Selected Criticism

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

Whitman's understanding of the soul is extremely complex, and it plays an integral role in various aspects of his larger vision. Two of his most important ideas about the soul, that it is an immortal spiritual principle and an agency of religious knowledge, are shared by Christianity and many other religious systems. It seems likely that Whitman derived these views from the Christian culture in which he matured and from the writings of such religious romanticists as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But the influence of other sources cannot be discounted, and critics have pointed to parallel conceptions in Indian religions, phrenology and shamanism. However, Whitman ultimately developed a rather original theory of the soul because of the manner and extent to which he integrated his understanding of the soul with a process world view. In the final analysis, no aspect of Whitman's thought is more important to his vision than his notion of "soul," for it is an essential element of his understanding of God, the processes of evolution and history, human existence and the purpose of the material world.

Whitman conceived of "soul" as part of the divinity, and so his theory of the soul must be related to his understanding of God. In its basic structure, Whitman's theology is theistic. That is, in contrast to both deism, which places God above the natural world, and pantheism, which locates God totally within nature, Whitman posited the existence of a God who both transcends the material universe and is also immanently present within the creation. However, he altered traditional theism by adapting it to his process world view. Consistent with conventional formulations of theism, Whitman conceived of a transcendent God who creates the universe, but he transformed the traditional notion of divine immanence by defining it not only as a spiritual substance that informs the material universe but also as the dynamic spiritual force which impels the evolution of nature, the advancement of history, and the development of human beings.

From this conception of divinity and its relationship to the world and human beings, Whitman derived two important corollaries. One was the idea that every part of nature "without exception has an eternal soul! / The trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have! the animals!" ("To Think of Time," section 9). The other was the belief that the souls which infused the creation were incessantly striving for fuller development and higher stages of existence. Accordingly, in order to describe this world, Whitman developed a poetic vocabulary which included what might be termed a "diction of the divine urge." For instance, in "Song of Myself" he speaks of the "Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world" (section 3). And his lexicon is laced with such terms as "longing," "yearning," "pining," "burning," "struggling," "pang," "need," "dissatisfaction," and "want." Placed within the context of Whitman's theology, all of these words are used to describe the souls (of inanimate nature, plant, animal, and human life) that collectively make up the continuous upward progression of divine immanence toward reunion with its transcendent source.

Accordingly, human life, as Whitman conceived of it, is not the beginning of the soul's existence, as it is in Christian theology, but rather marks a particular phase in the ascent of divine immanence in which the soul becomes a depth dimension of the human personality. Also, in contrast to much of Western religious and philosophical thought, Whitman did not think of the body and its desires as an antagonist or hindrance to the soul, but instead depicted the body and soul as capable of harmonious integration. In his poetry, such fundamental human needs as sex, love, freedom, and immortality are presented as manifestations of the instinctive desires of the soul yearning to realize its full potential. History is the record of humanity's ongoing struggle, consciously or unconsciously, to fulfill the cravings of the soul: "Ever the soul dissatisfied, curious, unconvinced at last; / Struggling to-day the same—battling the same" ("Life"). Thus Whitman could conceive of the historical process as a warfare waged to liberate the human race from all forms of oppression (for example, in "To Thee Old Cause" and "To a Certain Cantatrice"). The significance of the United States in this grand historical drama was that it was the first country to establish constitutional rights and material conditions that freed the masses from political and material oppression. To complete the liberation of the human race, Whitman now called for a new religious vision (for which he tried to provide the beginnings) which would free the U.S. citizenry from psychological repression. The result would be, for the first time in history, the creation of complete men and women with fully developed souls who lived in accordance with their inner divinity. Thus Whitman's ideal future democracy was a form of spiritual anarchism in which the kingdom of God is realized on earth: "Land in the realms of God to be a realm unto thyself, / Under the rule of God to be a rule unto thyself" ("Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood," section 6).

But even if history were to arrive at such a millennial culmination, the soul's journey would still be far from complete, for Whitman believed that the soul would continue to develop in the afterlife. Human death was just one more transition that the soul traversed in its long evolutionary ascent. Whitman depicted his own impending death as but one of his soul's many incarnations and promotions: "I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me" ("So Long!"). The soul was engaged in an "endless march" ("Going Somewhere"), a "perpetual journey" ("Song of Myself," section 46), or a "journey ever continued" ("Thoughts" [Of ownership—as . . . ]), because after its human existence it would continue to develop in what Whitman refers to as other "spheres."

In addition to being part of the divine immanence and the essence and motive force of the human personality, the soul was also conceived of by Whitman as a faculty of religious knowledge which enabled humans to encounter the external world as spirit. Mircea Eliade, the distinguished phenomenologist of religion, has described the experience of encountering an object or aspect of the natural world as sacred as having two distinctive qualities. First, the experience establishes itself in the mind of the religious subject as an especially intimate form of knowledge in which the subject feels a sense of psychological union with the inner spirit of that which is known. Second, because the soul is a depth dimension of the personality, religious experience impresses the subject as an especially meaningful or powerful form of knowledge. Consistent with this description of religious knowing, Whitman speaks of his religious experience of the natural world as an especially profound or "real" form of experience which develops or "identifies" his soul: "O the joy of my soul . . . receiving identity through materials . . . My soul vibrated back to me from them . . . The real life of my senses and flesh transcending my senses and flesh" ("Song of Joys").

This sense of the soul's higher knowledge gives rise to a crucial paradox in Whitman's thought. Although Whitman lovingly celebrated the natural world and the human body, he also held that these material realities were ultimately important only because they were indispensable to the soul's development. Seen from the higher spiritual perspective of an "envision'd soul," the objects of the natural world were "illusions! apparitions! figments all!" (Whitman 418). Unlike the youthful Emerson of "Nature," Whitman's sense of the greater reality of religious experience did not lead him to adopt a strict philosophical idealism which denied the matter-of-fact reality of the natural world. Yet he did always insist that this world, which he celebrated so lovingly, existed not for its own sake but to promote the development of immortal souls during their human incarnation.


Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Cowley, Malcolm. Introduction. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959. vii–xxxvii.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958.

____. The Sacred and the Profane. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.

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.

____. "Whitman's New Theism." ESQ 24 (1978): 229–241.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.

Wrobel, Arthur. "Whitman and the Phrenologists: The Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul." PMLA 89 (1974): 17–23.


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