"Restless Explorations": Whitman's Evolving Spiritual Vision in Leaves of Grass

By Smith, Ernest | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

"Restless Explorations": Whitman's Evolving Spiritual Vision in Leaves of Grass


Smith, Ernest, Papers on Language & Literature


The spiritual dimension of American poet Walt Whitman's work has received no shortage of critical commentary. Whitman himself clearly saw his work as spiritual, going so far as to claim in his 1855 preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass that the work of the poet would soon come to supplant that of churches and priests. At the same time, he envisioned an expanded Leaves as a sort of "New Bible," and by 1872, in another preface to his lifelong project, concluded that his by now massive book of poems had "one deep purpose" above all others, "the religious purpose" (Collect 461). Pondering possible titles early on for what would become Leaves of Grass, Whitman once wrote, "What name? Religious Canticles" (Asselineau 221). Many contemporary readers seemed to agree with Whitman, hailing him as a prophet inaugurating a new religion. Whitman scholars David Kuebrich and David Reynolds both describe how some early readers of Whitman went so far as to found religious groups and, in at least one case in England, a church devoted to following his writings.

But the spiritual aspect of Whitman's project is complex, and it changes over time and in the nine editions of Leaves of Grass. The goal of this essay is not to define spirituality in Whitman specifically or to unravel components of his spiritual vision, but to argue instead that any acknowledgment of the power of Whitman's spiritual message needs to account for the way in which that message evolves through the expanded editions of Leaves, and how the poetry ultimately emphasizes the soul's embrace of the unknown over the known. For Whitman, the very process of questioning, searching, and existing in uncertainty is the vital element of spiritual health, as opposed to certainty of the soul's destination. In gauging his spiritual message, a reader should resist examining any period of Whitman's work, or any edition of Leaves, in isolation from other periods or poems. Tracing the progression of his voice and subjects, so useful to stylistic and historically oriented studies of Whitman, is less effective when considering a central theme such as spirituality, a theme that develops organically and deepens as the book grows in size and scope. Hence, the approach here would claim that the confident, sexually vibrant, ecstatic poet of body and soul in 1855 be read alongside the doubtful Drum-Taps poet who struggles to comprehend and console in 1865, and in turn beside the meditative, at times faltering mode of the death poems spanning 1871-1882. Central to this rationale is the fact that Whitman's treatment of spirituality rejects the temporal and that reading his treatment of the theme as one of phases in a poet's development diminishes the complexity, fluidity, and evolving nature of the theme. The levels of exuberance, reflection, anguish, doubt, and certitude in individual poems modulate as Leaves grows, with new poems speaking to preexisting ones, often demanding that readers reexamine their response to an earlier poem or the poet's overall treatment of the theme. Such a methodology agrees with Kuebrich's assertion that "Whitman did arrive at a unified religious vision during the process of writing the first edition of the Leaves, and he continued to elaborate that vision throughout the rest of his life. The individual poems and sections of the Leaves are informed by this new religion and they cannot be considered in isolation" (4).

A further complexity exists in the fact that the appeal of Whitman's personal spirituality cannot easily be separated from the spiritual component of his political vision. At numerous crucial periods of his writing career, his poems strive to cultivate the individual for the sake of growing and strengthening the democracy, and oftentimes his visionary call is at the service of his political aims. Whitman scholars such as Allen Grossman and Betsy Erkkila have noted how "The 'inner light' of religious spiritualism and the 'outer light' of the revolutionary enlightenment--the doctrines of the soul and the doctrines of the republic--became the early and potentially self-contradictory poles of Whitman's thought" (Erkkila and Grossman 16). …

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