Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

To understand Whitman's achievement, it is important to acknowledge the extent to which his poetry is a thanatopsis. Death constitutes either the central theme or a crucial motif in all of his major poems and many of the poetic sequences. Yet critics are far from agreement regarding Whitman's views on death. At the risk of oversimplification, it may be said that current scholarship presents four viewpoints: first, that Whitman always affirmed personal immortality; second, that throughout his career he did not believe in immortality; third, that he at first affirmed it and then denied it in the late 1850s and 1860s in response to a crisis of faith precipitated by his new awareness of his homosexuality; and fourth, that beginning in the 1870s he imposed a theme of immortality on Leaves as part of a new emphasis on religion to compensate for the failure of his political vision or to camouflage his earlier celebration of homosexuality. The following essay argues that Whitman consistently asserted a belief in immortality and that, in fact, influenced by early nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, he formulated a new understanding of immortality as an ongoing process of development.

Whitman's writings on death consist of two types of utterances. One is a rational discourse which asserts a belief in immortality to the reader's intellect as a simple statement of fact. The second, a much more complex form of communication, is a mystical language which alludes to meanings which are, although ineffable, nevertheless capable of being grasped by the reader in epiphanic moments of spiritual realization. In considering the dynamics of this second type of utterance, one finds that Whitman's poetic makes several demands upon the reader that are rather commonplace in theologies of mystical formation: for example, a rejection of worldly values and commitment to one's spiritual development; a recognition of the importance of love and a striving to achieve a loving attitude toward other humans and the rest of creation; and the experiencing of the beauty and sublimity of nature. Whitman's mystical communication on immortality requires ideal readers who will pursue their spiritual advancement and, influenced by the power of love and certain calming aspects of nature such as the sea and starry nights, achieve a sense of profound psychological serenity and well-being. To readers who attain this state of heightened consciousness, Whitman subtly imposes his suggestions of spiritual meaning in an effort to convince them that they are, in this special moment, participating in the spirit of a providential, loving God whom they will know more fully in the afterlife.

Whitman's intellectual affirmations of immortality are consistently present in his writings throughout his career. The 1855 "Song of Myself" asserts that it is "lucky to die" (section 7) and that "[t]he smallest sprout shows there is really no death" (section 6). One of Whitman's anonymous reviews for the first edition points out that the author "recognizes no annihilation, or death, or loss of identity" (39). In the 1860 Leaves he speaks of the "joy of death" and the "beautiful touch of Death, soothing and benumbing a few moments, for reasons," and he goes on to affirm that his soul or "real body" is "doubtless left to me for other spheres" ("Song of Joys"). Similarly "Starting from Paumanok," also of 1860, asserts that the "real body" will "elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners, and pass to fitting spheres" (section 13). The Civil War poem of 1865–1866 "How Solemn as One by One" proclaims "The soul!" which "the bullet could never kill . . . Nor the bayonet stab." A belief in immortality was so important to Whitman that in the 1876 Preface he proposed that a crucial criterion for evaluating either a poem or a culture is "what it thinks of Death," and he insisted that it was the "idea of immortality, above all other ideas" that was to "vivify, and give crowning religious stamp, to democracy in the New World" (Prose Works 2:465–466n). In 1881, as he brooded over the death of Thomas Carlyle, Whitman asked himself if it were possible that he "remains an identity still?" and he answered, "I have no doubt of it" (Prose Works 1:253). In his final years, he insisted emphatically to Traubel that when he spoke of immortality he meant "identity—the survival of the personal soul—your survival, my survival" (Traubel 149).

Whitman's belief in immortality undoubtedly had its genesis in the fact that he matured in a Christian culture that affirmed the immortality of the soul. Later, however, as he developed his own religious vision, he, like other contemporary religious visionaries, such as Joseph Smith and the noted spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis, developed a new understanding of the idea of immortality from the culture's widespread belief in progress and the advent of evolutionary science. Believing that both history and nineteenth-century evolutionary thought indicated that the universe was infused with a divinely ordained principle of progressive advancement, Whitman extended this idea of ongoing amelioration to the soul after its human death. Viewed from Whitman's transcendentalist perspective, the signs of progress in nature and history were more than natural facts; they were also "eidólons" or religious symbols, and as symbols they were the "needed emblem" of the "progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe" ("Song of the Open Road," section 13). The highways for souls were grand because there were no dead ends; the progress of the soul was a "perpetual journey" ("Song of Myself," section 46), a "journey ever continued" ("Thoughts [Of ownership...]"), an "endless march" ("Going Somewhere"). Apart from affirming its ongoing existence and development until it meets with God or becomes a god itself, Whitman remains intentionally vague about the soul's posthuman existence, merely stating that it passes to "other spheres" or "fitting spheres" ("By Blue Ontario's Shore,'' section 5; "Starting from Paumanok," section 13; "A Song of Joys"; "The World below the Brine").

It is not generally recognized that "Song of Myself," in which Whitman presents himself as the prophet of a new religion, culminates with a presentation of this understanding of immortality as ongoing process. In the 1855 edition, after briefly tracing his evolution from the "huge first Nothing" at the beginning of the creation up to human existence (section 44), Whitman then looks out at night upon the immensity of the star-filled universe: "the far-sprinkled systems" that "edge but the rim of the farther systems" (section 45). Gazing upon the "crowded heaven," he asks his ever yearning spirit whether it will be "filled and satisfied" when we become "the enfolders of those orbs," and his soul replies, "No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond" (section 46). In the midst of these lines, Whitman explicitly assures his readers of their immortality and ongoing development: "Our rendezvous is fitly appointed. . . . God will be there and wait till we come" (section 45). Later, in 1867, he reinforces this message by expanding the second half of the line: "The Lord will be there, and wait till I come, on perfect terms; / (The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine, will be there.)"

In contrast to these intellectual assertions, Whitman's mystical affirmations of immortality attempt to lead the spiritually prepared reader to a profound sense of calm well-being which constitutes itself in the consciousness of the subject as having a special reality or power. Whitman then interprets this elevated state of consciousness as an experience of a transcendent spiritual reality (or divinity) which the soul will know more fully in the afterlife. The calmness of spirit induced by a sense of being loved was, for Whitman, the strongest mystical anticipation of the afterlife. For example, a letter to his Australian friend and disciple Bernard O'Dowd concludes with "love & best respects" and asserts that this "pure sentiment" may be the "best proof of immortality" (Correspondence 5:168). Thus in Whitman's mystical poetry on death it is important to note that when his poetic persona assumes a mystical state of consciousness, concepts such as reality, God, love, and death become virtually synonymous.

The second entry in "Calamus," "Scented Herbage of My Breast," a largely misinterpreted poem, is crucial to grasping Whitman's mystical understanding of the relationship between love and death. In the opening "Calamus" poem and the first half of "Scented Herbage," Whitman announces that the calamus grass is a religious symbol that has "talk'd to" his soul. Then in the second part of "Scented Herbage," he interprets the calamus as symbol of the comradeship that is the best proof of immortality. He experiences a mystical state of consciousness that quiets and elevates his soul ("how calm, how solemn it grows to ascend to the atmosphere of lovers"), giving him a sense of participating in a more real spiritual order: the "real reality" which transcends the natural world. In comparison to this sacred experience, the ordinary world of secular experience seems mere illusion: a "mask of materials" or "show of appearance." Because Whitman interprets this love as a mystical prolepsis of the spiritual existence he will know after death when his soul participates more fully in the spirit of a loving divinity, he can assert that he has the necessary spiritual insight to deliver his readers from the terror of death: "Through me shall the words be said to make death exhilarating." Death will be a fuller experience of the love the soul has known in this life; thus Whitman asserts that love and death mean "precisely the same" or are "folded inseparably together."

Whitman's most celebrated poems on death, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (spanning a period from 1858 to 1867), work to bring the reader to a mystical state in a manner similar to "Scented Herbage." However, instead of drawing upon the experience of human love, they instead appeal to certain aspects of nature that Whitman experienced as instilling the soul with a sense of spiritual serenity and transcendence. Key among these were not only the stars (already discussed as a symbol of immortality in "Song of Myself") but also the night, the sea and other bodies of water, and the nocturnal warbling of the hermit thrush. Whitman's sense of the night as conveying an ineffable sense of a more real spiritual realm is succinctly encapsulated in an 1876 note which describes the night as presenting "such suggestions to the soul of space, of mystery, of spirituality, of the ideal—without words, without touch, yet beyond all words" (Notebooks 3:1093). Like the night, the sea was also a prime symbol of the spiritual, and Whitman frequently used it to symbolize the transcendent God from which the creation came and to which souls returned in their posthuman existence. For Whitman, the hermit thrush was virtually a spiritual entity; its habitat was "the solemn primal woods & of nature pure and holy" and its song was a "hymn / real, serious sweet" (Notebooks 2:766).

This symbolism of immortality and a transcendent spiritual realm must be kept in mind when interpreting Whitman's two great poems on death. In "Out of the Cradle," Whitman, as both boy and poet, anguishes over the inevitable frustration of human love, but then experiences the soothing effect of the sea's rhythmic "whispering" and "laving" waves under the star-filled heavens. This induces a state of calm and reassurance that is interpreted as a mystical anticipation of the afterlife. Thus the God of "Out of the Cradle" is a "fierce old mother" who sternly demands the death of her creatures but also a loving mother who speaks through her creation to convince the soul that death leads to an afterlife in which the soul's yearning for love is satisfied by a God of love (the "Great Camerado, the lover true" of "Song of Myself," section 45). The concluding movement of the "Lilacs" elegy works to create a similar calming effect and employs many of the same symbols. After presenting a tranquil evening scene of a recovered nation of productive farmers and workers, it then, with the coming of darkness, culminates in the liquid aria of the hermit thrush that blesses the entire creation, giving final emphasis to the star-filled night and the "ocean shore and husky whispering wave" (section 14).

In addition to using symbol and mood to establish a mystical sense of immortality in these poems, Whitman also carefully links these passages of repose with other parts of Leaves that do contain explicit assertions of immortality. For instance, in "Out of the Cradle," the sea's final, emphatic whispering of "death" connects this poem to the suggestions of immortality associated with "death" in "Scented Herbage." Similarly, the source of the poet's "unsatisfied love," the "unknown want" of "Out of the Cradle," is clarified by Whitman's later addition in 1871 of the couplet in "Songs of Parting" which tells the soul that after death it will be free to "sail" out into the divine sea to "seek and find" the "untold want" that life "ne'er granted" ("The Untold Want"). In "Lilacs," the lilac becomes a symbol of immortality by being described as "blooming perennial" (section 1) and "tall-growing" with "delicate" blossoms and "perfume strong" (section 3), thus becoming an analogue to the "perennial," "tall," "delicate," and "[s]cented" calamus grass of "Scented Herbage" which is, in turn, associated with the grass of "Song of Myself," which "shows there is really no death" (section 6).

Turning from Whitman's writings to a consideration of the critical discussion of his views on immortality, it seems fair to conclude that there is clearly no basis for either the position that Whitman never believed in immortality or that he only developed this belief in the later editions. Nor is there any consistent evidence for arguing that Whitman expressed no belief in immortality in the new poems of the late 1850s and 1860s. The one issue for which there is some ground for disagreement is whether "Out of the Cradle" and "Lilacs" affirm immortality. The strongest negative evidence is the absence of overt assertions of the soul's transcendence. However, if the reader is sensitive to the mystical dimensions of Whitman's poetry and places these poems within the larger context of Leaves, the evidence for reading them as attempting to bring the reader to an existential sense of immortality is compelling.

Bibliography

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

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Griffith, Clark. "Sex and Death: The Significance of Whitman's 'Calamus' Themes." Philological Quarterly 39 (1960): 18–38.

Helms, Alan. "Whitman Revised." Études Anglaises 37 (1984): 247–271.

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

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Whicher, Stephen. "Whitman's Awakening to Death: Toward a Biographical Reading of 'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.'" Studies in Romanticism 1 (1961): 9–28.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. "Whitman's Anonymous Self-reviews 1855–6." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 34–41.


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