Walt Whitman: American Revolutionary Poet

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      Pioneer Poet. Walt Whitman exerted a greater influence on the development of modern poetry than any other poet of a century ago. Indeed, the entire realistic tradition in American literature, in prose as well as poetry, has been supported and strengthened by Whitman. But when his poetry first appeared, it was greeted with shocked disapproval or contemptuous dislike. Even today, literary conservatives have been unable to reconcile themselves to the poet who liberated American senses and sensibilities from the deep freeze of Puritanism, celebrated in his poetry the beauty of everyday things and work, democracy and common people, hailed the working people as the most important force in society, greeted the revolutionary events and developments of his time, and dedicated himself to international comradeship. There is no doubt that Whitman was a pioneer and that on the basis of his courageous vision developed a new poetry.

      A Rebel American Poet. While it is undeniable that several traits in Walt Whitman’s poetry link him to the European Romantic tradition and the “grave-yard” school of poets, it is equally undeniable that his Leaves of Grass offered “a challenge to the entire concept of the poetic idea, and from a new view-point, a rebel view-point, an American view-point” as Carlos Williams puts it. As an original poet, Whitman revolt was in both subject and style of poetry.

      Subject of Poetry Democratised. Whitman made a noteworthy effort to liberate poetry from the tameness, the preciousness and the antiquarianism which had been afflicting it in the second half of the nineteenth century both in England and in America. He tried to create for the modern democratic world a new poetry, freed from the restraints of the feudal, aristocratic past, in order to express the life of the masses in the thickly populated cities of the young United States. He sings of the common man - the sailor, the carpenter, the boatman, the vagabond, the prostitute. He sings of the workmen and the factories. The fit subjects of poetry are no longer kings and queens, palaces and nobility or confined to the aristocracy. Whitman created a poetry containing much that is not to be found in any of the classic bards of old, and which, without a doubt, brings him near to the proletariat and to socialist man.

      Glorification of Physical Labour is often part of the theme in Whitman’s poetry. He boldly sings of contemporary America and her progress. His faith in future possibilities resulting from a conquest of nature by contemporary science and faith in democratic expansion and democratic construction is clearly expressed in his poems. He was the first to write lyric poetry on the theme of labor - the workman - the realistic, concrete and technical processes of labor. In his handling of the theme of “progress”, Whitman is the undoubted forerunner of the poetry of socialism.

      Poetry of the Body and not Merely of the Soul; Poetry of Man as well as woman. Whitman’s revolutionary aspect is evident in his frank avowal to celebrate the body as well as the soul in his poetry. The traditional poetry of his day had ignored the basic human passions and appetites as something unclean and derogatory. Even Emerson, Whitman’s mentor, could not escape the puritan inheritance. Theoretically a free-thinker, there was an ascetic trait in him. Whitman is completely relaxed. No ascetic, he sings the “Body Electric”. In one section of Song of Myself, he applies his inventory method to the parts of the body, from the head to the toes, without hesitation including all those organs which earlier writers would have strictly refrained from mentioning. To Whitman, all the bodily parts are of equal worth as the human consciousness or “soul”. He wrote boldly, “I loaf and invite my soul”-

I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the 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.

      All are equal to Whitman, all have the same dignity. Indeed, if Whitman emerges as the first poet, perhaps, in the history of world poetry to express not only respect but a sense of equality towards woman, it is because he respects the human body and he values sex as something essential for humanity.

      Attitude towards Sex-Bold, Healthy, Realistic and Revolutionary. Perhaps, the one single aspect of Whitman’s poetry which alienated so many of his readers on the publication of Leaves of Grass was his frank, unconventional treatment of sex. He parts company with earlier poetic treatment of love and sex which had been sentimental in tone. Whitman uses sex as an artistic force. In A Woman Waits for Me, he says:

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations....

      And Whitman’s men and women avow their sex “without shame” - not out of indecency but because there is nothing to be ashamed of. The poem has a very outspoken description of the sexual experience. In many sections of Song of Myself, there are sensuous lines of sexual implication:

This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning...,
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.
Or take Spontaneous Me, where he says:
Arms and hands of love, lips of love, phallic thumb of love, breasts of love....

      The mere sensation of touch opens new worlds of rich and profound experience:

Is this then a touch?
Quivering me to a new identity....

      Whitman recognizes the legitimate claims of the body, and considered the physical relationship between man and woman as blessed with divine grace. Furthermore, he did away with what falsely went under the term. “delicacy”:

Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking....

      For Whitman, sex is a life force, which, escaping from the suppression of a false morality, revitalizes love, and makes an enduring democratic society possible, something no institutions or political or economic methods can guarantee. The sexual relationship can transcend barriers and equalize man. In Whitman, the “comradeship” between man and man has overt sexual implications. This may be unpalatable to the conventional reader but it is part of the poet’s concept of “one world”, one universe.

      Innovator in Using Theme of “Self”. Whitman was opposed to the established way of doing things and tried to do them in a new way, more interesting and more lively. Indeed, one of his contributions as an innovator was to offer new solutions to the problems posed by the relation between “tradition and the individual talent” Milton chose the Christian tradition against which to set his complaint when he was stricken by blindness or when he laments for his friend in Lycidas. But he closes the gap between personal experience and tradition by resolving to believe in the goodness of God’s ways. When Keats reflects, as Milton had reflected, that he would die before writing his best poetry, he does not end by coming to terms with religion. He turns instead to sheer elegiac introspection - the result of the pole of traditional affirmation being absent. In the Victorian elegiac mode (in Tennyson and Arnold, for instance) the poet broods in a scene which is set in order to deflect all attention back to the self.

      In Whitman’s Song of Myself, we see a radically different orientation of the poet in respect to himself, to the physical setting and the traditional artfulness he employs:

One's self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

      “One’s self” and not “myself” - we cannot imagine Tennyson or Arnold using the world “one” to refer to themselves.

I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you...

      Leaving aside the colloquialness and the ease of speech, we can also see that there is a difference from earlier poets in this poet’s attitude to himself. In spite of the driving egotism, the self is somehow transmuted from the beginning, as it is in the first word of the opening inscription: “One’s self I sing”. Whitman is concerned to build up in his own special way a picture of the relationship of his self, first to other selves, secondly to the external world of nature and thirdly to other moments in time than the moment he is experiencing now. The relationship of the poet to external nature is not one simply of a poet who gets from nature some scenic assistance, as though nature is a backdrop for human emotion. Whitman, the poet is surrounded by other people-trippers and askers. He is concerned with daily things of life - “dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues”. At the same time he is aware of his relationship with them. In the poem The Sleepers, under the shadow of night, the poet imagines all the people who are sleeping under the different roofs of this community; and one by one he identifies himself with them in that special poetic mode of his. The long-drawn catalogs in Leaves of Grass have for their function the bringing together of the perceiver and the perceived so that a new view of history, of time, of identity, of consciousness, of reality and of the cosmos, is made possible.

      Self and Unity. Whitman’s new techniques are devices directed towards somehow solving the problem we all feel of life developing, slipping away into isolated fragments of time, units of consciousness, unconnected with one another. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he sees the ferry as the space-binder connecting places, and the people changing their geographical location. The poem discovers the perfect symbol of time, space and diversity among people of geographical and chronological diversity. Whitman sees the people, speculates on where they came from, what they are doing, their different occupations, interests, thoughts, hopes, fears; and one by one he enters into them. The theme of unity, as a common link embracing all humanity, is given a glowing expression in some instances - the fugitive slave in Song of Myself, the episode of the mother and the Indian squaw in The Sleepers.

      The Idea of an Actual Union with the Whole of Things Attain A Highly Original Peak in the Theme of Death. In Whitman’s view, death is a cool and happy fusion with the material universe. The feeling, of an optimistic nature, springs from an animating sense of identity of direction, the feeling that each man is traveling a path along which others will continue after him. Perhaps the best treatment of the theme is to be found in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

      The mosaic of ideas in T.S. Eliot, the stream of consciousness in the modern novel, and all those subtle devices through which the modern writers have tried to explore the ways in which an individual sensibility can be modulated into an inclusive consciousness, are in the tradition of Whitman. The most valuable asset left by Whitman to modern literature is the technique of how to escape the prison of self and cultivate simultaneously self-consciousness and sympathy, using the sense of self-identity as a means of projecting oneself into the identity of others. The “I” of Whitman’s poems speaks the world that he sees, and sees the world that he speaks. Most of his poems are “voyages” in the metaphysical sense. This was Whitman’s genre, his “new theory of literary composition of imaginative works”.

      Innovator and Revolutionary in Style, Form and Language. Whitman’s revolt against convention extended boldly into the sphere of poetic style too. Especially modern poetry has been influenced by the impressionistic and fragmentary phases of Whitman’s work. In Whitman’s work one comes across numerous brief, clear-cut pictures which convey a single vivid impression of reality. In sharpness of impression, in brevity, poems like A Farm Picture or Cavalry Crossing a Ford may have been written by a twentieth-century imagist.

      Whitman discarded rhyme and traditional meter, and he had created an entirely new poetic form. True he was not totally uninfluenced by tradition; for his long unrhymed lines remind one of Longfellow’s accentual hexameters, Carlyle’s rhapsodies and the majestic music of the Jacobean English Bible. But Whitman brought into poetry the energy and vitality of the natural man. He threw his whole energy into the expression of his healthy, uninhibited vision of the external world:

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!
I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

      His irregular unrhymed rhythms are too loose and too undisciplined to be a suitable instrument for great poetic art, but they are full of suggestions for a new prosody descending from the large free rhythms of English poetic prose. The rejection of rhyme and meter is part of Whitman’s contempt for the “feudal” past of poetic subjects.

      Innovation in Versification. As a revolutionary and innovator, Whitman’s work in the field of versification is noteworthy. He is the greatest American practitioner of the vers libre or free verse. He anticipated the vital and daring technical innovations of the 20th century. The basic prosodic form in Whitman’s poems is “thought rhythm”. The line is the unit, the second line completes or supplements the meaning of the first. His is the “cadenced” verse, full of a flexible sonority, and a symphonies structure.

      Fresh Approach to Language. Whitman was, like Wordsworth before him, a revolutionary in his language and diction His poetry dealing with new themes and ideas required a new kind of language. His use of language is basically simple. But he widens the poetic vocabulary considerably by borrowing from areas of technical knowledge - astronomy, biology, commerce, trade. He imported words from foreign languages and even coined some words of his own to suit his purpose-some such words being “harbinge”, “lumine”, “eclaircise”, “allons”, “Americanos” etc. He boldly advocated the use of slang-which he called the common man’s experiment with language. Thus his poetry abounds with phrases such as “Bully for you”, “that’s sought” “hold head up” Whitman’s long lines and long catalogs convey a sense of the teeming multitudinous masses of America and their life. He was a symbolist long before symbolism became a conscious movement in Europe. He used symbolism or ‘indirection’ to convey transcendental truths, and his apprehension of the mystery of the universe.

      Harmony Between Form and Content. Whitman broke from tradition in the matter of form-in this he was truly a great innovator. However, the innovations in form rise directly from the freshness of content in his poetry. Whitman’s language matches the prosaic and democratic scene about him. He sings of objects hitherto considered unpoetic; his vocabulary, inevitably, is new for poetry. There is a rare compatibility between his form and his themes; the long, unrestrained line in its free flow captures in its very form the spirit of democracy and freedom that Whitman infused into his verses. “The movement of his verse is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people”. True, there are many aspects in which Whitman did not disregard poetic tradition—as his use of assonance, alliteration, repetition, parallelism, inverse word order shows. But in the matter of form and in some other ways his poetry made a radical departure from the past.

      Conclusion. Whitman was one of the significant voices of the nineteenth century expressing in his poetry its creativity, its transitional, and its revolutionary character. He may not be its perfect voice, he is undoubtedly its prophetic voice. He was the first to celebrate in powerful verse the upsurge of the masses and the potentiality of the “divine average” in terms of an ideal democracy. His impulses are modern; particularly in his healthy attitude to sex as being of vital importance in human relationships the Freudian perception has been anticipated by Whitman. If craftsmen hailed him as the father of the free verse movement, philosophers considered him to be the first of the modern prophets, “a rhapsodic mystic with a magnificently vulgar sense of democracy”. To the psychologist, he was the revealing autobiographer, and to the lay reader he was a protagonist of the “divine average” hearty, gross, noble, “sane and sensual”.

      Whitman did not inaugurate a new era. But his vision was one of courage - the kind of courage that leads to new epochs. He created a poetry that brings him close to the proletariat and to socialist man. As D. Mirsky observes, Whitman did this through a statement of environmental reality may be a bourgeois one - but Whitman represents the most worthwhile and progressive aspects of that reality. He embodies in his poetry the themes of democracy, labor, the conquest of nature. He brought to poetry a new concreteness, a new feeling for the material object, not as an owner aesthetically sensing it, but as a workman who is interested in the product of his labor, He created the poetry of human dignity and the “full” man. In technical aspects, his innovations admirably suit the new content.

University Questions

What is revolutionary about Whitman as an American poet?
“As an artist Whitman had the kind of courage and vision upon which new epochs are founded. “Discuss with reference to the poems of Whitman.
What elements in Whitman’s poetry enable you to regard him as the poet of the New World”?
Discuss Whitman as an innovative poet.
Show how Whitman broke with the traditional verse forms and themes in his poetry.

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