Selected Criticism

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

Nature is central to Whitman's thought and writing in two aspects: as the material world of objects and phenomena (natura naturata) or as the force—usually personified as feminine—that pervades and controls that material world (natura naturans). In Whitman's pre-Civil War poetry the naturata aspect of nature tends to predominate, as he focuses on specific natural objects. In such later works as Democratic Vistas (1871) or his last major poem, "Passage to India" (1871), the naturans aspect predominates and nature becomes largely an abstraction.

Like most of his contemporaries, including Emerson in his book Nature (1836), Whitman does not try to distinguish between the two aspects, simply declaring in the lines moved to the final version of "Song of Myself": "I permit to speak at every hazard / Nature without check with original energy" (section 1). For him as for William Cullen Bryant in the opening lines of "Thanatopsis," nature as naturans speaks through "her visible forms" (naturata). Thus John Burroughs, describing his first encounter with Leaves of Grass in 1861, when he read it in the woods as a naturalist, wrote that he found the book unique in producing the same impression on his moral consciousness as "actual Nature did in her material forms and shows" (10). Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman sees natural facts as inherently symbolic of spiritual facts, thus differing from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who depicts the symbolism of naturata as ambiguous, and from Herman Melville, who finds the symbolism of naturata not only ambiguous but often deceptive.

Whitman's poetic use of natural objects differs from that of his contemporaries such as William Wordsworth, Bryant, or Emerson chiefly by his inclusiveness. He rejects the prettified nature he finds in conventional poetry; in Specimen Days he describes that view of nature as artificial, repressing, and "constipating." Natural objects listed in his catalogues range from the "quintillions of spheres" that fill the universe to "brown ants," "mossy scabs," "poke-weed," and "beetles rolling balls of dung" ("Song of Myself," sections 33, 5, 24). Furthermore, like Emerson in the opening paragraphs of Nature, Whitman includes as natural objects products of human industry, such as the ships, foundries, and buildings of Manhattan in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." In the opening lines of "The Song of the Broad-Axe," that artifact is portrayed as though it were a natural object. And although like other romantic poets Whitman is strongly drawn to the unspoiled natural world, he is equally drawn to life in the city, which he is the first American poet to celebrate. Thus, after depicting the varied attractions of the countryside in the opening lines of "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun," he rejects them for the excitement of the city, ending the poem with the line "Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me."

The natural object most frequently and conspicuously employed by Whitman is the sea. In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and several of the shorter poems in the "Sea-Drift" section of Leaves of Grass, the sea is personified as an old mother or nurse and associated with death. In "Reconciliation" Whitman has this personification of the sea in mind when he writes that "the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world."

The air—used most frequently with the adjective "open"—generally symbolizes either freedom and happiness or the universality of Whitman's message. The sun figures prominently in Leaves of Grass—far more than the moon. Whitman makes frequent use of stars, listing them in "A Clear Midnight" as among his favorite themes, along with night, death, and sleep. The evening star, Venus, is a central and powerful symbol in "Lilacs."

Grass is a frequent symbol, most conspicuously in section 6 of "Song of Myself," as are leaves, which are often not merely parts of a plant but also parts of a book, as in "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing." The imagery of growing plants, with the use of words like "blossom" or "bloom," is used in such poems as "Song of Myself," "Song of the Universal," and "Passage to India" to symbolize the progress of the universe towards perfection.

Although Whitman occasionally mentions animals of the American wilderness such as alligators, bears, elk, moose, panthers, rattlesnakes, and wolves—most of which he had never encountered—his best known reference to animals is the generalized one at the beginning of section 32 of "Song of Myself," where he seems to idealize the natural behavior of animals as contrasting sharply with the guilt feelings and frustrations found in artificial lives of human beings. Later, however, toward the end of "Passage to India," the behavior of animals, now referred to as "mere brutes," is something to be eschewed and transcended.

Whitman depicts birds conventionally in poems like "To the Man-of-War-Bird" or "The Dalliance of the Eagles," but his boldest and most distinctive use of them is as speaking characters in two of his greatest poems, "Out of the Cradle" and "Lilacs." The songs given to the mockingbird in the former and to the hermit thrush in the latter are used with great effectiveness to express naked, heartfelt emotional responses to death: loss, sorrow, and grief in one case; triumphant acceptance in the other.

Whitman's description of the hermit thrush depends heavily on information given to him by his friend Burroughs, since Whitman is admittedly no naturalist; he even asserts in Specimen Days that one enjoys the natural world more if one is not too precise or scientific about it. Rather, he sees the function of natural objects and phenomena as revealing the characteristics of natura naturans—that is, nature as a reified or personified abstraction. The closest he comes to defining this abstraction is in "Song of the Banner at Daybreak," where he can do little except to state that it is something separate from the natural objects and phenomena it pervades, much as Wordsworth refers in "Tintern Abbey" to a "presence," "something," "motion," and "spirit."

Historically, conceptions of nature as naturans have varied widely, and among Whitman's contemporaries nature as an abstraction is depicted in contradictory ways. For Wordsworth, nature is a benevolent goddess; for Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his "In Memoriam," nature is a cruel force, "red in tooth and claw." Emerson in Nature generally shares Wordsworth's view, but in his later essay, "Fate," he refers to nature as "the tyrannous circumstance" (Emerson 949).

For Whitman, nature as naturans has six predominant characteristics: process, purpose, sexuality, unity, divinity, and beneficence. He never sets forth this conception of nature explicitly or systematically, any more than did Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists, most of whom would generally agree with all of these characterizations of nature except sexuality. This last was for Whitman's contemporaries often the most conspicuous—and to many the most objectionable—aspect of his poetry.

Process simply means that the universe is not static, as it was often perceived in eighteenth-century thought, but is continually in flux, changing, growing, evolving. Furthermore, it is evolving in a purposive way towards a future perfection, a teleological view that Whitman sets forth succinctly in "Roaming in Thought (After reading Hegel)" and echoes in the section of Specimen Days headed "Carlyle from American Points of View." Whitman's outlook in this respect is consonant with the widely held nineteenth-century belief in progress, the belief reflected in the thinking of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. But Whitman's depiction of progress is unique in identifying the force behind progress as sexual, an identification he made explicit in 1867 by adding the words "always sex" at the end of the Hegelian line 45 in "Song of Myself" (section 3).

For Whitman personally, sex was a force that often seemed to baffle him, overwhelm him, and leave him with guilty pleasure. But it may also have contributed to his empathy with the wounded young soldiers, and likewise his willingness to comfort them at times by kissing them, that made him such an assiduous and effective visitor to the Civil War army hospitals. This empathy is symbolized in the bold final gesture in "Reconciliation" and is stated most succinctly in "Song of Myself" (section 33): "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there." In viewing sex as an essential component of nature, Whitman saw it as fulfilling two positive purposes: creating new life as the product of the attraction between men and women, and creating the organic unity of society as the product of a more inclusive attraction—for which he used the phrenological term "adhesiveness"—among all members of society, as set forth, for example, in "The Base of All Metaphysics," "I Hear It was Charged against Me," and Democratic Vistas.

The unity of nature is a central Emersonian belief that Whitman fully shares. Although he asserts this belief in such poems as "On the Beach at Night Alone," "Kosmos," or "Starting from Paumanok" (especially sections 6, 7, and 12), more often it is an unstated assumption. Whitman takes for granted an underlying unity, in which the individual components of his catalogues merge and blend, much like the diverse components of a successful photo montage, to create a single, unified impression.

Divinity as a fifth characteristic of nature as naturans is evidenced by Whitman's frequent use of the adjective "divine." Although he at times addresses God as a transcendent being, as in "Passage to India" (section 8) or "Prayer of Columbus," he also depicts God as immanent. In this latter sense the distinction between God and nature is not always clear, with the result that Whitman has sometimes been labeled a pantheist. Some support for this label may be found in Whitman's most theological poem, "Chanting the Square Deific," which depicts God as having four aspects—Jehovah, Christ, Satan, and Santa Spirita—the last of which includes not only the first three but everything else in the universe. Likewise, in "As They Draw to a Close," nature is described as "encompassing God."

Finally, Whitman sees nature as beneficent, a sharp contrast to the malevolent nature depicted by such contemporaries as Henry Adams in his Education and John Stuart Mill in his essay "Nature," or the morally indifferent nature of Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists. Whitman expresses this view of nature most explicitly in "A Song for Occupations" (section 3) and most succinctly in "Song of the Universal," where he speaks of "Nature's amelioration blessing all" (section 4).

This purposive, unified, divine, and beneficent nature plays a central role in "Passage to India," where Whitman sees the unification of the Eastern and Western halves of humanity as simultaneously bringing about the unity of humankind, nature, and God in a "trinitas divine" (section 5). In Democratic Vistas, written just a few years earlier, the naturans aspect of nature again plays a major role, this time as a model for democracy—referred to as nature's younger brother—and also for literature, which must always be tested against "the true idea of Nature, long absent" (Whitman 984).

Since Whitman was not a systematic thinker, his assertions about nature as naturans are inevitably characterized by a vagueness and inconsistency that frustrate those who want to reduce his thought to a static and logically coherent philosophy. Fittingly, in his final extended treatment of nature, in Specimen Days, Whitman returns to its naturata aspect and again reflects the joy, peace, and happiness he found in his solitary immersion at Timber Creek in the comforting maternity of the natural world.


Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. 1906. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.

Beach, Joseph Warren. The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry. 1936. New York: Pageant, 1956.

Burroughs, John. Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person. 1867. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Doudna, Martin K. "'The Essential Ultimate Me': Whitman's Achievement in 'Passage to India.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.3 (1984): 1–9.

Eby, Edwin Harold, ed. A Concordance of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Selected Prose Writings. 1955. New York: Greenwood, 1969.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Foerster, Norman. "Whitman as a Poet of Nature." PMLA 31 (1916): 736–758.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Mill, John Stuart. Nature, the Utility of Religion, and Theism: Three Essays on Religion. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1874.

Piasecki, Bruce. "Whitman's 'Estimate of Nature' in Democratic Vistas." Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 101–112.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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