Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Bible, The
Author:
Becknell, Thomas
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

As was the work of many of his contemporaries, Walt Whitman's poetry was deeply influenced by the Bible, both thematically and stylistically. Nearly two hundred direct biblical quotations, allusions, and paraphrases have been documented by critic Gay Wilson Allen. However, Whitman's use of the Bible went far beyond the borrowing of language, themes, and patterns. As Herbert J. Levine has shown, Whitman anticipated that Leaves of Grass would itself be a new, American "bible" of democracy.

One of Whitman's earliest works, "Shirval: A Tale of Jerusalem" (1845), is a fictionalized retelling of the story of Jesus's raising the widow's dead son at Nain, taken from the gospel of Luke (7:11–16). Late in life, reflecting upon his work, Whitman identified the Old and New Testaments first among the literary inspirations for his poetry ("A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads"). Evidence of Whitman's admiration for the Bible can be found most conspicuously in his prose, where he quotes widely from both the Old and New Testaments. In his essay "The Bible as Poetry" (November Boughs), Whitman expresses effusive praise for the Bible's emotional vigor, its unifying ideas, and its spiritual purpose. Whitman offers a particularly moving recollection in Specimen Days of being asked by a dying soldier to read from the Bible; the poet selects the chapters describing the crucifixion of Christ, and the wasted soldier then asks him to read the chapter on the resurrection.

In his poetry, however, Whitman rarely quotes the Bible directly and uses the word "bible" only a few times. But allusions to the Bible abound—especially allusions to Christ, the most prominent symbol in Leaves of Grass, according to Thomas Crawley. Identifying more than one hundred passages referring to the Christ idea, Crawley explains Whitman's frequent parallels to Christ as the structural key to his vision—the creation of a unifying personality like the Christ of the Bible. In such poems as "To Him That was Crucified," and throughout "Song of Myself," Whitman identifies himself with the New Testament Christ; he sees himself "[w]alking the old hills of Judæa with the beautiful gentle God by my side" ("Song of Myself," section 33). Whitman adheres to biblical tradition, Crawley explains, in believing that God is revealed in the human, but Whitman sought to free this idea of incarnation from its historical orientation in the Bible and to give it a universal and mythic significance. "I am the man," he says; "I suffer'd, I was there" ("Song of Myself," section 33). In short, it was the humanism of Christ that Whitman most admired, the fact that he was the "brother of rejected persons" ("Think of the Soul," 1871 Leaves). Horace Traubel recalled Whitman as saying that in its humanism, Leaves of Grass was completely compatible with the Bible.

Considerable evidence indicates that Whitman intended Leaves of Grass to be a sacred text. In an 1857 notebook entry, Whitman wrote: "The Great Construction of the New Bible / Not to be diverted from the principal object—the main life work" (Notebooks 1:353). In his sweeping analysis of American society, Democratic Vistas, Whitman laments the absence of "genuine belief" in American life and concludes that the nation can only regain its spiritual vitality through a reconciliation of the individual and the mass. Leaves of Grass deliberately addresses that objective. Levine claims that Whitman's democratic vision, the reconciliation of the solitary self and the mass, is informed by Whitman's blending of two biblical patterns—the Old Testament narrative (a national motif) and the New Testament narrative (a personal motif). Whitman, then, presents himself as the democratic ideal, projecting himself as an Americanized Jesus, a divine self who identifies and empathizes with all people.

In his vision of a nation of divine persons, Whitman assumes a prophetic voice reminiscent of Old Testament prophets. Indeed, he alludes to biblical prophets almost as frequently as to Christ. Like the role of the biblical prophets, Herbert Schneidau argues, Whitman's prophetic role was that of a gadfly, in his condemning of social privilege and arrogance and his accepting in turn the resulting abuse and rejection. Whitman also draws upon various other rhetorical strategies learned from biblical genres: the epistles, the gospels, and the wisdom and apocalyptic books.

As a "scriptural" poem, "Song of Myself" bears witness to the experience of God in the world and in doing so makes the world itself into a sacred text where one finds "letters from God dropt in the street" (section 48). Throughout the poem, as Levine has shown, Whitman's language echoes that of biblical writing: creeds and petitions ("I believe in you my soul" and "Loafe with me on the grass" [section 5]), revelations and wisdom. But from the outset "Song of Myself" also subverts biblical themes. Section 3, for example ("I do not talk of the beginning or the end"), seems to stand in resistance to the overall historical momentum of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Or again, in "A Song for Occupations," while Whitman admits that bibles are divine, he hastens to add, "It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life" (section 3). Whitman's use of the Bible is complex and becomes, in his later work, deeper and more difficult to discern, Gay Wilson Allen observes. Perhaps Whitman's relationship to the Bible can best be summed up in his own expectation of the disciple he seeks: "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher" ("Song of Myself," section 47).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. "Biblical Echoes in Whitman's Works." American Literature 6 (1934): 302–315.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. "The Biblical Basis of the American Myth." The Bible and American Arts and Letters. Ed. Giles Gunn. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. 219–229.

Berkove, Lawrence I. "Biblical Influences on Whitman's Concept of Creatorhood." Emerson Society Quarterly 47.2 (1967): 34–37.

Crawley, Thomas. "The Christ-Symbol in Leaves of Grass." The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970. 50–79.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Levine, Herbert J. "'Song of Myself' as Whitman's American Bible." Modern Language Quarterly 48 (1987): 145–161.

Munk, Linda. "Giving Umbrage: The Song of Songs Which Is Whitman's." Journal of Literature and Theology 7.1 (1993): 50–65.

Schneidau, Herbert. "The Antinomian Strain: The Bible and American Poetry." The Bible and American Arts and Letters. Ed. Giles Gunn. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. 11–32.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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