Selected Criticism

"Starting from Paumanok" (1860)
Marki, Ivan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although it is a complex and fascinating poem on its own, the primary importance of "Starting from Paumanok" is that it introduces Leaves of Grass. As Fredson Bowers has shown, Whitman began to work on it soon after the publication of the first (1855) edition. Entitled "Premonition" in manuscript (Barrett Collection, University of Virginia), the poem was first printed in the third (1860) edition, in which, under the title "Proto-Leaf," it led off the volume. It received its present title in the fourth (1867) edition and its present position, immediately after "Inscriptions," the opening cluster of brief poems, in the fifth (1871). The 271 lines of the final version are divided into nineteen sections of various lengths.

After identifying himself and announcing that he "will strike up for a New World" (section 1), the speaker of the poem spends the rest of his time explaining what he will sing about and to whom. He is a typical, "generic" American, who declares that he will sing in "endless announcements" to "[w]hoever you are" (section 14) about three "greatnesses": Love, Democracy, and, "a third one rising inclusive and more resplendent," Religion (section 10).

The emotion at the poem's core is the speaker's elated discovery that life is affirmation and joy. Having understood that "starting from Paumanok" he has also come from everywhere else—California, the Dakotas, anywhere—and that in his "[s]olitary" identity all other identities are fused, he will "strike up" for "a New World" (section 1) disclosed by his vision in which life is "[v]ictory, union, faith, identity, time, / The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery, / Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports" (section 2). Glancing through "vast trackless spaces" and "projected through time" (section 2), this generic Self who is the speaker places himself at the heart of space and time, and his chants go "forth from the centre . . . Shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all" (section 3).

His exuberance and excitement do not allow the speaker to advance a carefully reasoned argument; the poem plays variations, instead, on the two themes of "Love" and "Democracy": the powerful though diffuse erotic and affective energies present throughout Leaves of Grass and the community implied by the conviction "that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any" (section 12). Woven through these variations is the third theme, "Religion." Although this sounds at times like Whitman's version of Emersonian idealism, of the conviction that "Nature is the symbol of spirit" (Emerson 20), at other times it works the other way around: "the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul" (section 13). This tension is not resolved in the poem. The keynote throughout is "the soul," the inner eye that enables him to see and believe in the coherence and purposeful goodness of it all.

In the long coda which concludes the poem (sections 14 to 19), the speaker appoints his audience. As if falling in step with the "[e]ternal progress" (section 2) of the "marches humanitarian" (section 3), he hurries on with ever increasing speed, inviting "you" to "haste on" with "me firm holding" (section 15), to see and experience a "world primal again" (section 17). At first, this "you" is anybody ("[w]hoever you are" [section 13]), but the person whom he embraces at last with the "music wild" of his shouts of ecstatic release is a "camerado close" (section 19). This camerado strongly resembles the "pensive and silent" young man to whom he earlier explained that "[i]t is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and yet it satisfies, it is great" (section 9). With this gradual identification of the audience as well as with the impression it creates of a spontaneous, improvisational structure, "Starting from Paumanok" recalls the 1855 Preface, which it was clearly designed to replace. It is, to borrow Emerson's phrase, yet another of Whitman's "incomparable things said incomparably well" (qtd. in Whitman, Comprehensive 730); the identification does not restrict the audience but infinitely enlarges it. The "camerado close" has become all humanity responding to the song just as the speaker, though he may have started from Paumanok, is all humanity singing.

Readers who do not simply browse in Leaves of Grass but make their way through it, as Whitman seems to have expected them to, from the first page to the last will find that, subordinated to Love, Democracy, and Religion, many, if not most, of the other major themes and motifs that dominate Leaves of Grass are also introduced in this poem. Thus, his chant of the "greatness" of Love will also be "the song of companionship" and of "manly love" (section 6) or, as Whitman often refers to it, "adhesiveness," celebrated in "Calamus" and, indeed, throughout the volume. The "century marches" (section 3) of Democracy sweep down the Open Road onto which all Leaves of Grass invites its readers, and the soul is the speaker's "mistress" (section 5) not just in this poem but in virtually all of Whitman's poems, from "Song of Myself" to "Passage to India" and "So Long!" The catalogues, so characteristic of the entire book, first appear in this poem ("Interlink'd, food-yielding lands!" etc. [section 14] and "See, steamers steaming through my poems," etc. [section 18]), and a number of other poems will remind the reader of the declaration that "I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is" (section 7). An indication that the poem was meant to be a sampler of the rest of the volume is that the 1867 version has added a reference not just to the pair of mockingbirds from Alabama (section 11) prominent in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," which was composed in 1858–1859, but to "the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars" (section 1) that sings the serenade to death in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which was composed in 1865.

One of the many revisions that Whitman made between 1860 and 1881, this addition has enriched and improved the text; most of the others have not. Betsy Erkkila has found that in its final form the poem is weaker than in the first largely because the revisions, reflecting the turbulence in Whitman's and the nation's life between 1860 and 1867, tend to dull the 1860 version's intensity of personal feeling and clarity of political conviction. M. Jimmie Killingsworth's careful review of the poem in its several versions leads to a similar conclusion.

"Starting from Paumanok" has received critical attention in all major studies of Whitman. No readers will deny its importance as the introduction to Leaves of Grass, but few are likely to claim that it is one of Whitman's truly great poems, like "Song of Myself" or "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Passages in which shrillness and platitudes take the place of inspiration are not difficult to find. For all it flaws, however, it also has its moments of genuine power and subtle beauty. Although it refers to itself as "a programme of chants" (section 3), "Starting from Paumanok" is not an account of what is to follow but an illustration of it. Like an overture to one of the poet's beloved Italian operas, it is not a description but a tonal entry into Whitman's world, not the program of the concert but part of the performance itself.


Cameron, Ann M. "Whitman's 'Starting from Paumanok.'" Explicator 49.2 (1991): 86–89.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

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

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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