Selected Criticism

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

Spontaneity is a word with particular meaning to Walt Whitman, associated not only with his vision of the sort of poetry he was attempting to write, but also with the larger vision he had of the relationship of the soul to the world, representing a philosophy that influenced several twentieth-century poets and writers. The word itself, or some form of it, only occurs in three poems, and furnishes the title in only one, but the concept infuses most of Whitman's work.

Whitman, with the publication of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, was attempting to create poetry that appeared spontaneous, completely new, utterly cut off from its European or foreign antecedents. With its open verse form, its lack of rhyme and regular meter, its longer-line format, and its lack of literary or biblical allusions, Whitman sought to give the impression of poetry created spontaneously, arising from the mind of the quintessentially democratic man interacting with the landscape of America. The concept of spontaneity was crucial to his understanding of the poet's role in Leaves of Grass, whereby the poet's persona, his language, his actions, etc., were supposed to arise spontaneously from the atmosphere of democracy.

Further, the concept of spontaneity was at the heart of Whitman's philosophy as well, in that his understanding of the soul and its relationship to nature—much of which he had taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson—was rooted in the spontaneous interaction of the soul in its environment. As described in "There was a Child Went Forth," the soul interacts with the environment, accumulates experience, which then furnishes and creates the soul as it develops. The entire process is based on the spontaneity of the soul's interaction with the world. It is from this source, many would argue, that Whitman's poetry emerges, in his desire to demonstrate and enact this process.

Many later poets and writers were influenced by this aspect of Whitman's philosophy, most especially the British writer D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in an essay in the Nation and Athenaeum (1921) that Whitman's poetry "springs sheer from the spontaneous sources of his being . . . the highest loveliness of human spontaneity" (618). For Lawrence, Whitman's concept of spontaneity represents his true achievement as a poet, for the spontaneity reflects Whitman's ability to let his soul speak out, not in the controlled, mechanical way of a classical poet, but in the spontaneous, instinctive way of the natural world.

The word "spontaneity," or "spontaneous," appears in only three poems, however. In "A Thought of Columbus," the earth, that "mystery of mysteries," which is said to be thoughtless, is described as spontaneous. In "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun," Whitman describes the desire to "warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself" (section 1), indicating the soul's natural tendency to speak out and give voice to itself, something Lawrence says is the basis of Whitman's poetry. And finally, in the poem "Spontaneous Me," in the "Children of Adam" cluster, Whitman fully illustrates his philosophy concerning the concept of spontaneity, a concept many critics associate with Whitman's autoerotic poetry, that is, his poetry which expresses the poet's consciousness of his own body and the healthy love of self seen in most of the "Children of Adam" poems. In this poem, Whitman depicts the poet behaving naturally, spontaneously, enjoying nature, his own body, the bodies of others, with a complete lack of self-consciousness, a complete lack of pretension. In the poem, nature itself is spontaneous, dropping its fruit wherever it falls, spreading its branches wherever it will, the wind blowing in whatever direction, etc. The poet seeks to achieve the spontaneity of nature in order to realize his own spontaneous nature, which in large measure can be indicated by his honest, casual acceptance of sex. Sex, in the "Children of Adam" section and elsewhere, like all natural functions, should be a spontaneous occurrence when souls interact because sex itself is a spontaneous function of nature, just as all of the natural occurrences the poet lists are spontaneous. Like the dancing of the honey bee, or the descending of dew on the grass, sex is the natural, instinctive result of the spontaneity of souls interacting, and the poem seeks to celebrate that concept.


Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Lawrence, D.H. "Whitman." Nation and Athenaeum 29 (1921): 616–618.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.


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