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Experiencing Life Without Denying it in Whitman’s Poetry

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

~ “Song of Myself”

He praises nature. He hails civilization. He upholds silence. He calls for unchecked and unformed sound. All of these tendencies are found in Walt Whitman’s collection of highly descriptive poems. Superficially, Walt Whitman may seem to offer a somewhat flimsy philosophy in light of these inconsistencies, but it is through these contradictions that he develops a highly sophisticated approach to understanding the world. Throughout his collection Leaves of Grass, and primarily in the poem “Song of Myself”, Whitman employs his perception of sound to express the electricity that flows throughout all aspects of life. Several of his poems reveal his hesitance concerning humanity’s penchant for definitions and limitations. Rather than classify the living, Whitman becomes speechless before it, initially able to do little more than admire its splendor. His appreciation ends not with his silence, but rather emerges in his attempt to commune and mingle with nature and society through raw sound. Because of his status as a poet, Whitman must spread this sense of wonder to others and encourage them to embrace this boundless beauty in his writing. Rather than proving contradictory, Whitman’s reaction to nature and the beauty of the world embraces all aspects as equally compelling. Life deserves more than a dry, black-and-white textbook analysis-it merits color, celebration, and passion.

Soul Inhibited by Words

Humanity has a pervasive desire to understand and manipulate the world. From Adam and Eve’s naming of and subsequent control over the creatures in Eden to modern political debates over abortion and the death penalty, people seek to define, classify, and control life. Despite his role as a poet and linguist, Whitman cautions against this use of language. According to him, life cannot and will not be reduced to a definition because existence consists of more than “showing the best and dividing it from the worst” and “knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things” (55-56). Whitman hears “talk of the beginning and the end” and the “dispute on God and eternity” (SM 38-39, “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” 151). They deliberate and create factions based on their opposing and irreconcilable views of incomprehensible subject matters. Often when people create factions, they also create hierarchies: one idea is more perfect, one means of viewing the world is better, one religion serves God more fully. Rather than accept this divisiveness, Whitman encourages the “creeds and schools” to be held in “abeyance, retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten” (SM 10-11). He believes in unity-all elements of existence are equal in their perfection. Although he recognizes the thought and analysis required to establish and understand nature in this sense, he yearns for a pure and unadulterated appreciation of life. Perhaps the “learn’d astronomer” can lecture with the “proofs, the figures…ranged in columns” and show the “charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,” but knowing all of this, can he still retreat to the simple beauty of nature (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” 1-3)? Does he see the spiritual connection-the life-force-that connects him to the stars? Whitman argues that with this drive to understand and categorize, people overlook beauty in favor of fact. Life both in the physical and metaphysical sense resists becoming black or white-or even gray, for that matter-because it defies definition.

Soul Discovered in Silence

Rather than join in the endless debate about life, Whitman instead chooses to silently embrace all elements of creation. “Logic and sermons never convince” because beliefs cannot be transferred; they must be experienced in the “damp of the night” that “drives deeper into [the] soul” than mere words ever can (SM 643-644). Instead of witnessing the majesty of the stars through lifeless charts, graphs, and explanations, Whitman much prefers to wander off by himself “in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, [look] up in perfect silence at the stars” (Astronomer 6-8). The silence affords him the opportunity to experience this beauty far from the distractions of society. He is neither humbled nor exalted by his connection to the stars, but recognizes the power of the spirit pulsating through every aspect of life. This unspoken connection leaves him in silence. His goal does not lie in unraveling the mystery, but in admiring that mystery and energy.

While the speakers in the poem deliberate over the nature of creation, Whitman remains “silent” and leaves to “go bathe and admire himself” (SM 56). As the poet of both the body and the soul, he celebrates “every organ and attribute” of himself “and of any man,” finding no particle “vile” or “less familiar than the rest” (SM 422, 57-58). Like the vast firmament of stars, even the most seemingly mundane and corporeal objects radiate with the passion of existence. Both the cosmic and the human body evoke the same reaction of silent awe, and are thus equal in their splendor. Although speech provokes him, nudging him prove the debaters wrong with his appreciation for beauty, Whitman refuses “to be tantalized,” and holds that speech “conceive[s] too much of articulation” (SM 566, 569). He firmly resists this temptation because “writing and talk do not prove [him], [he carries] the plenum of proof and every thing in [his] face” (SM 579-580). The beauty, mystery, and realism present in his visage far outweigh any verbalization of his ideas. After all, articulation breeds limitation. Beauty and spirit are limitless. When he claims that he “cannot tell how [his] ankles bend, nor whence the cause of [his] faintest wish,” Whitman holds that both physical and abstract entities escape his words (SM 546).

Perhaps many people experience awe before the enormity of the cosmos. Many also recognize the beauty of the human soul and the intricacies of human intellect. However, very few people hesitate to look at the soul of an animal. Whitman equates the spirit inherent in a beast of burden to the mystery of the cosmos and humanity when he claims that the “oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade…express in [their] eyes…more than all the print [he has] read in [his] life” (SM 234-236). In this silent exchange, Whitman’s soul extends from his body to embrace the spirit pouring forth from the eyes of an animal. In pure awe and appreciation of nature, Whitman discovers that the best way to celebrate is to revel in it. If articulation creates limits, silence celebrates the limitless. To discover beauty and soul, people must silently revel in the life-force that surrounds them.

Soul Joined by Voice

Although refraining from articulation helps one to embrace the beauty of the soul, the elation symbolized by unrestrained noise not only celebrates nature, but joins it. Like the bird that calls for his mate over the “husky-nois’d sea”, people “must be still to listen” to the spirit that surrounds them “but not altogether still” for fear that beauty may never find them (“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” 107-109). The female, lost among the rolling waves, must hear the call from her mate to guide her back to safety. Likewise, although silence aids in discovering the mystery of existence, observation and awareness alone stop short of life.

The message of nature’s beauty and soul, lost amidst the chaos of daily life, must hear the call of the human spirit. The human spirit longs to rejoin the unadulterated passions of the natural world and foster the electricity of life throughout all of creation. Therefore, Whitman’s soul rejoins nature’s energy when he “speak[s] at every hazard, nature without check with original energy,” without restrain or fear of propriety (SM 12-13). To celebrate and commune with nature, Whitman rejects words, music, rhyme, custom, and lecture (SM 84). He urges humanity to “loose the stop from [their] throat[s]” and liberate the “lull” and “hum of [their] valvA?d voice[s]” (SM 83, 86). As he observes the noises of the city, the clinking snow-sleighs, agitated mobs, groans of the half-starved, and agony of giving birth, he notes the “living and buried speech…always vibrating” and seeks the “howls restrain’d by decorum” (SM 153-164). Rather obey decorum and neglect the spirit that pulsates from such images, Whitman “sound[s] [his] barbaric yawp” and embraces the “untranslatable” and untamed (SM 1332-1333). He evokes the “ya-honk” of the wild gander and recognizes its purpose and soul even though the “pert may suppose it meaningless” (SM 246-247). Not only does Whitman recognize the beauty in the honk, but he also seeks to join it with his own unrestrained voice.

Although the mimicry of untranslatable sound in nature parallels Whitman’s emission of his own raw sound, he strives to further unite them by mingling the two together. Through the “sound of the belch’d words of [his] voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,” he blends his unrestricted soul with the symbolic soul of nature: the wind (SM 25). Uninhibited and refined, he and the oceans “murmur alike reproachfully rolling sands and drift, knowing not why,” and become one in sound (“As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” 35-36). Together, they caress the shore, and buzz with shared energy. All of the voices of the world become as one: the “bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames…the sound of the human voice…the sounds of the city and sounds out of the city” (SM 584-587). No voice holds greater importance than the others because all sounds “fuse” to sing of life (SM 586).

Through their united voices, their energies and spirits likewise conjoin in their quest for consolation. The “oceans of life…rustle up hoarse and sibilant” while the “fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,” revealing that the “human condition” and spirit touches all of creation (Ocean 1, 4-5). In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman mourns the loss of the fallen President Lincoln. Not only does he encourage the “gray-brown bird” to “sing from the swamps” and pour his “chant from the bushes,” but he also urges this “dearest brother” to “warble [his] reedy song, loud human song, with voices of uttermost woe” (Lilacs 99-101).

The loss felt by Whitman and the nation springs forth in the song of the bird. The energy and spirit that connects them all in life also connects them in their awareness of death. Admiration and unification of beauty come full circle when the silence of the lilac and star and the song of the bird “twined with the chant of [his] soul” (Lilacs 205). Although silence enables Whitman to recognize the beauty that surrounds him, his connection with nature relies on his ability to embrace it through unchecked, natural sound.

Soul Shared in Poem

While scholars and theorists aim to explain the inexplicable, Whitman’s charge is to spread the awareness of it. Although silently recognizing and vocally joining the beauty of nature serve as critical steps in embracing the soul, Whitman feels compelled to share this wonderment with all of humanity through his poetry. These poems celebrate the spirit from birth to death, grass to stars, humans to animals-and they equalize all. Whitman recognizes that his true self remains “untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d” in his former, “arrogant poems”-those poems writ before he realized that he has “not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can” (Ocean 28, 27, 32). Throughout “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman uncovers the depths of his own soul through the beauty and spirit of the ebbing sea. With the rustle of the sea and the cries of the mother, he recognizes the soul that pervades all of creation. Because it serves as a source of inspiration for him, Whitman begs that the sea “rustle not up so hoarse and angry against [his] feet as [he] touch[es] [it] or gather[s] from [it]” (Ocean 54). The inconsolable sea and mother embody the sentiments of the distraught poet, forcing him to recognize the spirit in all of nature. Likewise, in “Song of Myself,” he witnesses the routines of the common people he passes in the city: the feasters dine, the pilots fly, the hunters hunt, the squaws barter, the brides wait, and the fare-collectors collect (SM 264-323). Whitman embraces the energy and spirit within all of these men and women and “of these one and all [he] weave[s] the song of [himself]” (SM 329). The connection between them all inspires him to create his song.

As a poet, Whitman accepts his role as the “equable man,” because he clarifies and transfigures “forbidden voices…of sexes and lusts, voices indecent” (BBOS 137, SM 515-517). He translates these untamed voices into poems to share their energies with a formerly preoccupied world. In his poems, he upholds voices that were once ignored for their coarseness and praises them for their spirit. Although the poet must be the “arbiter of the diverse,” he or she must avoid becoming the “arguer” (BBOS 141, 147). Whitman “judges not as the judge judges but as the sun,” never critical but always illuminating (BBOS 148). Illumination celebrates the spirit, whereas judgment criticizes it; therefore, the poet’s “thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things” not the analysis of them (BBOS 150). Furthermore, he believes that the poems do not come from within him, but rather “vaguely [waft] in the night air, uncaught, unwritten,” “bridging the way from Life to Death” (“Proud Music of the Storm” 163). Dreams of far-off lands and powerful people all hum with the great energy of life and inspire the poet to “go forth in the bold day and write” (Proud Music 164). Whitman’s conscious praise of the beauty that surrounds him establishes him as a poet of the spirit.

Whitman’s intriguing departure from other philosophers, theologians, and scholars finds its basis in his intent. Whereas intellectuals of those veins seek to convince others of their visions of reality, Whitman detests the thought of others blindly accepting his beliefs. He encourages humanity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to see the beauty and spirit in the world that surrounds them, and to relate to that soul in whatever way they know best. Living people all too often approach life from a “second or third hand” perspective, looking “through the eyes of the dead” or acquiring knowledge from “spectres in books” (SM 34-36). Only through first hand experience can people ever comprehend “the origin of all poems”: the life and the spirit (SM 33). He wants to inspire those that read his poetry to “not look through [his] eyes” or “take things from [him]” but rather to help them “listen to all sides and filter them for [themselves]” (SM 36-37). Through his sweeping celebration of beauty and spirit in his poems, Whitman opens his readers’ eyes to existence without ever tainting their view with his own perspective.

Conclusion

If Whitman’s works contain multitudes, can he ever truly be contradictory? The essence of Whitman’s poetry lies not in his celebration of America, democracy, death, life, nature, or people – it lies in all of them, and more. Some critics label him a poet of death, some biographers label him homosexual, and some students label him tedious and long-winded. These definitions create preconceived notions-they establish limits and guidelines through which readers approach his poetry. Through his celebration of the intangible spirit that exists in and rises above every imaginable particle in the universe, Whitman negates limitation. Through his use of sound and articulation in “Song of Myself,” “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking,” “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” and “Proud Music of the Storm,” he uncovers the sense of soul that unites all. While scholars contribute valuable means of understanding facts, they hazard sacrificing the mystery and wonderment that accompanies life. Whitman revels in experiencing life without trying to define or understand it. Once he senses that spirit, he feels compelled to join in its unrestrained voice. This overwhelming awareness of interconnectedness inspires him to share his experience with others. The concept of the spirit, life-force, soul, beauty, life, or nature remains purposefully elusive. People recognize that magnetic and overwhelming feeling of purpose and spirit-to articulate perfectly would destroy its mystery.

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