaves of Grass must remember that its animating principle from first to last, is Democracy, that it is a work conceived and carried forward in the spirit of the genius of humanity, that is now in full career in the new world and that all things characteristically American (trades, tools, occupations, productions, characters, scenes) therefore have their places in it. It is intended to be a completed mirror of the times in which the life of the poet fell, and to show one master personality accepting, absorbing all and rising superior to it, namely the poet himself. Yet it is never Whitman that speaks so much as it is Democracy that speaks through him. He personifies the spirit of Universal brotherhood and in this character launches with his ‘omnivorous words’.... he serves as the spokesman of ideal democracy....”

University Questions

Discuss Whitman’s treatment of the American ideal of democracy in his poems.
Write a note on Whitman as the poet-prophet of democracy.
“Whitman has been extolled as one of the foremost poets of democracy.” What is your opinion?
Democracy for Whitman means the assertion of one’s individuality as well as equality with others. Show how his poems demonstrate this principle of democracy.
Whitman’s poems are as democratic in form as in idea. Illustrate.
Consider Leaves of Grass as the “Bible of Democracy”.

Previous Post Next Post