Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Chanting the Square Deific" (1865–1866)
Author:
Eiselein, Gregory
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

One of Walt Whitman's most important religious statements, this poem first appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866). The origins of the poem stretch back to the early 1850s, however. Trial lines appear in "Pictures," an unpublished poem written before 1855; further trial lines took shape in an 1860–1861 notebook; and Whitman scribbled trial titles—"Quadriune" and "Deus Quadriune"—on the contents page of his personal, heavily-marked copy of Leaves of Grass. In 1871 Whitman placed "Chanting" in Passage to India. He then revised the poem and moved it to the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster in the 1881 Leaves of Grass.

"Chanting" evokes the supreme being as a four-person deity. In each of the poem's four stanzas, a separate side of the divine square speaks, announcing and describing himself or herself. The first is the eternal Father God, the uncreated creator, known as Jehovah, Brahma, Saturnius, or Kronos. An unmerciful keeper of the law, He represents justice. Mercy and love characterize the second figure, God's human aspect, God incarnate, who goes by the names Christ, Hermes, and Hercules. The third face of God is Satan. Rejecting the Father's authority and Consolator's love, he is belligerent and outcast—but, in Whitman's theology, a necessary part of the cosmos. Santa Spirita speaks in the final stanza. She is the Holy Spirit whose ethereal presence pervades and unites the four-person deity and all creation. Recasting the masculine Spirito Santo into a feminine form, Whitman creates a female deity who symbolizes life and the unity of all things.

Whitman thought of "Chanting" as an expression of spiritual egalitarianism, a representation of the four equal, necessary, eternal sides of the universe. "Chanting" is inclusive. It deems democracy a spiritual condition and conceives a religion suitable to a democratic country. It encompasses all faiths, placing Jehovah next to Kronos and Hermes next to Christ without distinction or preference. The theology of "Chanting" is notable for its similarly egalitarian conception of the deity as female, a feminine divine principle who exists beyond death, beyond good and evil. Perhaps most striking is Whitman's inclusion of Satan as member of the Godhead—the addition that makes the Christian trinity into a distinctively Whitmanesque quaternity. Merging righteousness with rebelliousness, accepting the unacceptable, including the excluded, "Chanting" makes "the denied God" (as Whitman calls Lucifer in "Pictures" [Comprehensive 645]) an integral part of the deity and an eternal part of the universe.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "Chanting" drew criticism for its heretical, anti-Trinitarian view of God and its audacious deifying of Satan. But it is not merely this heterodoxy that makes the inclusion of Satan arresting. Satan's incorporation within the Godhead implies that the presence of God depends upon an absence, the defiance of God, God's negative image. Lucifer's antithetic presence is also related to the poem's Hegelianism—its spiritual dialectic, its embrace of negativity and contradiction and synthesis of antagonistic forces.

The appearance of "Chanting" in Sequel to Drum-Taps suggests that Whitman offered the poem as a postwar message of reconciliation and religious consolation. From this perspective, it comments allegorically on the war: Satan is the South ("plotting revolt," "brother of slaves," "warlike" [section 3]) and Jehovah the North, seeking righteousness; the Consolator could be Abraham Lincoln or perhaps a wound dresser and the Santa Spirita probably the poet himself through whose songs comes peace and the spiritual preservation of the Union. Whitman later decided to downplay the poem's historical significance and emphasize its theological meaning by deleting a war allusion and moving the poem out of the Civil War clusters and into the explicitly religious "Whispers of Heavenly Death."

The historical relevance of "Chanting" and its outline of a new American religion make it a revealing text for understanding Whitman in his culture, while its allegorical suggestiveness makes it a poem rich with interpretive possibilities.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Mancuso, Luke. "'Chanting the Square Deific': Whitman Confronts Structural Evil in Post-War America." Symposium 8 (1990): 15–33.

Sixbey, George L. "'Chanting the Square Deific'—A Study in Whitman's Religion." American Literature 9 (1937): 171–195.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Walt Whitman's "Drum-Taps" (1865) and "Sequel to Drum-Taps" (1865–6): A Facsimile Reproduction. Ed. F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.


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