Selected Criticism

Cederstrom, Lorelei
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although symbolism is an inherent part of the poet's art, the idea of a symbolist movement did not enter the vocabulary of literary critics until the last decade of the nineteenth century, at about the time of Walt Whitman's death. Since that time, the extent to which Whitman can be called a symbolist in theory or practice has been the subject of debate. Most of the basic critical studies have suggested a strong symbolist impulse in Whitman's work, including F.O. Matthiessen's exploration of Whitman's place in the "American Renaissance" (1941), Henry Seidel Canby's biography/critical analysis (1943), and, most directly, Charles Feidelson's book on symbolism in American literature (1953). Recent studies have also demonstrated Whitman's direct influence upon the French symbolists and through them the major symbolist writers of twentieth century.

There are, however, some factors which complicate the designation of Whitman as symbolist. These include the self-contradictory statements in the various prefaces to Leaves of Grass, the comparisons that suggest Whitman uses symbolism in a very different way than do the poets of the symbolist school, and the question raised in recent studies as to whether even Whitman's more obvious symbols are indeed symbols in the contemporary sense of that term.

Those who view Whitman as a symbolist point out the repeated references throughout the prefaces to Leaves of Grass to the technique he calls "indirection." In the 1855 Preface, Whitman states emphatically that his poems are "indirect and not direct" (714), adding that his readers "expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects" (716, emphasis added). Such statements of his poetic theory concur completely with the definition of symbolism as the transcendentalists had been using the term. In one of Whitman's favorite books, Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle defines the symbol in virtually identical terms, as that which "reveals and conceals" (Symons 2), noting that through the symbol the unseen is indirectly represented by the visible. Emerson, also, in two essays which Whitman knew well, "The Poet" and "Nature," writes of the symbol as that which links an object with an "unconscious truth" (Bickman 9). Emerson's transcendental definition, like Carlyle's, accords with Whitman's view of his art as that which indicates "the path between reality and their souls" (Whitman 716).

In addition to the statements in the prefaces, there are numerous explicit statements within the poems themselves of Whitman's method, which again emphasize his link with Carlyle and transcendental symbolism. He continually refers to something that inheres in reality and radiates a meaning beyond it. In "Song of Myself" the poet emphasizes that "the unseen is proved by the seen" (section 3). In "Calamus" he suggests that crucial meaning hides in "shifting forms of life." He further refers to life as a "mask of materials" for the "real reality" that lurks behind a "show of appearance" ("Scented Herbage of My Breast"). In virtually every poem there is some statement that suggests a symbolic meaning transcending the objects which embody it. In "Song of the Open Road," Whitman apostrophizes the "objects that call from diffusion" his meanings and "give them shape" (section 3).

The problem, however, is in relating Whitman's idea of symbolism with contradictory comments that appear elsewhere in the prefaces. While insisting on indirection, Whitman also writes that "nothing can make up for . . . the lack of definiteness" (719). His readers expect more than "dumb real objects" (716), yet he will have nothing stand between the poet and the reader "like curtains" (719). In the same vein, he compares his technique with that of the representational artist who simply invites his audience to participate in immediate experience and "look in the mirror" with him (719). Many of these statements would suggest an imagist rather than symbolist aesthetic. The only resolution for these conflicting statements of his intent is to explore the extent to which Whitman actually employs symbols in the poems, while bearing in mind his warning that he does not fear to contradict himself ("Song of Myself," section 51).

It is evident that Whitman employs symbols both as a structural principle for Leaves of Grass as a whole and as points of emphasis within the individual poems. At the beginning of "Song of Myself," when a child asks the poet "What is the grass?" (section 6), he begins to "guess" about some of its symbolic meanings. The entire book continues these explorations of grass as his basic symbol for the particular in its links with the cosmic. Most of the individual "leaves" likewise employ a central symbol as a unifying principle, such as the calamus root as an erotic symbol, the various roads and travels as symbols of life's journeys, the drum taps which symbolize both the excitement of parade and the death music of war, and the rivulets from the ocean of life that symbolize the end of the poet's journey at old age. Within these larger units, each section of Leaves of Grass contains individual patterns of symbols such as, for example, the lilac, the star, and the hermit thrush in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and the ferry, the sea journey, and the people in transit in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."

Many of the poems are further unified by Whitman's use of the poet himself as a symbol of everyman's questing soul that finds the cosmos within himself. For example, in "Salut au Monde!" the poet becomes a symbol of the geography of the earth: "Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens . . . Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups" (section 2). In recent years, critics have also found patterns of psychological symbolism in Whitman's exploration of the cosmic man. In these terms, Leaves of Grass as a whole can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the pattern of psychic development in the soul from the exuberant selfhood of youth in "Song of Myself" to the cosmic consciousness of the individuated Jungian "wise old man" in "Sands at Seventy."

In spite of all these symbols and symbolic structures in his work, a comparison with the later symbolists reveals that Whitman's concept may differ in certain fundamental ways from their practice. Starting with Matthiessen, critics have been troubled by the way that Whitman "could shuttle back and forth from materialism to idealism without troubling himself about any inconsistency" (521). Moreover, Whitman's reality remains infused with a mystical correspondence that differs from the symbolist concept of objects as "objective correlatives" for an emotion or a mood (Chari 174). Whitman's objects remain particular and concrete, swallowed whole by the poet's mystical imagination. In his mystical flights, Whitman unites opposites through paradoxical utterance as often as he employs symbols as a method to mediate between reality and the unseen.

This topic is far from a final resolution. That Whitman employed symbols is a matter of evidence; the extent to which Whitman can, however, be called a "symbolist," with all the critical assumptions attached to that word, remains a matter of controversy.


Bickman, Martin. The Unsounded Centre: Jungian Studies in American Romanticism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Cederstrom, Lorelei. "A Jungian Approach to the Self in Major Whitman Poems." Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Donald D. Kummings. New York: MLA, 1990. 81–89.

____. "Walt Whitman and the Imagists." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 205–223.

Chari, V.K. "The Limits of Whitman's Symbolism." Journal of American Studies 5 (1971): 173–184.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Feidelson, Charles, Jr. Symbolism and American Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1953.

Jones, P. Mansell. The Background of Modern French Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1951.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: Dutton, 1958.

Whitman, Walt. "Preface 1855—Leaves of Grass, First Edition." Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973. 711–731.


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