Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

In 1921 Will Hayes published an extended comparison between Whitman and Christ in which the object was obviously to make Whitman out as a religious prophet. Hayes was not writing in a vacuum; many early Whitman boosters viewed Leaves of Grass as Scripture and Whitman as sacred spokesman for a new religion. By the end of the twenties, however, the Cult of Whitman had pretty well died out.

That Whitman presented himself as a prophet is beyond doubt. In the Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872) he makes clear that from early on his purpose was religious. Further, in a discussion of Brooklyn as a "City of Churches," David Reynolds contends that Brooklyn was the best possible place in America for new religious developments in the nineteenth century (35). Eighteenth-century deists had posited a God who ruled the world by laws—natural laws. Based on reason, natural religion was opposed to revealed religion, and science seemed to support the former. By the time Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, that old ideas about religion would not suffice was obvious, and in the Preface to his 1855 Leaves, Whitman envisioned a new order in which "the new breed of poets [shall] be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things" (Whitman 25).

As early as "Starting from Paumanok" (1860) Whitman writes, "I too . . . inaugurate a religion, I descend into the arena." He viewed religion as the essential glue bringing all things into union: "I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion, / Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur" (section 7). Being a visionary is not necessarily the same as being a prophet, and Whitman was a visionary: "I am afoot with my vision" ("Song of Myself," section 33). He finds "letters from God" dropped in the street ("Song of Myself," section 48), and in "To Think of Time" he writes, "[E]very thing has an eternal soul! . . . I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!" (section 9).

As for the nature of this new religion that Whitman thought would mold America into a great moral force—a feat not accomplished by priests, creeds, and churches—he first recognized the role of conscience: "Conscience [is] the primary moral element" (Whitman 964). Whitman's idea is that personality (Personalism), caught up in the eternal flow of things, is directed by conscience. Thus his evolutionary view of things embraces both the material and the spiritual. That is why Whitman responded as he did to Robert G. Ingersoll's expression of religious doubts: "What is this world without a further Divine Purpose in it all?" (Whitman 1282).

How could Whitman as poet-prophet bring people into a religious union, a union with God, through love and democracy? In Democratic Vistas he says that poets should be "possess'd of the religious fire and abandon of Isaiah" (Whitman 988). The reference to Isaiah is not misplaced, for in it one finds both Whitman's purpose and his method. In "The Bible as Poetry" he cites Frederic de Sola Mendes's observation that religion was the basis of Judaism and that ancient Jewish poetry was by its very nature religious, "[i]ts subjects, God and Providence" (Whitman 1140). In "Five Thousand Poems," he asserts, "In a very profound sense religion is the poetry of humanity" (Whitman 1185). That Whitman saw himself in the role of the prophet in the Jewish sense is made clear in his discussion of Thomas Carlyle as prophet in "Carlyle from American Points of View" (Whitman 893), and in "Slang in America" he makes clear that the role of the prophet is to reveal God (Whitman 1166).

In spite of the fact that Whitman viewed himself as poet-prophet in the ancient Hebraic sense, since World War II critics have been reluctant to accept his estimate of himself. Arthur E. Briggs, for example, sees the thrust of Whitman's prophecy as encouraging faith in the future, and Roy Harvey Pearce contends that Whitman lacked the disciplined imagination of such poet-prophets as Blake and Yeats. Although the early Whitman prophesied, says Pearce, he failed to bring about his own transformation from poet to prophet. Pearce considers the later Whitman no more than a "visionary poet" (68). C. Carroll Hollis also limits Whitman's role to that of poet. Says Hollis, Whitman's posturing allowed him to speak convincingly in the early years, but he was never more than a poet. Finally, the two critics who have written most, and probably most perceptively, about Whitman and prophecy are George B. Hutchinson and David Kuebrich. Hutchinson sees Whitman as both shaman and revitalization prophet, because Whitman possessed characteristics of both. Hutchinson, therefore, is interested in connections and distinctions pertaining to revitalizing the culture and at the same time maintaining a personal or individual religious experience. As for Kuebrich, while admitting that "Song of Myself," for example, presents the reader with a coherent world view, Whitman fails, he contends, because "Song of Myself" does not contain enough information about that world view to make it accessible. For Kuebrich this seems to be a good summary of Whitman's effort to found a new religion. That Jeremiah and Isaiah both worked within a religion already established seems beside the point. On the other hand, Whitman rejected established religions in favor of inaugurating his own, and he failed. In that fact, perhaps, lies the entire argument over whether or not Whitman was a prophet, especially for modern readers.

Bibliography

Briggs, Arthur E. Walt Whitman: Thinker and Artist. New York: Philosophical Library, 1952.

Hayes, Will. Walt Whitman: The Prophet of a New Era. 1905. London: Daniel, 1921.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

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

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

Pearce, Roy Harvey. "Whitman Justified: The Poet in 1860." Walt Whitman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 65–86.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

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


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