Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Eidólons" (1876)
Author:
Richardson, D. Neil
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem, included finally in the "Inscriptions" section of the 1881–1882 edition of Leaves, was written in 1876. The word "eidōlon" is the Greek word meaning "idol" and in English can be loosely translated as a specter, phantom, or unsubstantial image. Whitman used the word to mean a spiritual image of the immaterial whose essence is unchanging, contrasted to the material world, where change is an appearance, a mere shadow of its true self. The poem is rendered poignant by the fact that Whitman wrote it in his final years, when his physical vitality did not match his inner vigor.

"Eidólons" has been characterized as a poem describing the evolutionary progress of the human soul and, alternatively, a poem of renunciation and detachment in the Eastern spiritual sense. In Minor Prophecy David Kuebrich writes that Whitman would maintain himself in "higher stages" than previous inspired bards by wedding a traditional religious world view with the intellectual currents of modernity and in so doing create a new paradigm of spirituality. In the first stanza, Whitman describes an encounter with a "seer" who renounces the "things" of this world in favor of eidólons and demonstrates his belief in the preeminence of the immaterial world. Like "Song of Myself," "Eidólons" is about the detachment from those things that would distract us from the development of our souls. Enlightenment, Whitman seems to be saying, will visit those who realize the dynamic potential of the self-realized person, thereby completing a metaphysical circle in which one becomes truly oneself.

The poem has a cyclical quality, since all stanzas relate to and end with "eidólon(s)," as does life itself. The "eidólon" represents true identity in the poem and is the visionary expression that gives the immaterial its ultimate significance. Whitman, like a true mystic, seeks to demonstrate the incompleteness of our understanding of reality. We see only shadows, forms, or fragments instead of the great whole or, in Whitman's own words, a "round full-orb'd eidólon."

Bibliography

Holloway, Emory. Aspects of Immortality in Whitman. Westwood, N.J.: Kindle, 1969.

Hutchinson, George. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

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


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