Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Organicism
Author:
Costanzo, Angelo
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's revolutionary style of poetry is largely based on what is commonly called the transcendental organic theory of literature. Following the pattern of growth and development characteristic of the natural world, Whitman constructed his poetry to reflect the primacy of the transcendental view of nature. He adhered to this practice in his choice and use of metaphor, verse form, language, and theme.

Whitman borrowed the notion of the organic principle from various prevailing ideas about literary form and nature that had crossed the Atlantic from Germany and England during the romantic period. In a lecture on William Shakespeare's work, the British romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, rejected what he considered the traditional mechanic form of poetry and called for an organic poetic structure that shapes itself from within, and whose full development is seen in its outward form. The most direct influence on Whitman, however, came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose works Whitman greatly admired, especially Emerson's essay "The Poet" (1844). It is well known that Whitman envisioned himself to be the great American transcendental bard that Emerson wrote about and insisted the young developing nation required. Emerson defined the new original type of poetry that could best represent and capture the spirit of the vast, dynamic American land. Of course, in line with the principles of transcendental thinking, nature had to be the source and the model. Like the spirit and form of the plant or animal, the poem, Emerson explained, has its own architecture that displays the union of thought and form in equal measure.

Whitman explained his organic principle of literary creation in his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, where he states that poems should develop their own metrical laws and "bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush" (714). The dark green cloth cover of the first edition of Leaves of Grass further attests to the emphasis Whitman wanted to place on the biological metaphors that are basic to his poetry. The decorative cover depicts flowers and plants, and the letters of the book's title send forth leaves, branches, and roots in different directions.

Understanding how Whitman relied on the example of nature for his poetic creations has guided scholars in their critical studies of his themes, forms, and techniques. The organic theory was central to Whitman's literary imagination. His lifetime work on the individual poems and their revisions and arrangements in the various editions of Leaves Grass signified a growing body of poetry that matched the developing stages of his body and soul from youth and maturity to old age. Besides the central symbolic motif of the grass in "Song of Myself" and throughout the entire Leaves of Grass, many of the individual poems center on metaphors from the natural world, such as the sea with its endless waves hitting the beach and the mockingbird's solitary song in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

A good example of how Whitman applied the organic theory to his use of metaphors is seen in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," where he works with the major symbols of lilac, star, cloud, and hermit thrush. Patterning the use of his symbols according to the natural processes of growth and development, Whitman first presents all his symbols in an undeveloped state at the beginning of his poem, and then he proceeds to invest them with additional meanings throughout the elegiac scenes relating to Lincoln's death. When at the end of the work Whitman again brings most of the major symbols together, the reader now sees them with all their full associative meanings and thematic relationships. The images in the final lines express the poet's peaceful mood of reconciliation now that he grasps the truth about death: "Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim" (section 16). Thus, the advanced understanding of the true and increased significance of the metaphors that Whitman uses from nature allows the reader to become fully aware of the emotional and thematic insights the poem can offer.

The organic idea of poetic creation enabled Whitman to invent a new style of form and technique that diverged dramatically from the conventional literary forms of his day. He viewed traditional patterns of verse, such as the sonnet, ballad, or epic, as artificial because the poet was forced to fit the thought to the preset metrical form. To eliminate this constraint, Whitman again turned to nature for his models. The free-verse form he devised has had profound effects on American poetic theory and practice and has achieved important influence on writers all over the world.

Besides patterning his poetic structures according to the developing forms of nature, Whitman attempted to imbue his creative work with a sense of the richness, diversity, and fecundity that characterizes the world of nature. All this can be felt in the dynamic spirit and vitality of his poems, with their prolific images, startling themes, and metrical rhythms that give the reader feelings of natural movements and actions, such as the sea waves washing up on the shore and the flight of mating eagles.

The first scholar to write at length about Whitman's organic principle was William Sloane Kennedy, who four years after Whitman's death in 1892 produced a study of the styles of Leaves of Grass. A groundbreaking work was published in 1939 by Sculley Bradley, who saw Whitman's organic rhythms and symmetrically formed lines as constituting the fundamental metrical principles in his poetry. Kennedy and Bradley have been joined by many other literary critics, such as Basil De Selincourt, Gay Wilson Allen, and James E. Miller, Jr., who have seriously studied Whitman's poetic technique of free-verse rhythms. They have tried to erase common misconceptions that Whitman's poetry is anarchic and shapeless. Although Whitman's invention of free verse follows no predetermined form, his new style presents a pattern constructed out of the thought processes and emotional levels of the creative work. Whitman's poems are characterized by his use of phrases and clauses and of such devices as repetitions, parentheses, free-flowing metric lines controlled by breath limitations, and catalogues or enumerations of persons, places, and objects that give weight and substance to images and themes. By analyzing these special poetic elements, scholars have demonstrated how most of the techniques Whitman used to produce his effects relate to the organic processes and structures present in nature.

All through his creative years, transcendentalism's essential link with nature gave Whitman the organic principle that he applied to his body of poems. This principle is pervasive in Leaves of Grass and is the foundation upon which the entire work is constructed. Whitman relied on the organic theory for his poetry's thematic concepts, metaphors, and verse techniques and forms. Thus, an understanding of Whitman's work must be grounded on a knowledge of his preoccupation with the organic realities of life.

Bibliography

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

Bradley, Sculley. "The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman's Poetry." American Literature 10 (1939): 437–459.

Christensen, Inger. "The Organic Theory of Art and Whitman's Poetry." The Romantic Heritage: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Karsten Engelberg. Copenhagen: U of Copenhagen, 1983. 93–104.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Shakespeare, a Poet Generally." Essays & Lectures on Shakespeare & Some Other Old Poets & Dramatists. London: Dent, 1907. 38–42.

De Selincourt, Basil. Walt Whitman: A Critical Study. London: Martin Secker, 1914.

Kennedy, William Sloane. Reminiscences of Walt Whitman. London: Alexander Gardner, 1896.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of "Leaves of Grass": The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. "Preface 1855—Leaves of Grass, First Edition." Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 709–729.


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