Selected Criticism

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

Space is a large trope for Walt Whitman. He conceives of it as geographical, extraterrestrial, inner or psychological, and as three-dimensional physical space. These different spaces often carry symbolic significance, ranging from the social and political union of the United States, to global unity, to spiritual fulfillment, to transcendence of death, and to divinity. While he treats space similarly in his poetry and prose, his poetry serves as the clearest example.

In addition to grounding Whitman's poetry primarily in the New World, geographical space ("space," place names, immensity, etc.) commonly represents humankind's culminating social potential, especially in terms of democracy and the Union. Geographical space also extends his vision to the entire world, claiming global unity and placing the United States in a key role in the evolution of human consciousness. "Facing West from California's Shores" is perhaps his clearest poetic example of this grounding.

Whitman's references to geographical space commonly suggest a figurative movement upward and outward, a notion extended in his references to extraterrestrial space. Images of the firmament obviously connote the larger, that is, more encompassing and complete notion of universe or "Kosmos," as in section 24 of "Song of Myself." "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is a clear assertion of Whitman's strongly figurative use of space. The astronomer and by implication his audience see only physical outer space, what is measurable. In the "stars" Whitman, however, sees the metaphysical and the mystical. Thus the trope expands its significance from extraterrestrial to inner or psychological space.

Whitman also conceives of space as that concept which acknowledges physical existence. In this sense, space is an essential of perception, of understanding, and of knowing. Using this sense of space symbolically, he can extend beyond the physical, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," where he proclaims that space is a physical limit only: "distance avails not" (section 3). This basic denial of space is a transcendence of physical boundaries, and as such is Whitman's essential statement of the limitlessness of humankind.

"Passage to India" is arguably Whitman's most important poem about space because of how it extends from the geographical, to the extraterrestrial, to the psychological, and to the metaphysical. At the beginning of this poem the movement is on the earth and westerly to the continental United States, where the "rondure" of the world is completed and fulfilled (section 4). Then the poem's frame of reference shifts to outer space as the speaker pictures the earth in the larger cosmological and universal "Rondure" (section 5). With the completion of the world's "rondure" in the United States and the attendant implied completion of the evolution of human consciousness, extraterrestrial space becomes an appropriate symbol of humankind's spiritual potential, the vast capacity of the human soul's movement toward divinity. The poem finally invokes such meaning by associating the universe, "Time and Space," the human soul, and God (section 8).

These uses of space are displayed throughout Whitman's works. The Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass introduces the poet's attitude toward space by first relating nature's and a nation's largeness to "the spirit of the citizen" (Comprehensive 710). The Preface further states that the American poet spans the continent, that the poet is the "one complete lover" of the universe (715) and that "American bards . . . shall be Kosmos" (718). A later prose work, Democratic Vistas (1871), appeals to the space of the United States in its very title. A number of sections in Specimen Days (1882) also describe various kinds of space. Some, like "Begin a Long Jaunt West," promulgate the geographic openness of the land. Others, like "Scenes on Ferry and River," celebrate the heavens. Still others, like "The Prairies and Great Plains in Poetry," directly associate the spaciousness of the new country with its literature.

Citing references to space in the order of their appearance in the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass indicates Whitman's expansive use of the trope in his poetry. "Song of Myself" catalogues geographic areas of the United States and the world, portending unity on earth. It associates the poet's poems and the earth with the stars, punning that a "leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars" (section 31). It relates "Space and Time" to the poet's vision as his "palms cover continents" (section 33). Finally, it projects humankind outward and upward to "a million universes" (section 48).

Several other poems catalogue geographic areas of the United States and the world. The whole of "Starting from Paumanok" asserts the essential characteristic of the New World—immensity. "Salut au Monde!" establishes a world geography, identifies America's place in it, and proclaims the limitlessness of the human spirit. "Song of the Open Road" also relates a world geography to cosmic space.

In "From Paumanok Starting I Fly like a Bird," early in the "Drum-Taps" cluster, Whitman promulgates a geographic and political "all," associating it with the "inseparable" Union. At the end of "Drum-Taps" and at the end of the war, the soldiers return to the "endless vistas" of the nation, which is whole again ("To the Leaven'd Soil They Trod").

The Union is clearly associated with the heavens in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." President Lincoln is the "western fallen star" (section 2)—signifier of the Union he helped to retain, of the geographic spaces of the nation through which his coffin is carried, and finally of the mystical conquering of death.

The cluster "Whispers of Heavenly Death" also relates space to the metaphysical. Echoing "Passage to India," the first poem in the cluster, "Darest Thou Now O Soul," claims that at this point in the journey through life, the soul is equal with time and space and equipped to fulfill them, to fulfill existence. "A Noiseless Patient Spider" characterizes the soul by comparing the spider's casting out its filaments to the soul's constant search in "measureless oceans of space." In "Night on the Prairies" the speaker is walking alone and gazing into space, which allows him to attain immortality and understand that death will reveal to him what life has not, for death is not limited by time and space.

The final cluster of Leaves, "Songs of Parting," reasserts the relationship between geographical space and the United States in "Thoughts." Finally, the first and second annexes underscore and bring to a close the essential meanings of space with three poems that recall "Passage to India": "To the Sun-Set Breeze," "You Tides with Ceaseless Swell," "Sail Out for Good, Eidólon Yacht!"

With all its connotations—geographical, political, psychological, spiritual—space is a major concept for Whitman. He strews images and symbolic meanings of space throughout the final edition of Leaves of Grass. While he does not develop these meanings linearly throughout Leaves nor throughout his writing career, he uses them continuously. They ebb and flow, ebb and flow. They bud and wither and flourish again.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "The Influence of Space on the American Imagination." Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell. Ed. Clarence Gohdes. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1967. 329–342.

____. "Walt Whitman's Inner Space." Papers on Language and Literature 5 (1969): 7–17.

Olson, Steven. The Prairie in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1994.

Roche, John. "Democratic Space: The Ecstatic Geography of Walt Whitman and Frank Lloyd Wright." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1988): 16–32.

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

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

Zanger, Jules. "The Twelfth Newberry Library Conference on American Studies." Newberry Library Bulletin 5 (1961): 299–314.


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