Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

In "Starting from Paumanok" (1860), Walt Whitman proclaimed his intention to "inaugurate a religion" (section 7), and ever since scholars have debated the precise nature of Whitman's metaphysics. Influenced from early childhood by the Quaker religion of his parents and by the preaching of Elias Hicks, Whitman rejected dogma in favor of his own free-ranging exploration of spirituality.

Whitman acquired a romantic pantheism from German and English sources, according to Gay Wilson Allen, as well as from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although T.R. Rajasekharaiah and V.K. Chari attempt to identify some Eastern sources of Whitman's metaphysics, more probably the poet was influenced by popular philosophical works of his own age, namely, Frances Wright's A Few Days in Athens and Count Volney's Ruins. Both books helped create Whitman's philosophy, offering an Epicureanism that he readily assimilated. Critics have underestimated the impact these works had on Whitman's conception of metaphysics, George Hutchinson believes, in particular on the creation of his eclectic spirituality. After reading Wright's book, Whitman studied Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a massive, didactic poem intended to explain Epicureanism. Although Whitman disliked systems and never embraced Epicureanism in its entirety, one can see in his poems evidence of an acceptance of its main tenet, the unity of body and soul.

The most eloquent expression of this belief is "Sun-Down Poem" (1856), later renamed "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which appeared in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem Whitman conflates time, space, and the individual souls of the ferry passengers into an eternal unity. Whitman expresses this unity in many of his greatest poems by blending the material and the spiritual. In "Song of Myself," for example, the poet sees "God in every object" (section 48), and even though he admits not understanding God, he has faith that the spirit of life continues because the matter of nature is inexhaustible. Whitman concludes the poem by asserting the unity of spirit and matter and by exhorting the reader to search for the poet in the grass under his "boot-soles" (section 52). The implied connection between body and soul, reader and poet, and more generally between one person and another, provides the heart of Whitman's metaphysics. In "The Base of All Metaphysics" (1871), Whitman asserts that the "attraction of friend to friend" underlies all the world's systems of philosophy.

Many critics have questioned, however, whether Whitman was ever really able to resolve in his own mind the question of the body-versus-soul dichotomy. Roger Asselineau, for example, argues that Whitman had settled on such unity before the appearance of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, but that his attitude gradually changed in favor of the spiritual part of his belief as his body grew infirm. As early as 1867, following his experiences visiting wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and with his own physical condition becoming problematic, Whitman began to stress a spiritual longing that would offer escape from corporeal bounds. James Warren sees the change even earlier, with the appearance of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In that version Whitman inaugurates his religion by moving "Starting from Paumanok" to the initial position. David Kuebrich, perhaps the first modern critic to take Whitman's religion seriously, provides an interesting counter-current to those who discuss the phases of Whitman's development by asserting that the poet's metaphysics provided from the very beginning the core of his poetic endeavor.

Still, there is evidence that, as he grew older, Whitman was not satisfied with some of the implications of his earlier work, in particular the idea that no individual identity would survive the death of the body. Michael Moon, in his fine work with the first four versions of Leaves of Grass, finds evidence of a shifting perspective. Moon and Hutchinson agree that Whitman grew increasingly preoccupied with the mortality of the flesh and with the immortality of the soul. Certainly, Whitman did become more concerned with what his religion might mean for him after death. In the Preface to the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass, for example, Whitman speaks soberly of the "eleventh hour" of his life, acknowledging that many of the poems are somber enough that the book might be titled "Death's book" (Whitman 744). In his later poems, and in revisions of earlier ones, Whitman stresses the belief that a discrete individual will survive the death of the body. Fittingly, 1892, the year of Whitman's death, witnessed the poem "Good-Bye my Fancy!," in which the poet exults to his soul "Good-bye—and hail!," again presenting death as both cessation and commencement. While Whitman's metaphysics do seem to engage more spiritual realms as he grows older, the physical continues to be implicated in the spiritual even in his later work. Against a backdrop of fluctuation, a continuity in Whitman's thought emerges, and with "Good-Bye my Fancy!" he ends his career still asserting that body and soul are "blended into one."

Bibliography

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

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

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

Hutchinson, George B. 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.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Rajasekharaiah, T.R. The Roots of Whitman's Grass. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1970.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

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


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