Selected Criticism

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

In the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman asserts that scientists are "the lawgivers of poets and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem," and credits the scientist with generating the "fatherstuff" that creates "sinewy races of bards." As we might expect in a relationship depicted in familial terms, however, Whitman claims the dominant position for the poet-son: "In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science" (Comprehensive 718–719). Still, Whitman's assertion that scientific and poetic laws are interconvertible sets the terms of a lifelong engagement with science. In 1876, with his major works behind him, he wrote in the Centennial edition Preface that "Without being a scientist, I have thoroughly adopted the conclusions of the great Savans and Experimentalists of our time, and of the last one hundred years, and they have interiorly tinged the chyle of all my verse for purposes beyond" (Comprehensive 752). One of his last poems, "L. of G.'s Purport" (1891), uses the most important scientific idea of the century, evolution, to summarize the animating idea of his poetry: "To span vast realms of space and time, / Evolution—the cumulative—growths and generations" (Comprehensive 555).

Whitman did not have to wait until Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 to be introduced to a theory of evolution. The publication in London in 1844 of Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a lucid exposition of the "development hypothesis," sparked a wide-ranging debate in the press both in Great Britain and America. Chambers combined the nebular hypothesis of Pierre Simon Laplace with evidence for transmutation of the species drawn from such sciences as geology, chemistry, embryology, paleontology and plant biology to offer a revolutionary theory of the origins, development, and destiny of the human species. An attack on fixed hierarchies, Vestiges became associated with all manner of radical causes. Despite some egregious errors, Vestiges withstood the attempts of the scientific and clerical establishments to crush it, and likely became Whitman's most important source for science. Section 44 of "Song of Myself," a creation story told from the perspective of the latest science, reframes Vestiges in thirty-six lines.

During Whitman's pre-1855 career as a journalist, New York became the nation's center for the popular exploration of science. Astronomers, geologists, and naturalists lectured to capacity lyceum audiences and their talks were routinely reproduced verbatim in the daily press. Whitman covered some of these lectures himself, praising the eloquent Cincinnati astronomer O.M. Mitchel in an editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 20 March 1847 which urged the construction of an observatory in Brooklyn (Gathering 2:146–149).

On 1 January 1851 the journalist Parke Godwin wrote in "The Last Half-Century," published in the New York Evening Post, that "it is within the memory of men still young that the most important doctrines of Astronomy, of Geology, of Optics, of Mineralogy, of Chemistry, of Zoology, of Comparative and Fossil Anatomy, of Paleontology, of Magnetism, of Electricity, of Galvanism, of Actinism, etc. have been first published" (Godwin 158). Godwin argued in the essay, which he included in Out of the Past, published by Putnam in 1870, that discoveries in those fields—each important to Whitman—revealed connections between the human and natural worlds: "modern science, lately threatened to be engulfed in the deluge of its own materials, finds its chief glory in exploring the wonderful analogies of creation" (169). Godwin's reference to "wonderful analogies" reflects a fundamental assumption of the tradition of Naturphilosophie as expounded variously by Friedrich Schelling, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, that there exist fundamental connections between mind and matter, self and external world. In "Carlyle from American Points of View" from Specimen Days, Whitman explained that Schelling's "answer" to the question of the relationship of self to the external world is that "the same general and particular intelligence, passion, even the standards of right and wrong, which exist in a conscious and formulated state in man, exist in an unconscious state, or in perceptible analogies, throughout the entire universe of external Nature . . . thus making the impalpable human mind, and concrete Nature . . . convertible, and in . . . essence one" (Complete 895). Artist and scientist share the work of exploring the cosmos and articulating the connections between the self and the external world.

At the heart of this tradition is the scientific concept of polarity, which applies to an ongoing, dynamic process of reconciling opposing forces within nature. The German nature philosophers thought of all nature in terms of a dynamic, ongoing moving system which was propelled by the interaction of opposed but related forces, including the real and ideal, male and female, repulsion and attraction, centrifugal and centripetal, and self and external world. (Reconciling such opposites is both a subject and a structural principle in "Song of Myself.") The "development hypothesis" or evolution is a logical consequence of the idea of polarity, for the progressive development of the universe takes place through the resolution of the fundamental opposites and antitheses in the world. A far-reaching egalitarianism is also implicit in this view of the world, because it does away with the notion of fixed hierarchies and substitutes a world in which change is an ongoing process. Since each side in the polar relationship contributes to the higher synthesis, it is impossible to rank one above the other. Hence this scientific tradition could be interpreted as supporting democracy. In the 1876 Preface, Whitman linked science and democracy by remarking that Leaves of Grass is "an utterance adjusted to, perhaps born of, Democracy and Modern Science" (Comprehensive 751). During the 1840s and 1850s, as Godwin's "The Last Half-Century" implies, romantic ideas such as polarity, equality, evolution, and the principle of the conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics) were finding empirical verification, confirming the assumptions of this tradition.

Whitman was also attracted to phrenology, mesmerism, and other pseudosciences, which were the subject of great interest by a large and broad cross section of the population. Parke Godwin referred to these fields as "not yet science" and spoke of the "wonderful manifestations of Animal Magnetism, which are too well authenticated as facts to be denied, though not yet referred to any satisfactory laws" (168). Harold Aspiz has shown that in such works as "I Sing the Body Electric," "Song of Myself," and "There was a Child Went Forth," Whitman incorporates ideas and images drawn from various pseudosciences. But he wrote as a poet, not as a scientist, and so avoided a literalism in the use of terms that would ultimately prove limiting. In a notebook entry included by Richard Maurice Bucke in Notes and Fragments, he reminded himself: "Remember in scientific and similar allusions that the theories of Geology, History, Language, &c., &c., are continually changing. Be careful to put in only what must be appropriate centuries hence" (55). This balance between a willingness to explore all manner of new thinking and a fundamental conservatism in the area that mattered most, language, served Whitman well. He approached poetry and science as ways of knowing that were complementary but different. As important as science was to him, he carefully reframed its concepts within his poetry.

Whitman's ability to make use of scientific laws to articulate the interconnected lives of human beings with the external world is nowhere more evident than in "Song of Myself." The affectionate, sexual, haughty, electrical speaker articulates analogous qualities in the external world; informed by the principle of polarity, he depicts in section 3 the unfolding of self and the cosmos: "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex, / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life." The poem's most dramatic instance of the reconciliation of polar opposites occurs in section 5, where the speaker unites body and soul in an ecstatic union. What begins as a statement of equality between two opposites, "I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other, " ends in rapturous bliss: "Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth." That reconciliation leads to new insights and launches speaker and reader on a voyage of discovery. In bringing together supposed opposites, the speaker articulates the principle of cosmic evolution: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier" (section 6).

The theme of immortality is based on the scientific principles of Correlation of Forces and Conservation of Energy, which were just then being expounded. Chemists and physicists alike—including Justus Liebig and Michael Faraday—were demonstrating that not even the smallest known element ever disappears but that elements are constantly being transformed. These ideas are developed throughout "Song of Myself," as in section 49, where the speaker offers an apostrophe: "O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions." This idea supports the fluid identity of a speaker who in section 16 "resist[s] any thing better than my own diversity." These principles lie at the heart as well of the 1856 masterpiece "This Compost."

The process of articulating such fundamental principles gives the speaker imaginative control over them. In section 44 of "Song of Myself" he reverses the process of evolution and imaginatively returns to the beginning of time, "the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there." His ability to recall all of evolutionary history is bolstered by another idea of romantic nature philosophy, that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: "Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me, / My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it." Even as he can reverse time, so the speaker, "the acme of things accomplish'd, and I am encloser of things to be," projects himself into the future, combining biology and astronomy, space and time, in a cosmic dance: "My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs, / On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps, / All below duly travel'd—and still I mount and mount." In celebrating the evolutionary process—"Births have brought us richness and variety, / And other births will bring us richness and variety"—Whitman affirms the egalitarian principle everywhere present in the cosmos: "I do not call one greater and one smaller, / That which fills its period and place is equal to any."

Given the centrality of science within the poem, the speaker feels the need to define boundaries, and in section 23 directly addresses the scientists: "Gentlemen, to you the first honors always! / Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling, / I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling." During the antebellum period the growing prominence of science and its increasing specialization threatened to displace writers. The word "scientist" had been coined to refer to professional investigators, who were claiming for themselves the primary authority to know the external world. Whitman met the issue head-on, appropriating for his own purposes the astounding insights of the scientists. But, as John Burroughs wrote in an essay on Whitman included in Birds and Poets with Other Papers, in his "thorough assimilation of the modern sciences," he "transmut[ed] them for strong poetic nutriment" (241).

In "Great Are the Myths," an 1855 poem which he dropped from Leaves of Grass in 1881, he claimed that language itself "is the mightiest of the sciences, / It is the fulness, color, form, diversity of the earth, and of men and women, and of all qualities and processes, / It is greater than wealth—it is greater than buildings, ships, religions, paintings, music" (1860 Leaves). The poet's challenge, then, is to go beyond the secondhand reports, including those of scientists, to use words that can be presented as the authentic speech of nature itself. Whitman's "A Song of the Rolling Earth" calls attention to the artificiality of conventional language by asking, "Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea, / They are in the air, they are in you" (section 1). Whitman's goal was to write a poetry that encompasses the "substantial" words of nature itself: "There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth, / No politics, song, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account, unless it compare with the amplitude of the earth, / Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude, of the earth" (section 3).

Similarly, the poem "Kosmos," an implicit reference to Alexander von Humboldt's great five-volume scientific compendium which had appeared in German under the title Kosmos and was during the 1850s appearing in a translation published by the Harpers, sets as a goal for human conduct the ability to incorporate into our identities those qualities that scientists and poets alike discover in the material world. The "kosmos" is that individual "Who includes diversity and is Nature, / Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and the equilibrium also." Implicit in this view is the idea that it is not the poet alone or the scientist alone who is capable of articulating the meaning of the natural world. Each of us, in becoming a "kosmos," takes on that function and "out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body understands by subtle analogies all other theories, / The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States."

Leaves of Grass itself fulfills the requirement that Whitman set for the "kosmos," who is to be an individual who creates a self in the context of the fullest possible understanding of the external world. The kosmos is one who "believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons, / Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations, / The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together" ("Kosmos"). The laws of science were essential building blocks for Whitman in that magnificent and haughty construction.


Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Beaver, Joseph. Walt Whitman: Poet of Science. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: Kings Crown, 1951.

Burroughs, John. Birds and Poets. 1877. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904.

Godwin, Parke. Out of the Past. New York: Putnam, 1870.

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

Scholnick, Robert J. "'The Password Primeval': Whitman's Use of Science in 'Song of Myself.'" Studies in the American Renaissance 1986. Ed. Joel Myerson. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1986. 385–425.

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

____. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Notes and Fragments. 1899. Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.


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