Selected Criticism

Zapata-Whelan, Carol M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" ("Song of Myself," section 51). Whitman's famous question and answer summarize his philosophy of philosophies. His elastic, eclectic "I" inviting conflicts and embracing inconsistencies "gives up" to the reader "my contradictory moods." Party to a transcendentalism that dismisses "foolish consistency" as the "hobgoblin" of little minds, elbowing an Emerson in whom, as Whitman said, "there is hardly a proposition . . . which you cannot find the opposite of in some other place" (qtd. in Asselineau 377), the poet does justice to Keats's theory of negative capability (an acceptance of conflicting ideas) and incarnates his own version of the Hegelian synthesis of opposites. For Whitman, contradiction is the conjunction of "local" or temporal inconsistencies which cannot touch yet can in fact lead to universal truths. There are several types of contradiction in Whitman: apparent contradiction, which is paradox; about-faces of opinion; ambivalent pronouncements; and a text at odds with Whitman's affirmations. Whitman plots contradiction, but it also sneaks up on him.

As James Miller observes, Whitman cultivates contradiction from the beginning lines of Leaves of Grass in "One's-Self I Sing." The tension strung between the "simple separate person" singing for, and standing out from, the "En-Masse" starts the movement of opposites which will push Whitman's verse now strongly, now feebly, through its directions and indirections, bald affirmations and "faint clews." It is in the amorous wrestle between the I and the All, the Me and the Not Me, that Whitman distinguishes and unites opposing elements. His role as poet-prophet is to individuate and reconcile. In Democratic Vistas (1871), where Whitman examines the stunted democracy that blooms in Leaves of Grass, he speaks of the people as being like "our huge earth itself, which, to ordinary scansion, is full of vulgar contradictions" (Prose Works 2:376). It is the artist's mind, "lit with the infinite," transcending the differences of an assumed ensemble, that can transform the "ungrammatical, untidy,...ill-bred" average of Democratic Vistas (2:376) into the divine oneness of Leaves of Grass.

In an effort to transcend the dead-end vision of such "ordinary scansion" or of what he calls in Specimen Days (1882) the "malady" of "seems," Whitman's protean "I" would distinguish and penetrate the (sur)faces of his ensemble in poems like "Faces" and "The Sleepers." In such an extension and uncovering of identity, he would illustrate the resolution of what he saw as the contradiction between the necessary yet isolating pride of individualism and the outward-reaching sympathy needed for a cohesive democracy. The synthesis of the two, as Roger Asselineau notes, would result in Whitman's personalism, the self-reliance of the individual as integral member of a healthy democratic "En-Masse."

So zealous was Whitman in his effort to transcend temporal obstacles to a healthy personalism in democratic union that he would appear to dismiss not just apparent contradiction but also the presence of death and evil as surface blips. The breezy "It is just as lucky to die" ("Song of Myself," section 7) seems to deny death as much as the oracular riddle "Great is goodness . . . Great is wickedness" ("Great Are the Myths") dismisses evil. Yet these early pronouncements—contradicted elsewhere in Leaves of Grass—crudely illustrate Whitman's acceptance (comparable to that of Vedantic mysticism) of the competing forces of existence. The poet who would commemorate not only goodness, growth, and harmony, but also evil, death, and chaos, sees the latter as a condition on the way to the ideal. This form of Hegelianism occurred in Whitman even before he had a real exposure to German idealism. As Whitman states in his 1855 Preface, "The poets of the kosmos advance through all interpositions and coverings and turmoils to first principles" (Leaves 723). In his later "The Base of All Metaphysics," Whitman expresses his admiration for Hegel, seeing himself as poetic representative of the German's philosophy of evolution through negative and positive forces.

There are contradictions in Leaves of Grass, however, that are neither markers of truths nor potential Hegelian solutions. Because Leaves of Grass as an evolving text spans decades, the poet contradicts himself simply by changing his mind: "If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it," he announces, or "Now I reverse what I said" ("Says," sections 2 and 7). Whitman even contradicts his defense of contradiction in the famous "Respondez!" (suppressed in 1881), where he loses patience with conflict, declaring with uncharacteristic sarcasm, "Let men and women be mock'd . . . Let contradictions prevail! let one thing contradict another! and let one line of my poems contradict another!" (Neglected 28).

Whitman would appear to ignore the fact that some of the views in his ideological grab bag not only conflicted with but threatened to undermine some of his declarations in Leaves of Grass. The poet of brotherhood has been taken to task for his problematic stances on slavery, Native Americans, women, and foreign policy as issued sporadically in his prose. Moreover, Betsy Erkkila finds that there are crises in Leaves of Grass, unplotted, in which the text inadvertently contradicts Whitman's affirmations, reflecting the uncontainability of social and historical conflicts that the poet would resolve and absorb in his verse.

If Whitman invited, defended, deplored, and ignored contradiction, he did so containing the opposing elements of the seen and the unseen worlds he assumed. The poet of the body and of the soul, the "solitary singer" of the en-masse, the American Adam of archaisms and neologisms, and the radical conservative and conservative radical, Whitman was a master, as Hart Crane observed, at coordinating opposites.

John Addington Symonds compared Whitman to the universe—at first sight contradictory. Malcolm Cowley saw the poet's ideas as pell-mell driftwood in a flooding river. D.H. Lawrence likened Whitman's synthetic personalism to an "awful pudding" (178). But Whitman's "system" was contradiction; it allowed for what he called the "vast seething mass of materials" (Leaves 743) of an America at an historical crossroads. Whitman the artist would offer no fixed system as the path to the ideal, admitting, "when it comes to . . . tying philosophy to the multiplication table—I am lost—lost utterly." He could only offer his capacity for contradictions that the reader would accept, reject, or resolve. As he conceded: "I am not Anarchist, not Methodist, not anything you can name. Yet I see why all the ists and isms . . . exist—can see why they must exist and why I must include them all" (Traubel 71).


Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

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

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994.

Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Teller, Walter. Walt Whitman's Camden Conversations. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1973.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1908. Vol. 2. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. The Neglected Walt Whitman: Vital Texts. Ed. Sam Abrams. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.

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

Zapata-Whelan, Carol. "'Do I Contradict Myself?': Progression Through Contraries in Walt Whitman's 'The Sleepers.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1992): 25–39.


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