Selected Criticism

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

An important philosophical influence on Whitman's entire career, Stoicism began as a Greek school of philosophy under Zeno in the third century B.C. It has since been a "perennial philosophy" in Western culture, revived particularly in periods of storm and stress. It was to become particularly important to Marcus Aurelius in the period of Rome's decline, to William Shakespeare and other Renaissance authors, and even to the transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson in Whitman's own day.

Chief features of the stoic philosophy (which in Whitman's case should perhaps be regarded more as an attitude or stance) include the precept of keeping one's moral purposes in harmony with nature, maintaining imperturbability, acknowledging the kinship of all people, and practicing indifference to one's own experiences of pain, suffering, and death. Moreover, Stoics tend to see one's personal existence as a role in a play directed by nature, thus conceiving the self in dualistic terms. One aspect of the person is involved in the everyday perturbations of life, the other looks on calmly from its position within the larger cosmic scheme. Four of Whitman's pre-Civil War poems have been singled out as particularly stoical in theme and effect: "Song of Prudence" (1856, largely taken from the 1855 Preface), "I Sit and Look Out" (1860), "Me Imperturbe" (1860), and "A Song of Joys" (1860). "Me Imperturbe" can serve virtually as a definition of the stoic stance:

Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.

That several of the most stoical poems of Whitman's antebellum career were written in 1860 suggests the intensity of Whitman's personal and political disappointments at this time.

The most important Stoic text for Whitman was the Encheiridion of Epictetus, which he first discovered at about the age of sixteen. "It was like being born again," he would later tell Horace Traubel (With Walt Whitman 2:71–72). He returned to this text recurrently during his life, particularly in old age, when it became for him a kind of manual for daily living. In a manuscript notebook of 1868–1870, Whitman paraphrases Epictetus's description of a wise man, one who neither reproves nor praises others, nor attends to praise or insult of himself; one who maintains moderate appetites and allows desire only for those things that are within his own power to obtain. During the period that he wrote this note, Whitman was struggling to control the "perturbation" of what he seems to have considered a vain sexual pursuit.

Later in life, Stoicism aided Whitman's accommodation to paralysis and the approach of death. In fact it formed a key element of his "Good Gray" persona. In the concluding paragraph of Specimen Days (1882), he quotes the Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius's definition of virtue as "only a living and enthusiastic sympathy with Nature" (295). This "sympathy with Nature" allows Whitman in old age to think of his life as part of the world's great flux. It also helps him stem anxieties about both his reputation and the direction of American democracy. Marcus Aurelius had written that "fluxes and flows" continually renewed the world (qtd. in Allen 56). In Whitman's later work, images of tides and slow-wheeling stars, always important to him, become far more prevalent features than "leaves" as he abandons the ecstatic modes of his greatest earlier poems, yet attempts in a different manner to link the rhythms of his life with those of the cosmos.

He returned to the Encheiridion frequently for support in his daily affliction, attesting to Horace Traubel that "the source of [his] great peace" was Epictetus's prescription that what is good for nature is good for oneself (With Walt Whitman 1:423). A pocket-sized 1881 translation of Epictetus's book by T.W.H. Rolleston became his constant companion; he called the book "sacred, precious, to me: I have had it about me so long—lived with it in terms of such familiarity" (With Walt Whitman 3:253). Indeed, he paraphrased it constantly. The book was a kind of manual for coping with infirmity and pain, calumny, vilification, and death.

If the importance of Stoicism in Whitman's life has perhaps not received its due, this is understandable. Aspects of his work—particularly his antebellum work—reveal that Stoicism was only one resource in his ethical universe, always waxing and waning depending on his circumstances and often alternating with quite different tendencies. His ecstatic intensity, the burning loves and disappointments of some of his most famous poems, conflict with the stoic ethos—although even in "Song of Myself," the speaker repeatedly falls back from intense emotion and participation to stoic detachment. After the Civil War, ecstaticism largely disappears and the stoic attitude becomes dominant, inflected by a comic sensibility and a rather unstoical, prophetic hope for the future.

The symbolism of tides remains constant, however, suggesting that Stoicism, connected emotionally in Whitman's sensibility with the massive imperturbability of nature and the ultimately indestructible nature of the self, remains a constant resource for the poet through the immense highs and lows, great hopes and disappointments of his life.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Walt Whitman and Stoicism." The Stoic Strain in American Literature. Ed. Duane J. MacMillan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979. 43–60.

Epictetus. The Encheiridion of Epictetus. Trans. T.W.H. Rolleston. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1881.

Hutchinson, George B. "'The Laughing Philosopher': Whitman's Comic Repose." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1989): 172–188.

Kahn, Sholom J. "Whitman's Stoicism." Scripta Hierosolymitana 9 (1962): 146–175.

Pulos, C.E. "Whitman and Epictetus: The Stoical Element in Leaves of Grass." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55 (1956): 75–84.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Wenley, R.M. Stoicism and Its Influence. 1924. New York: Cooper Square, 1963.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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