The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII
WHITMAN

THE poetic faith in nature perhaps nowhere appears more full- blown than in the poems of Whitman. Nowhere perhaps, in the range of poetry written in English, is the thought of nature more confidently called to the support and inspiration of the spirit. Whitman may be regarded as in some ways marking the culminating point in the romantic concept of nature.

This American poet was subject to innumerable influences tending to foster in him this romantic concept. Most of these it would be difficult or impossible to trace to particular literary sources, though one may be tolerably certain of the sort of thing he would have read and heard spoken of. This nature-doctrine was in the air, widely diffused in Whitman America. What seems most probable is that in Leaves of Grass he was influenced by the idealistic interpretation of nature found in the writings of Emerson and in popular abstracts of the German philosophers--Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, and above all Hegel. But along with this, and earlier in time, was the influence of deism, of English natural theology, and the closely related influence of the concept of nature in revolutionary political and social thought--as in Rousseau Contrat Social, Thomas Paine Common Sense, and the American Declaration of Independence. In many ways Whitman has been compared to Rousseau; but I do not know whether he came directly under his influence as a writer. In one of the many notes he took preparatory to writing Leaves of Grass is an account of Rousseau's career, together with a characterization of the Confessions and the general statement that an American poet might read him but should never imitate him.1 It is most likely that Whitman, like so many English poets, was influenced by Rousseau in-

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