Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Passage to India" (1871)
Author:
Mason, John B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First appearing in 1871 in a separate publication containing the title poem, a few other new poems, and a number of poems previously published in Leaves of Grass, "Passage to India" was subsequently included in a 120-page supplement to the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1871. Some printings of the 1871 edition contained the supplement, but, hoping for additional revenue, Whitman also had the supplement issued separately. The chronology of the poem's composition is not entirely clear, but portions were written as early as 1868, a year before the appearance of two of the three modern achievements that the poem extols. In 1869, the Suez Canal was completed, as was the Union and Central Pacific transcontinental railroad. The third achievement, the completion of the Atlantic cable, had taken place four years earlier in 1866.

The last major poem of Whitman's career, "Passage to India" celebrates the achievement of material science and industry, but the poem merely used these physical forms to accomplish what he termed the "unfolding of cosmic purposes" (Traubel 167). In his mature years, Whitman returned to the dominant theme of the early poems: the transcendental journey to the Soul. With the world linked by the modern wonders of transportation and communication, Whitman envisioned a world ready for its final accomplishment: the creation of spiritual unity.

The poet in section 5 presents himself as the "true son of God, the poet" who will settle the doubts of man (Adam and Eve) and justify their innate desire for exploration. The poet will assuage such doubts by showing that the world is not disjoined and diffuse, but integrated and whole. Part of that integration must entail an account of the past, a time in which previous explorers, like Columbus, failed. To transform previous failure into success, the poet celebrates America, the continent that Columbus discovered accidentally but which ultimately gave reality to his dream of connecting East and West. In section 7 the poet begins to express his impatience with waiting for the Soul to make its journey to "primal thought," to "realms of budding bibles." At the beginning of section 8, the poet urges the Soul to action, and in that section and the last, the poet celebrates the exuberant flight of the Soul. Through reconciling the thoughts and deeds of the past, the Soul, merged with the poet, unleashes itself in flight toward a merger with God, "the Comrade perfect."

"Passage to India" can be approached on at least three levels: the philosophical, the political, and the aesthetic. Philosophically, the poem is thoroughly transcendental. The title suggests Whitman's longtime interest in the East and in mysticism. India represents the historical cradle of civilization and religion and also the ultimate goal of the spiritual journey, yet, as Whitman says at the beginning of the poem's last section, the goal is "Passage to more than India!" (section 9). Whitman's brand of mysticism was Western at its core, embracing the physical world as a vehicle to the spiritual. Hegelian in his conception of progress, Whitman sees an ongoing confrontation of opposites (physical and spiritual, ancient and modern, life and death), a mediation between them, and the creation of a new entity that enters into an endless cycle of creation. The physical is just as vital as is the spiritual to provide a pathway to the Soul.

In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman referred to physical phenomena as the "dumb, beautiful ministers" (section 9) that provide the pathway to the Soul. A decade and half later, he returned to his transcendental argument—that spirituality will be achieved through an embracing of the physical world, not through its denial. Yet the poem does not convey the gritty physical realities of the early poems. In "Passage to India," the achievements of modern science are linked to the monumental wonders of the ancient world. However, Whitman presents them as far less robust entities than even the everyday Brooklyn ferry and its passengers. In the first section of "Passage to India," the poet praises the "light works" of engineers and the "gentle wires" of modern communication. Later, in section 3, the steel rails that cross the American continent are envisioned as "duplicate slender lines." For Whitman, modern science and technology, no less than religion and art, unify the world, dissolve the limits of time and space, and connect the individual to God. But in his last great poetic effort—what Gay Wilson Allen likened to Milton's epic justification of God's ways to man—Whitman's vision, as had his language, had softened. Even the Soul itself, which he terms "thou actual Me," operates gently (section 8). The Soul "gently masterest the orbs" (section 8). For many years, Whitman had repeated his transcendental praise of unity and had insisted upon it even as he graphically constructed an earthy, multitudinous panorama. In "Passage to India" he is too impatient to construct the panorama, and he yearns for the journey to be accomplished. "Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?" he asks (section 9).

Politically, "Passage to India" can be seen as a questioning of the materialistic values of the Gilded Age. On one hand, Whitman embraces American capitalism and its products. David Reynolds sees a marked difference in Whitman's depiction of capitalism and labor in the early poems and in the later poems. In the early poems, he says, Whitman praises individual laborers; in his later poems he extols the virtues of industry and the workforce, not workers. The armies of the past would be replaced by "armies" of workers. However, as Reynolds notes, Whitman was not entirely comfortable with America's growing materialism. In Democratic Vistas, completed the same year as "Passage to India," Whitman envisioned America evolving beyond its preoccupation with commerce. Betsy Erkkila sees in the poem the same repudiation of materialistic values as it "leaps" toward spiritual transcendence, but she sees also a reconciliation of materialism and spiritualism in the figure of Columbus. In Columbus, Erkkila argues, Whitman found his ideal merger of the explorer of the physical world and the religious prophet whose dream of reaching India had been achieved through the creation of an industrialized nation. The poet then becomes the spiritual heir of Columbus. As the poet-explorer, he could praise both individualism and national unity.

The poem's aesthetic qualities have earned it mixed reviews. For some readers, Whitman's turning to traditional poetic diction ("thee," "thou," "seest") is disappointing. For others, like Stanley Coffman, the poem's imagery more than compensates. For Coffman, the dominant motif of the poem is metamorphosis, and Whitman uses images of "passage" of forms into higher forms, spiraling to the Soul. He connects the past with the present, the present with the future, with images of projection; the natural growth of the past into the present projects or propels the present into the future. A duality of images reconciles a duality of concepts.

If "Passage to India" is less pleasing than Whitman's earlier verse, the reason is not because the poem deals with a more abstract or "universal" theme. The striving for a transcendent state is the theme of both "Passage to India" and the major early poems. Aside from its archaic language, what marks the poem is its self-constraint and self-containment. Lacking are the grand catalogues of the early poems and the personal, oratorical appeals to the reader. Whitman was master of both the long and the short lyric. "A Noiseless Patient Spider," one of the poems included in the Passage to India supplement, illustrates well Whitman's mastery of the short form. Both poems echo each other. Adam and Eve in "Passage to India" are said to be "wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations" (section 5). The speaker on his journey to the Soul passes the "Promontory" (section 3). In both poems he was dealing with the figure of the poet striving to reach the Soul through making connections among physical phenomena. Without the catalogues, the interspersed narratives, and the expansive rhetorical features of the early long poems, Whitman's talent, at least for some readers, found its best expression in the short poem such as "A Noiseless Patient Spider."

Bibliography

Coffman, Stanley K., Jr. "Form and Meaning in Whitman's 'Passage to India.'" PMLA 70 (1955): 337–349.

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

Lovell, John, Jr. "Appreciating Whitman: 'Passage to India.'" MLQ 21 (1960): 131–141.

Reynolds, David, S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

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


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