Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Spirit That Form'd This Scene" (1881)
Author:
Oates, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This short poem (subtitled "Written in Platte Cañon, Colorado") invokes Earth's Creator in the title and first line, then briefly marvels at western scenery—rocks, peaks, and gorges—before turning to the subject of Whitman and his creations. The poet claims inspiration by the same creative spirit. The issue of poetic form emerges: critics have "charged" that his poems lack disciplined art or formal skill. They are not "measur'd" or "wrought" or "polish'd." The conclusion apostrophizes that his poems—his "wild arrays"—honor instead the playful, unconstrained, and mysterious spirit that revels in nature.

Whitman traveled to the West for the first and only time in September of 1879, and from the experience he produced for the 1881 edition this poem and two others: "The Prairie States" and "Italian Music in Dakota." The latter is especially relevant, since it too connects the spirit of nature with human artifice. The open spaces and large scale of the West powerfully confirmed Whitman's sweeping concept of nature, to which his ideals of democracy and poetry were intimately related. In Specimen Days Whitman summed up the impact of the West: "I have found the law of my own poems" (Specimen Days 210).

That law, governing both nature and poetry, was an open-ended creative force, not to be confined to neat meters or clipped gardens. "Spirit" is a carefully constructed apologia which embodies Emersonian organic form: it creates its own shape from inner necessity, like the "lilacs or roses" of Whitman's 1855 Preface (Comprehensive 714). Whitman's technique impressed contemporary English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who found troubling yet compelling the poem's "savage" artistry.

A close technical reading reveals that artistry. "Spirit" exemplifies Whitman's favored form, growing from short lines to long and then coming to rest again in short. The first and last lines are identical in rhythm and alliteration; those between develop artful changes on the basic three-beat line.

Bibliography

Aarnes, William. "'Free Margins': Identity and Silence in Whitman's Specimen Days." ESQ 28 (1982): 243–260.

Aspiz, Harold. "Whitman's 'Spirit That Form'd This Scene.'" Explicator 28 (1969): Item 25.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "A Letter to Robert Bridges." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 13–14.

Lehmberg, P.S. "'That Vast Something': A Note on Whitman and the American West." Studies in the Humanities 6 (1978): 50–53.

Mitchell, Roger. "A Prosody for Whitman?" PMLA 84 (1969): 1606–1612.

Piasecki, Bruce. "Conquest of the Globe: Walt Whitman's Concept of Nature." Calamus 23 (1983): 29–44.

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

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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