Selected Criticism

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

The image of Whitman as a mystic and prophet has traditionally enjoyed a wide currency among scholars. This image was first promoted by Whitman's own friends and disciples—Richard Maurice Bucke, William Douglas O'Connor, William Sloane Kennedy, and Edward Carpenter—and corroborated by recent scholars, both Western and Eastern. There are evidently recognizable resemblances between some of Whitman's utterances and those of the classical mystics of the world. Recent Whitman studies have, however, tended to disfavor the mystical readings of his poetry and to focus on its sexuality or its political and cultural contexts.

Mysticism, however, comes in many brands, and there is no simple definition of that concept. But for our purposes it will suffice to distinguish between the I- or self-centered and the God-centered varieties. In either form, in essence, mystical experience may be said to consist in the intense and joyous realization of the oneness of all things and an ineffable sense of transport, enlargement, and emancipation. Mystical experience is more like an emotional state or immediate perception than like conceptual thinking. It is taken to be synonymous with religious experience. However, it should not be confused with the theological or metaphysical doctrine that it often presupposes or that might arise out of it.

Some of Whitman's justly celebrated poems of 1855 to 1860, like "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Song of the Open Road," "Salut au Monde!," and "A Song of Joys," announce a new religion of man and a new conception of his selfhood that are in many respects radical and challenge conventional beliefs and modes of perception. The focal theme of these poems is the I or Myself which is also the self of all, a magnified ego which incorporates the whole cosmos—animate and inanimate—and becomes immersed in its activity. It breaks through subject-object barriers and spatial and temporal divisions, melting them down into a vast spiritual continuum. While merging in the life and motion of the world, the self is also aware of itself as a unique and separate identity, standing in its centripetal isolation, unattached and unperturbed, "watching and wondering" at the pageantry of life ("Song of Myself," section 4). There is also the distinct realization that all life is a miracle, that all things are holy and in their place, and that the soul is immortal and ever liberated and ever happy and beyond all contrarieties of good and evil, and sin and redemption.

Bucke calls this type of experience "cosmic consciousness" in his book of the same title and connects Whitman to a succession of mystics in the Western and Eastern traditions. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience analyzes this phenomenon and cites Whitman as the supreme example of "healthy-mindedness" (83) or the inability to feel evil, as opposed to the "sick soul." It is a moot point as to whether the mystical illumination came to Whitman as a sudden revelation or epiphany or series of epiphanies, such as the one described in the fifth section of "Song of Myself," or whether it was a gradual realization. James calls the episode of this section a case of "sporadic" mysticism (387). But it is evident that, as James acknowledges, Whitman retained a permanent or "chronic" sense of this experience and the values communicated by it until the very end, through the many vicissitudes of his life.

There is, however, one chief difference between Whitman's mysticism in the early poems, described above, and the classical theistic types: here the emphasis is almost wholly on the self and its dominant "ego-centric" presence rather than on an external something called God or the Absolute. Whitman proceeds, not by positing a divine or transcendental reality to which, as in traditional mysticism, the individual ego is surrendered, but by the method of self-expansion. Hence Whitman's religion has been called a religion without God. God no doubt enters into his awareness of cosmic unity, as in section 5 of "Song of Myself." His optimistic faith and his sanctification of natural facts too may seem to imply the immanent presence of a divinity in nature. But still, God is not the focal object of his experience in the celebratory "Songs." However, in his old age, with the decline of his vitality and after he assumed the role of the Good Gray Poet, Whitman became increasingly theistic and introvertive, as opposed to the extrovertive or outgoing tendency of the early phase, and wrote "hymns to the universal God" ("The Mystic Trumpeter," section 8; also see "Passage to India" and "Prayer of Columbus"). This latter type of experience may be called "god-mysticism" or devotional mysticism, which is more akin to conventional notions of spirituality.

A good many scholars agree that Whitman is a mystic or a poet with an uncommon spiritual vision, but they differ in the explanatory models they bring to their interpretations. V.K. Chari argues that the dynamism of the early poems is best explained by the Vedantic concept of the Self, which is at once a unique identity and the world-all. Fred Carlisle agrees that identity or self is Whitman's central concern, but adopts the Buberian model of "I-Thou" and argues that Whitman discovers the essential self dialogically or relationally in the interaction between the "I" and the world. George Hutchinson sees Whitman's mysticism as a form of shamanism, in which the poet-shaman performs a public role, entering into trance-like states to make contact with the spirit world on behalf of his nation. David Kuebrich, on the other hand, reads Whitman in theistic terms as the founder of a new American religion, basically of traditional Christian inspiration, but adapted to the nineteenth-century evolutionary cosmology and millennialism.

Valid as these interpretations may be within their individual frameworks, they succeed only by emphasizing some poems or some aspects of those poems at the expense of others. It is doubtful whether any single model will work uniformly for all poems of Leaves of Grass and whether a holistic explanation of them as religious or mystical poetry is possible at all. Not all of Whitman's poems can be characterized as mystical in either of the forms presented above. For example, the poems of the "Calamus" group, the seashore lyrics, the elegiac and war poems, and many other sentimental lyrics of the later Whitman would hardly qualify as mystical expression. They are rather on the ordinary lyrical-emotional level.

Whitman's sexuality and his celebration of the body and the senses have been a major hurdle to interpretations of him as a mystic and religious prophet. Studies of his mysticism have tended either to deemphasize its sensuality or to spiritualize it altogether in the interests of the mystic theory, even as psychoanalytical criticism has tried to demysticize the spiritual element by reading into it pathological symptoms. However, two possible ways have been suggested in which the spiritual and the sensual in Whitman may be reconciled. It may be shown that, although the body or the physical self is the authentic center of Whitman's mysticism, it does not terminate in mere eroticism, but invariably opens out to him expanding universes; it also gives him a penetrating insight into the nature of his own identity. Sexuality thus becomes a solvent and a means of liberation and transcendence. Mystical states are often known to have been sparked by crises of sensual experience. Or alternatively, one can give a new name to Whitman's sensual ecstasies and call them physical or erotic mysticism—the kind in which erotic experience is itself exalted into something divine. But of course sex does not account for all manifestations of Whitman's cosmic consciousness (e.g., "Song of Myself," sections 4, 8, 15, 33; "Salut au Monde!"; "A Song of Joys"), for the rhapsodies of "Passage to India," or for the serene meditations of his old age ("Sands at Seventy"; "Good-Bye my Fancy"; "Old Age Echoes"; the nature notes at Timber Creek in Specimen Days, which have no ostensible connection with sex or body consciousness).

There is also a problem of a hermeneutical nature in dealing with Whitman's mysticism, namely, that of determining his precise meanings. There are obviously passages that are obscure and that admit of diverse constructions: e.g., the notorious first paragraph of section 5 of "Song of Myself." However, much of his mysticism is expressed in literal language and demands a straightforward reading. In fact, it is only when read literally that many of his affirmations and cosmic identifications will be recognized as mystical.

In any case, the canonized image of Whitman as prophet-mystic is no longer taken for granted today. Influential critical schools of our time have joined hands in questioning the very premises on which the mystical claims of the poet are based. The Self of Whitman's poems—which is the cornerstone of his mysticism—has been shown to be problematic and riddled with uncertainties and tensions, or, deconstructively viewed, uncentered and lacking in settled meaning. Studies from the New Historical and political standpoints, too, have given a new twist to his meanings. Whitman's poetic personality is no doubt seen to go through many vicissitudes when viewed in the total context of the Leaves. But it cannot be denied that at least some of his poems do present a coherent and consistent notion of the self. There is also no necessary conflict between Whitman's mysticism and the ideological, materialistic premises from which it was an outgrowth. Moreover, the vision of the self and of the cosmos that Whitman celebrated with such energy and originality is so far in excess of its cultural frame of reference that it can only be called mystical.


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

Aspiz, Harold. "Sexuality and the Language of Transcendence." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.2 (1987): 1–7.

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

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. New York: Dutton, 1901.

Carlisle, E. Fred. The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1973.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Cowley, Malcolm. Introduction. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959. vii–xxxvii.

Hutchinson, George B. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

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

Miller, James E., Jr., Karl Shapiro, and Bernice Slote. Start with the Sun: Studies in Cosmic Poetry. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1960.


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