Walt Whitman: A prophet found under your boot-soles

by
31 May 2019

On the poet’s bicentenary, Michael Robertson reflects on the religious purpose of Walt Whitman

ALAMY

A statue of Walt Whitman stands on a boulder next to the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain State Park in New York State

A statue of Walt Whitman stands on a boulder next to the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain State Park in New York State

“I AM large. I contain multitudes.” So wrote Walt Whitman in his 1855 masterpiece Song of Myself. This spring, as observances of the American poet’s 200th birthday on 31 May occur around the globe, a multitude of Whitmans will be celebrated: poet of democracy, nature poet, free-verse innovator, gay ancestor — even, as laid out in a recent book by the scholar Kirsten Harris, inspiration for early British Socialists.

Less often celebrated is Whitman the mystic and poet-prophet. “When I commenced, years ago, elaborating the plan of my poems,” Whitman wrote in 1872, “one deep purpose underlay the others, and has underlain it and its execution ever since — and that has been the religious purpose.” Many critics, flummoxed by this statement, have tried to explain it away — at other times he emphasised other purposes; he became more religious as he got older — but it is worth taking him at his word, and, in this bicentenary year, considering Whitman as a religious poet.

 

BORN on a Long Island farm in 1819, Walt Whitman was the son of Walter Whitman, sen., a free thinker who revered Thomas Paine, and Louisa Van Velsor, who came from a Quaker family. The young Walt moved back and forth between Long Island and Brooklyn. After leaving school at 11, he worked as a printer, schoolteacher, and journalist, while writing potboiler fiction and conventional poems indistinguishable from the work of countless other 19th-century rhymesters.

Then, in 1855, at the late-bloomer age of 36, he self-published Leaves of Grass, a collection of 12 poems. The poems might well have sunk into the obscurity that greets most other first collections, but Whitman, at a venture, had sent a copy to the Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s greatest man of letters. Remarkably, Emerson read the book and responded in an effusive letter.

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“Dear Sir,” he wrote, “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of ‘Leaves of Grass.’ I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Whitman carried the letter around with him for weeks, showing it off to acquaintances. Without Emerson’s permission, he had it published in the New-York Tribune, then rushed out a second edition of Leaves of Grass with 20 new poems added, and “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” stamped in gold on the spine.

Emerson’s praise could not guarantee that Leaves of Grass would be universally admired, and Whitman’s groundbreaking free verse and his unabashed celebration of the body and sexuality meant that he caused controversy throughout his lifetime. The great man’s approval, however, ensured that Whitman would not be ignored. Over the course of the next decades, until his death in 1892, Whitman issued ever-expanding editions of Leaves of Grass, which, by the end, had grown to almost 400 poems.

 

PLANNING the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote in a notebook, “The Great Construction of the New Bible.” In another entry, he called Leaves of Grass the “Bible of the New Religion”. His ambition seems stunning, but, in mid-19th-century America, such pronouncements were not uncommon. The Book of Mormon is the best-known of the new Bibles jockeying for position in this era of tremendous religious fervour, but it was not alone. Antebellum America witnessed the birth of dozens of new sects and a flood of new Bibles.

“Make your own Bible,” Emerson commanded in an 1836 journal entry; and, when he spoke at a Harvard Divinity School graduation two years later, he described the “Hebrew and Greek scriptures” as fragmentary, and urged each graduate to become “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost”. When Whitman proposed Leaves of Grass as a new Bible, he was not making an unprecedented claim, but responding to a widespread demand among 19th-century religious progressives.

In Leaves of Grass, Whitman outlined a new religion that was suitable for a modern democracy. His religious ideas came from multiple sources, including his father’s free-thought heroes, such as Thomas Paine. As a child, he absorbed central tenets of Enlightenment deism: a denial of Jesus’s unique divinity and a rejection of biblical miracles; a view of the universe as governed by divine intelligence and benevolence; and a distrust of organised religion.

A subtle but strong anti-clerical sentiment runs throughout Leaves of Grass. Whitman joined this anti-clericalism to a pre-Darwinian view of evolution, which held that both the natural world and human institutions were evolving towards perfection. In a powerful passage in Song of Myself, he casts himself as prophet of a new religion designed to supplant all previous beliefs:
 

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,
Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix engraved,
With Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image,
Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days. . .
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself, bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see.

 

WHITMAN shared the progressive optimism that was common among 19th-century spiritual seekers: the notion that earlier religions had been rough sketches for a fully realised democratic spirituality that was manifested equally in every man and woman.

Whitman absorbed deist principles from his father; he was equally influenced by his mother’s Quaker background. He embraced the Quaker emphasis on individual experience of the divine — what Friends call the “inner light” — as well as the concept of “that of God” existing within every person. Whitman’s poetry reflects Quakers’ radically egalitarian theology:
 

I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
 

These famous lines, which open Song of Myself, are political — they assert a democratic equality between poet and reader — but they are also religious. I and you are not simply equal, but identical in a way that makes sense only in metaphysical terms. “Divine am I inside and out,” Whitman writes, but since I and you are interchangeable, you are as divine as I.

Whitman was also strongly influenced by Emersonian transcendentalism. The cornerstone of transcendental philosophy is found in Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841), which insists that moral and religious truth are grounded in individual experience. “Self-Reliance” was a key document for 19th-century religious progressives, who fashioned a distinction between religion (institutional, credal, orthodox), and spirituality (individualistic, mystical, pluralist) which still resonates today. These spiritual seekers found in Leaves of Grass ecstatic restatements of key Emersonian doctrines, such as the idea that God is immanent within nature and the material world:
 

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Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
 

Spiritual seekers were also thrilled to find in Whitman what has come to be regarded as one of the most powerful expressions of mystical experience in world literature. This famous passage occurs early in Whitman’s great, lengthy poem Song of Myself, when the poet-speaker addresses his soul:
 

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
 

The poet and his soul then lie in the grass, and in a gesture that powerfully mixes the spiritual and erotic, the soul “plunge[s its] tongue to my bare-stript heart”. In that moment, the doors of perception are cleansed, and the poet gives ecstatic voice to his newfound vision:
 

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.
 

The “kelson” is part of the keel of a ship; the poet-mystic’s new knowledge is that it is love that guides the course of the universe.

 

DURING his lifetime, thousands of readers responded to Whitman’s ecstatic religious message. Some of the most fervent among them regarded Whitman as a new messiah, and imagined that a religion founded on his poetry would flourish in the 20th century.

Instead, Leaves of Grass entered the literary canon, and professional critics deprecated the religious approach of earlier enthusiasts as naïve and amateurish. More recently, scholars have begun to re-examine the poetry’s profound religious dimensions.

During this bicentary year, among the many Whitmans to be celebrated will be the mystical poet-prophet, who expressed his good news in the form of innovative, potentially life-changing poems.

 

Dr Michael Robertson is Professor of English at the College of New Jersey, and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. Worshipping Walt: The Whitman disciples is published by Princeton Press at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).

To listen to an interview with Professor Robertson, including a reading of some of Whitman’s poems, visit www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

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