Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

Pantheism involves a belief in the complete identity of God and the world, the idea that everything is God and God is everything, and the conviction that everything in the universe is sacred. A poetic description of pantheism is found in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733): "All are but parts of one stupendous whole / Whose body Nature is, and God the soul."

Pantheistic strains are found throughout Leaves of Grass and Whitman's prose works. In an 1847 journal entry Whitman suggests that the "soul or spirit transmits itself into all matter" (Whitman 57) such as rocks and trees and even earth, sun and stars. "The unseen is proven by the seen," the poet adds in "Song of Myself" (section 3). He beholds God in "every object" and even finds "letters from God dropt in the street" (section 48). Here the pantheistic element in Whitman's thought becomes clear. Whitman is attempting to erase the usual dichotomy found between spirit and matter, as in this passage from "Song of Myself": "I have said that the soul is not more than the body, / And I have said that the body is not more than the soul, / And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is" (section 48).

Karl Shapiro says in Start with the Sun that Whitman was trying "to obliterate the fatal dualism of body and soul" (Miller, Shapiro, and Slote 67). In Studies in Classic American Literature D.H. Lawrence adds that Whitman "was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something 'superior' and 'above' the flesh" (184). Whitman was "as nearly pure pantheist as anything else" (6), Floyd Stovall notes in "Main Drifts in Whitman's Poetry," but "drifted" over his lifetime from a "materialism pantheism" in the direction of a highly "spiritualized idealism" (21). Gay Wilson Allen, in A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman, notes that Whitman wanted to establish a new religion in which "man would worship the divinity incarnated in himself" (21).

Many observers, including Henry David Thoreau, noted similarities between Leaves of Grass and the philosophy of Hinduism, which centers on "non dualism" and which sees God and the world as one. In Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism (1964), originally written as a dissertation for Benares Hindu University in India, V.K. Chari details some of those similarities.

It would seem to be impossible to categorize Whitman's work in one single category. Certainly elements of materialism and naturalism are also found there. Pantheism has to be one of the categories to be considered, however, in any adequate understanding of Whitman's thought.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman. 1970. New York: Octagon, 1986.

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. The Meaning of Philosophy. New York: Harper and Row, 1953.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.

Miller, James E., Jr., Karl Shapiro, and Bernice Slote. Start With the Sun: Studies in Cosmic Poetry. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1960.

Stovall, Floyd. "Main Drifts in Whitman's Poetry." American Literature 4 (1932): 3–21.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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