Showing posts with label Song of Myself by Whitman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Song of Myself by Whitman. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Whitman's Mysticism and the Concept of Body and Soul in 'Song of Myself': Which is more important to Whitman-the soul or the body?

 As a devotee of Transcendentalism, Whitman also believes in mysticism. As we go through his 'Song of Myself', we find that he gives lot of emphasis on mystical experiences. Mysticism is not really a coherent philosophy of life, but more a temper of mind. A mystic’s vision is intuitive. It feels the presence of a divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of sense perception. He feels that God and the supreme soul animating all things are identical. He sees an essential identity of Being between Man, Nature and God. Song of Myself has several mystical undercurrents in this sense.

Whitman’s mystical experience of his self comes through various stages. The first stage may be termed the “Awakening of self,” the second the “Purification of self.” Purification involves an acceptance of the body and all its functions. This acceptance reflects the poet’s goal to achieve mystical experience through physical reality. This is an apposition to the Puritanical view of purification through mortification of the flesh. Whitman philosophises that the self can be purified not through purgation but through the acceptance of the physical. The mystical experience paves the way for the merging of physical reality with a universal reality.

For this very reason, we cannot call Whitman a pure mystic in the sense of oriental mysticism. He is not a praying man. Like all mystics he believes in the existence of the soul, in the existence of divine spirit, in the immortality of the human soul and in the capacity of a human being to establish communication between spirit and Divine spirit. But he differs from the traditional mystic. He declares that he sings of the body as much as of the soul. He feels that spiritual communication is possible without sacrificing the flesh.

When we call Whitman a mystic, then obviously the question arises on which he gives more emphasis, body or soul?  As we have already discussed he is different from the oriental mystics. Like oriental mystics he does not give over emphasis on soul. Rather to him both the soul and body are equally important.  Whitman himself makes it clear that  “the soul is not more than the body,” just as “the body is not more than the soul.” God is not even more important than one’s self. The poet asks man not to be “curious about God,” because God is everywhere and in everything. He says;

“ In the faces of men and women I see God, God in my own face in the glass.”

Whitman does not reject the material world or body. He seeks the spiritual through the material. He does not subscribe, to the belief that objects are illusive. There is no tendency on the part of the soul to leave this world for good. We see the soul is trying to play a significant role in the administration of this world of scenes, sights, sounds etc. He does not deny the achievements of science and materialism. In section 23 of “Songs of Myself” he says

Human for positive science!
Long live exact demonstration!

Section 6 presents and introduces the central symbol of “Songs of Myself”. We see that a child appears with leaves full in both hands and asks the poet “What is the grass?” Hesitating first, the poet muses that “the grass is itself a child,” or may be “it is the handkerchief of he Lord.” Here the grass is a symbol of the divinity latent in the ordinary, common life of man. It is also a symbol of continuity inherent in the life-death cycle. Like a true mystic, Whitman believes that no one really dies. It might be to him that death means rebirth; it is the way by which man can establish a certain relation being one with God. Whitman says that even “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death……….

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

As a mystic, Whitman believed that there was no difference between the creator and the creation. His “self” is a universal self. He sees people of both sexes, all ages, many different walks of life; even animals are included. The poet along with the divine spirit not only loves them all; he is also a part of them. Whitman says;

And these tend inward to me,and I tend outward to them
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of Myself.

Grass, a central symbol in “Song of Myself” suggests the divinity of common things. The nature and significance of grass unfold the themes of death and immortality. Grass is the key to the secrets of man’s relationship with the Divine. It indicates the God is everything and everything is God.

Whitman approaches democracy from a new angle. His democratic faith is related to his concept of mystical self. He believes that democracy must yield spiritual results. He takes recourse to metaphysical doctrine to discuss the material world. To him soul is limitless and this limitless itself speaks for equality. And the equality is potential. Not only that his poetry shown his faith in the unity of whole on oneness of all. “Songs of Myself” saying about this oneness

“ And that all men ever born are also my brothers,
        the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the  eration is love.”

Whitman seldom lost touch with the physical reality even in the midst of mystical experience. Physical phenomena for him were symbols of spiritual reality. He believed that “the unseen is proved by seen. Thus he makes use of highly sensuous and concrete imagery to convey his perception of divine reality. He finds a purpose behind natural objects-grass, sea, birds, flowers, animals.

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death. Indeed, one might say that mysticism constitutes the very poetic form of Whitman’s poems. He looked upon the universe as constituting a unity of disparate objects, unified the Divine Spirit. Thus his poems are “Leave of Grass” signifying at once separateness and unity. His dominant metaphor of grass presents a case for unity and harmony, a basic component of structure.

Thus, Whitman is a mystic as much as he is a poet of democracy and science, but a mystic without a creed. He sees the body as the manifestation of the spirit which is delivered by death into a higher life. What we may call Whitman’s mysticism is democratic mysticism which available to every man with equal terms and embracing contradictory elements. But it is undeniable that mysticism is central to the meaning of “Song of Myself.

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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Use of symbols in Song of Myself by Whitman

A child said What is the grass ?fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

                                                               'Song of Myself', Whitman

The question ‘What is the grass? , introduced in the 6th section of Song of Myself by Whitman, establishes the central symbol of the poem and the answer to the question is in many ways the entire poem. As a poem Song of Myself has three important themes: the idea of the self, the identification of the self with other selves, and the poet’s relationship with the elements of nature and the universe. All these three themes are beautifully expressed through the symbols of grass, Self, Houses and rooms, perfume, and atmosphere.

The symbol that runs through the poem is obviously the grass, which is introduced in the 6th section of Song of Myself. The entire poem is formally structured around the grass.

A child appears with both hands full of Leaves from the fields and asks the poet, “What is the grass?” The poet at first feels incapable of answering this question but continues thinking about it. He muses that perhaps “the grass is itself a child” or maybe it is “the handkerchief of the Lord.” Here the grass is a symbol of the divinity latent in the ordinary, common life of man and it is also a symbol of the continuity inherent in the life-death cycle.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt, Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Whitman is "able to see the grass as the recapitulation of the whole cycle of life, death and rebirth; it the symbol of the individual ("the flag of my disposition"), of Deity ("the handkerchief of the Lord"), of reproduction ("the produced babe of the vegetation"), of the new social order of American democracy ("a uniform hieroglyphic"), of death ("the beautiful uncut hair of graves"), and finally of the new form into which death transmorgrifies life"

The bunches of grass in the child's hands become a symbol of the regeneration in nature. But they also signify a common material that links disparate people all over the United States together: grass, the ultimate symbol of democracy, grows everywhere. In the wake of the Civil War the grass reminds Whitman of graves: grass feeds on the bodies of the dead. Everyone must die eventually, and so the natural roots of democracy are therefore in mortality, whether due to natural causes or to the bloodshed of internecine warfare. While Whitman normally revels in this kind of symbolic indeterminacy, here it troubles him a bit. "I wish I could translate the hints," he says, suggesting that the boundary between encompassing everything and saying nothing is easily crossed.

Grass, a central the themes of death and immortality, for grass is symbolic of the ongoing cycle of life present in nature, which assures each man of his immortality. Nature is an emblem of God, for God’s eternal presence in it is evident everywhere. Grass is the key symbol of this epic poem, suggests the divinity of common things. The nature and significance of grass unfold to the secrets of man’s relationship with the Divine. It indicates that, God is everything and everything is God.

The poet’s senses convince him that there is significance in everything, no matter how small. Sections 31-33 contain a catalog of the infinite wonders in small things. He believes, for example, that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars” and “the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,” for all things are part of the eternal wonder of life and therefore even “the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps.”

The grass symbol also appears at the closing section of the peom.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

Though the poem Song of Myself lacks the traditional form, but this grass symbol gives the poem an order and the unity of theme. From the very beginning of the poem the poet emphasizes on his oneness with the general people. Thus the poem ends with the same symbol of grass giving the poem a coherent unifying theme.

The poet can wait for those who will understand him. He tells them, “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles,” for he will have become part of the eternal life cycle. Although it may be difficult to find or interpret him, he will be waiting. “Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Grass is the central symbol of “Song of Myself,” and it represents the divinity contained in all living things. Although no traditional form is apparent, the logical manner in which the poet returns to his image of grass shows that “Song of Myself” was planned to have an order and unity of idea and image.

Symbol of ‘I’

In "Song of Myself," 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'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.

The second section of the poem also opens with some symbols.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

Houses and rooms represent civilization; perfumes signify individual selves; and the atmosphere symbolizes the universal self. The self is conceived of as a spiritual entity which remains relatively permanent in and through the changing flux of ideas and experiences which constitute its conscious life. The self comprises ideas, experiences, psychological states, and spiritual insights. The concept of self is the most significant aspect of Whitman’s mind and art.

In section 2, the self, asserting its identity, declares its separateness from civilization and its closeness to nature. “Houses and rooms are full of perfume,” Whitman says. “Perfumes” are symbols of other individual selves; but outdoors, the earth’s atmosphere denotes the universal self. The poet is tempted to let himself be submerged by other individual selves, but he is determined to maintain his individuality.

Grass as the symbol of the equality

In this poem the grass is also used as a symbol of democracy. Grass grows in clusters or clumps. Thus it becomes a symbol of democracy.

Whitman,who translated some of his poems into French, did have an affinity with the french symbolist movement. In the mid-1880s, the Symbolist movement began in France.Like the French symbolists,Whitman tried to interpret the universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from traditional forms and methods.