Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Universal" (1876)
Author:
Knapp, Ronald W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was written to be read at the Tufts College commencement 17 June 1874. Since Whitman was unable to attend, the poem had to be read for him. Whitman considered this poem to be one of his "Centennial Songs," that is, poems written to celebrate one hundred years of American Independence. "Song of the Universal" celebrates the dream of what America could be, in spite of perceived faults in the country. Beneath the "measureless grossness" which the poet witnessed in America following the Civil War "[n]estles the seed perfection" (section 1).

There appears to be a general consensus that by the time this poem was written Whitman's creative energy had all but evaporated. Richard Chase, in Walt Whitman Reconsidered, writes that in this poem "Whitman has given up poetry and become a speechmaker" (147).

"Song of the Universal" is found in the "Birds of Passage" section of Leaves of Grass, a section which Gay Wilson Allen sees as being "bound by a fragile thread-theme of the search of the human race for perfections" (Reader's Guide 106–107). Henry Seidel Canby notes that Whitman is suggesting that to lack faith in the American dream is to "dream of failure" (287). Harold Aspiz asserts that Whitman is praying that the "therapeutic electric spirituality" contained in Leaves of Grass may "purge America's future of corruption" (152). James E. Miller believes that "Song of the Universal" suggests that "evil exists only in time" (211) and that evil disappears and good triumphs in eternity.

Apparently, the poem was written after Whitman first became acquainted with the writings of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel taught that there is inherent in the universe a continuous process of change and progress which reveals itself in what is now known as the Hegelian dialectic. According to the Hegelian dialectic, any concept (thesis) inevitably generates its opposite (antithesis), and the struggle and interaction between the two results in a new concept (synthesis) which in turn becomes a new thesis in an ever-continuing dialectic. In The New Walt Whitman Handbook, Gay Wilson Allen says that this poem is "another Hegelian expression" of Whitman's faith in "the ultimate triumph of the poet's ideals" (146).

In "Song of the Universal," Whitman suggests that the universe moves towards a remote ideal "[i]n spiral routs by long detours" but always the "real to the ideal tends" (section 2). In the pursuit of this ideal, the world must embrace science and must reject the "measured faiths of other lands" in order to embrace "grandeurs" of its own (section 4). For Whitman, this is one of the aspects of a new song which the modern world needs to hear and which modern poets need to celebrate.

Bibliography

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

____. A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman. 1970. New York: Octagon, 1986.

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

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.

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


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