Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Base of All Metaphysics, The" (1871)
Author:
Oates, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The poem addresses an audience of "gentlemen" with a last word of wisdom, claiming to reveal not only the foundation but also the "finalè" of "all metaphysics." The poem's speaker is apparently the "old professor" parenthetically described in lines four and five (a manuscript gives the title "The Professor's Answer"). The speaker reviews his studies of philosophers, "Greek and Germanic systems," and even Christ and Christianity. He declares that beneath all is the grounding fact of love and community, exemplified as comradeship, friendship, married and filial love, and political concord.

This is the only complete poem added in any edition to the original 1860 "Calamus" cluster. It replaced two poems not included after the 1860 edition: ["Long I Thought That Knowledge Alone Would Suffice"] and ["Hours Continuing Long"]. Positioning "Base" immediately after "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" allows Whitman to emphasize philosophical concerns that recur often in "Calamus" and Leaves, and which were of particular interest to him at the time: appearance versus underlying reality and the connection or disconnection of the one and the many.

In typical Whitman fashion, such intellectual questioning is not so much answered as it is gotten through—by penetrating to the level of felt experience instead of relying on mere ratiocination and book learning. In this case, Whitman intuits the mystery of love at the center, holding all together—a perception he shares with mystics and sages of both West and East.

Whitman's language moves in two directions: love is both "base and finalè," both foundation and pinnacle. In hourglass fashion, after establishing the base through an enumeration of the many philosophical systems he has studied, the speaker draws all into one climactic focus—comradely love and friendship—and again expands that focus into the finalè of ever-enlarging circles of social cohesion, bonding family members, cities, and countries.

This conclusion may be seen as an example of an often-noted tendency in successive editions of Leaves (especially after 1860) toward muting, sublimating, or generalizing the sexual materials. While Miller sees the concluding list as a hierarchy, Martin criticizes it as a descent from the emotionally honest to the diffusely vague. Whitman similarly universalizes and expands the meaning of affection in two other notable works of 1871, "Passage to India" and the long essay Democratic Vistas.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Hanson, R. Galen. "A Critical Reflection on Whitman's 'The Base of All Metaphysics.'" Walt Whitman Review 18 (1972): 67–70.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. "Whitman's Sexual Themes during a Decade of Revision: 1866–1876." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4.1(1986): 7–15.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.


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