Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Harris, Thomas Lake (1823–1906)
Author:
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born in England, Thomas Lake Harris came to the United States as a young boy. Influenced by Swedenborgianism, Harris founded in New York an independent Christian spiritualist church that Whitman probably attended in the early 1850s. Around 1850, Harris began to go into trances. While in these mystical states, he would dictate long poems about celestial love. Harris's poems suggest that the human relationship with God is physical as well as spiritual. Like Whitman's, they celebrate the sensual aspects of religious experience. Harris's followers practiced "open breathing," a process of inhaling the Divine Breath directly into the body, and a system of celibate marriage whereby each person was free to live with a heavenly "counterpart." Ascribing to the lungs a principal role in spiritual communion, Harris used in his poems words like "influx," "efflux," and "afflatus," which appear frequently in Whitman's poems. David S. Reynolds has recently suggested that poems by Harris like the four-thousand-line An Epic of the Starry Heaven (1854) may have helped to inspire Whitman's own erotic mysticism. This influence may be reflected in passages like the well-known section of "Song of Myself" in which the poet "loafes" with his soul on a transparent summer morning. Reynolds describes Harris as an "unappreciated figure in Whitman biography" (266).

Bibliography

Cuthbert, Arthur A. The Life and World-Work of Thomas Lake Harris. 1908. New York: AMS, 1975.

Harris, Thomas Lake. An Epic of the Starry Heaven. New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1854.

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


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