Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Redwood-Tree" (1874)
Author:
Olson, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written in the fall, 1873, "Song of the Redwood-Tree" was first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine with "Prayer of Columbus" in February 1874. Whitman was paid one hundred dollars for the poem. He included it in "Centennial Songs—1876," which was annexed to Two Rivulets (1876), and then in Leaves of Grass (1881) in its present position among an unnamed group of twelve "songs" between the clusters "Calamus" and "Birds of Passage." "Redwood-Tree" appeared in volume 2 of Half-Hours with the Best American Authors (4 vols., 1886–1887). The poem's title remained consistent from its original appearance, and Whitman made no significant revisions.

A poem of the westering experience and Manifest Destiny, "Redwood-Tree" celebrates the popular nineteenth-century ideology of human progress and its culmination in the New World. It shares these themes with several other poems with which it is grouped, especially "Song of the Broad-Axe" (1856) and "Song of the Exposition" (1871).

In "Redwood-Tree" a tree speaks for all his brother trees. The poet, like the speaker in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), hears the tree's voice in his "soul" (section 1) and thus internalizes the emotions and essence of nature. The tree recognizes that its time has come, that it will now pass from the earth and provide for the human race, which is "Promis'd to be fulfilled" (section 3). This implied divine promise will be the culmination of humankind in an "empire new" (section 1), which will become a thriving world seaport. Such imagery reflects that of "Facing West from California's Shores" (1860) and "Passage to India" (1871), both of which also suggest America's prominence in the encircled and fulfilled world. The New World also claims distinction in history because it incorporates the past and will "build a grander future" ("Redwood-Tree," section 3).

In "Redwood-Tree" Whitman's politics are very much those of the public poet extolling the popular ideology, or myth, that America is the spiritual union of humankind and nature. Whereas Cecelia Tichi suggests that Whitman's poem is understandable in light of two hundred years of the myth, Betsy Erkkila claims that Whitman is simply content not to explore the irony of cutting down trees to unite humans with nature. According to M. Wynn Thomas, a number of writers and painters were concerned about the mass destruction of trees in the virgin territory. While aware of this concern, Whitman wrote "Redwood-Tree," which rationalizes, even credits, such destruction. Thomas further posits that, while the poem is in a sense disgraceful, it demonstrates Whitman's attempt to use poetry to transcend less respectable human actions and to raise the ideology to a higher level.

In letters to Rudolf Schmidt (4 March and 28 July 1874) Whitman himself explained that the poem was meant to idealize the Pacific West and that it pleased him more than any of his other later poems. Perhaps the poem pleased him not so much because of its political import, however, but because of its personal significance. Gay Wilson Allen suggests that "Redwood-Tree" grew out of Whitman's loneliness and despair during the fall and winter of 1873–1874 and that his identification with the tree is his attempt at reconciliation with a deteriorating life.

These various readings of "Redwood-Tree" perhaps demonstrate that this poem, which sounds typical Whitmanian themes, does not reach its potential. That is, it leaves the political ramifications unexplored, the spiritual intentions unfulfilled, and the poet's life not clearly related.

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.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Tichi, Cecelia. New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1969.

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


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