Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Whitman’s Concept of Democracy, Reconcilment of Major Conflicts in the American Body Politic and the Idea of American Self in his 'Song of Myself '

I am the poet of the Body and
I am poet of the soul
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.

                                                            'Song of Myself', Whitman 

This is Whitman's bold expression of the idea of democracy in his "Song of Myself."  Whitman was the ultimate follower of the Transcendentalist movement ,which believed in individual freedom and democracy.Throughout the peom Song of Myself  Whitman gives the  emphasis on equality of all men and women.To him all humans are equal and all professions are equally honorable.  In this all encompassing interpretation Whitman says that the freedom offered by democracy is for all not a chosen few. It included all people, not renouncing those of other races, creeds, or social standings.

Among poets, Walt Whitman is undoubtedly the greatest champion of democracy. True, the English romantic poets were staunch supporters of democracy. But Whitman’s approach to democracy was much more vivid and realistic. He was a systematic and painstaking student of political reality. His ideal of democracy was no visionary’s dream. He denounced all prerogatives and vested interest. Whitman visualized complete harmony between the individual and society.

Nature of democracy 

Whitman united democratic themes and subject matter with free verse form in Song of Myself.  In this poem, Whitman celebrates unity of all life and people.  He embraces diversity of geography, culture, work, sexuality, and beliefs.  Whitman’s impact solidifies American dreams of independence, freedom, and fulfillment, and transforms them for larger spiritual meaning.  Whitman values hard work and being humble and non-egotistical.  His ideals are things such as good health, soul, and the love of nature.
The opening of the poem 

Whitman's belief in equality is so strong, he dedicates the first lines of "Song of Myself" to it:

 I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Here, "I" and "you" are used symbolically, not unlike the "myself" from the title that repeats itself in the first line.Whitman uses "I" to refer not only to himself, but to a larger "I" that includes the reader and humanity in general. Invoking the universal "I" brings a sense of equality to the poem without directly addressing that theme. In its own mysterious way, though, the poem does deal directly with equality and democracy, primarily through Whitman's imagery and language. Whitman celebrates unity of all life and people. His belief in equality for all people is also depicted in these lines.  

In democracy Whitman saw possibilities of universal peace and brotherhood. ”Spiritual democrat” is the right epithet or special epithet for Whitman. To Whitman the common man, the divine average was the most authentic specimen of humanity. And as a poet he is not interested in any speciality that he can’t share with “all”. While Whitman gave a definition of democracy in his prose treatise “Democratic Invaluable commentary on his “Leaves of Grass” .The poem in this  collection themselves illustrate his ideal of democracy both in context and form.
The grass is the great symbol of democracy in nature and it is by lying on it and observing it that the poet begins to reflect. The poet says in section- 1:
“I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my case observing a spear of summer grass.”

The grass symbolizes separateness in unity, a sort of individual identity in unity, which is the basic essential of democracy. The grass becomes a graphic representation of Whitman’s central concept of democracy in the following lines:
“Or, I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones
Growing among black flocks as among white
The grass is carefree and grows in all places. It has no option to grow only in specific places. It grows among the black as well as the white folks in broad as well as narrow zones. This suggests the democratic spirit which the poet always emphasizes.
It is the spear of grass that enables the poet to understand the eternal cycle of life and death:
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
All goes onward and outward -------and nothing collapses
And to die is different from what anyone supposed.

As a prophet of democracy Whitman manifests in his poetry the basic sides of democracy-liberty of the individual and equality-all based on the basic belief in the of equality human being.

The poet’s belief in human dignity is clear in his poems. He sings of the men, common American engaged in many professions- the blacksmith, the butcher, the farmer, the boatman, the raft man. There is no distinction for the poet.
He says he is comrade of all who shakes their hands. He defines himself to be every hue, color, caste etc. This reveals Whitman’s democratic impulse. In section 10 he says:-

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
--------- physician, Priest.
To the poet the whole cosmos is beautiful. Nothing is trivial to him in the whole universe. Everything can be subject of his poetry. It is noteworthy how he emphasises the word “En-Masse” in Section 23

“Endless unfolding of words of Ages!
And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.”

These lines show the democratic ideas of the poet that run through the vein of his poetry. Many words have been used, coined since time immemorial. But the words “En-Masse” appeals to the poet more than any other word.  “En-Masse” stands for all humanity, for all significant or insignificant things, for entire mankind. To the poet the entire mankind is one. All men and all women are equal. There is no disparity between people belonging to different caste, color or creed. Whitman is the poet of “En-Masse”

In singing himself he sings of all, for he identifies himself totally with the average, American, as well as the whole mankind. He possesses what other men posses. He does not support special favour that he can’t share with “all.”  He declares he will “accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms Sec 24. He also says,” For every atom belonging to me a good belongs to you.

Feeling of sympathy and comradeship, the inevitable offshoots of the true democratic impulse, pervade Whitman’s poetry. Anyone without sympathy for his fellow human beings, in Whitman’s opinion, walks into his own funeral in his shroud.
“ And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his
own funeral drest in his shroud.”

Whitman is democratic not only in his ideas but also in his poetic technique. In his poetic style democratic impulse is reflected. It is significant that he rejects the conventional forms of poetry which he felt to be aristocratic past. His freedom with poetic form reflects his advocacy of freedom for human soul. The free flow of words, the lines of uneven length, all express the sense of development inherent democracy.

It has been remarked , Whitman is more of a nationalists than a truly democratic poet. Because he confesses he sings of America. But if he sings of America, it is precisely because he associates the nation with democracy. It would be most apt to endorse the opinion of John Burroughs: “ The reader who would get at the spirit and meaning of Leaves of Grass must remember that its animating principle from first to last, is democracy. Frequent emphasise has been put on unity ; equality and human dignity in “Song of Myself” reveals Whitman’s democratic principle or impulse.

He follows Emerson in applauding the doctrine of the “divine average” and of the greatness of the commonplace. In his Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman states “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” I believe he meant that the diversity of geography, culture, beliefs and work all combine to create a wonderful country.  Whitman’s subject matter and style tie together to reflect his values of a working class democracy, humbleness and the enjoyment of life.  Whitman’s impact has solidified American dreams and transcends, transforms them for a larger spiritual meaning.

Thus, we see in his 'Song of Myself', Whitman emerges as the champion of equality and democracy. He has a deep faith in democracy because this political form of government respects the individual. He thought that the genius of the United States is best expressed in the common people, not in its executive branch or legislature, or in its churches or law courts. He believed that it is the common folk who have a deathless attachment to freedom. His attitudes can be traced to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century because he thought that the source of evil lay in oppressive social institutions rather than in human nature.