Selected Criticism

Volney, Constantin (1757–1820)
Smith, Sherwood
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

French linguist, historian, politician, philosopher, Constantin François Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney was the author of Les Ruines; ou, Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (Paris, 1791; translated in the United States by Joel Barlow and Thomas Jefferson, about 1802). Greatly admired by Whitman's father, The Ruins was one of the books on which Whitman told Traubel he had been "raised" (Traubel 445). It was the principal channel to Whitman of the ideas and values of the French Enlightenment. A meditation begun at the ruins of Palmyra on the natural causes of the rise and fall of great cities and nations, The Ruins influenced many of Whitman's early writings, and echoes of it may be heard throughout Leaves of Grass, from the 1855 Preface to "Passage to India." Volney believed that the source of all human woes was the ignorance of the weak and the greed of the strong, abetted by organized religions and tyrannical governments. This belief was tempered by his hope that by open-eyed study of nature and enlightened self-love mankind might devise a truly natural religion and thereby reach moral "perfection."

His book had far-reaching influence not only on Whitman's social and political ideas, but on his literary imagery and techniques as well. It was also one of the sources of Whitman's prodigious knowledge of comparative religion. Though Whitman greatly admired Volney, he was far from complete acceptance of Volney's mechanistic cosmology and was closer to Jean Jacques Rousseau in his assumption of innate human goodness.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

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

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

Goodale, David. "Some of Walt Whitman's Borrowings." American Literature 10 (1938): 202–213.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Volney, C.F. The Ruins, or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires; and the Laws of Nature. 1791. Baltimore, Md.: Black Classics, 1991.


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