Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To Thee Old Cause" (1871)
Author:
Duggar, Margaret H.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"To Thee Old Cause" invokes a term, "good old cause," with political currency from the time of the British Puritan Commonwealth, when it referred to efforts to secure civil and religious liberty through expanded powers of Parliament. In jottings in Notes and Fragments Whitman defined the term "good old cause," which also resonated strongly in American political struggles as that "which promulges liberty, justice, the cause of the people as against infidels and tyrants" (55).

The association of the term with Puritan struggles for self-determination against monarchical and ecclesiastical hierarchies fits Whitman's preoccupation with enlightened self-determination for individual democratic citizens as explored in "Song of Myself" and other poems, as well as various prose works, including his prefaces to his poems. In fact, the Puritan practice of self-examination, separated from doctrinal religious concerns, may be said to lead directly to "Song of Myself" through Emerson and other such apostles of the self.

However, "Old Cause," first published in 1871, claims for Whitman's work at least two historical dimensions. In his poetry, he addresses not only the political independence of citizens growing out of the Revolutionary War but the necessity for union affirmed by the recently concluded American Civil War; "my book and the war are one," he says in the poem. How Whitman reconciled the apparently contradictory claims of independence and union he revealed in "Origins of Attempted Secession," where he defined the Civil War as an internal struggle, not of "two distinct and separate peoples, but a conflict (often happening, and very fierce) between the passions and paradoxes of one and the same identity" (Prose Works 2:426–427). In his 1872 Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, he called Leaves of Grass "the song of a great composite democratic individual, male or female" which is the basis of "an aggregated, inseparable, unprecedented, vast, composite, electric democratic nationality" (Prose Works 2:463).

Whitman's assertion in the poem that "all war through time was really fought" for the "old cause" reflects his belief that recent scientific theories of evolution suggest that all human struggles are essentially strivings for self-determination. In the 1872 Preface, he rejoices that "the old theology of the East," hierarchical authoritarianism, will "disappear" while "science . . . prepares the way" for "the new theology." It will be the basis for a "sane and complete personality" and ultimately a "grand and electric nationality" which will unite the nation in a spiritual— that is, secular-religious—bond (Prose Works 2:462). This he says in "Old Cause" is the "axis" on which Leaves turns.

Bibliography

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

Gohdes, Clarence. "Whitman and the 'Good Old Cause.'" American Literature 34 (1962): 400–403.

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

____. Notes and Fragments. Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke. 1899. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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