The Grass Pathway: The Role of the Poet, Nature, and Religion in Walt Whitman (Grade A-)

on July 11, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree, Poetry

Walt Whitman establishes in his work a unique understanding of the relationship between the poet, the physical, and the metaphysical. Rather than the strictly hierarchical vision that Emerson describes, “Words are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history” (Emerson 20), Whitman has a decidedly more lateral understanding of humanity’s connection to the Universe. Using the poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleeper”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, the following will attempt to analyze the role of the poet, the importance of the physical connectedness of man and the Universe, and finally how art can supplant established religion as the means by which humanity converses with the Universal.
For Whitman, the role of the poet may never be more clearly stated than in the opening lines of “Song of the Answerer”. Herein, the poet takes on a prophetic voice that is reminiscent of the first chapter of the book of Mark and it’s description of the roll of John the Baptist.

A young man comes to me bearing a message from his brother,
How shall the young man know the whether and when of his
Tell him to send me the signs. (Whitman 141)

In these lines Whitman establishes the poet as not only the teller of the Answerer’s signs, but the conduit through which the young man can come to a true understanding of his brother’s message. Similarly, in “When the Full-grown Poet Came” the narrator controls the prophetic tone by expressing the poet, claimed by both Nature and man, as having mediated the interchange, “The full-grown poet stood between the two, and took each by the hand”. Here Nature looks upon the poet, in whom She is well pleased, saying, “He is mine,” while the “proud, jealous and unreconciled,” Soul of man says, “Nay, he is mine alone” (Whitman 461). Whitman invests the poet with the task of blending Nature and that “unreconciled” soul. This is not to suggest that Whitman uses Christian overtones in support of religion as an institution, but neither is it the explicit promotion of the liberal utopia of a purely civic religion proposed by Richard Rorty. Rather, Whitman’s prophetic voice is perhaps as much a reflection of his upbringing in a society that is culturally Christian as it is a conscious decision to use the most efficacious language available. The relationship between the poet prophet and those to whom are given the Answerer’s signs is more tangibly explored in “The Sleepers”. In the previous poems the metaphysical has been represented as the Answerer then as Nature, but here the more encompassing image of Darkness is used. The wandering narrator hovers over the sleepers and observes, eventually merging with, their dreams. The poet as intermediary and guide is perhaps challenged here, “I reckon I am their boss and they make me a pet besides, And surround me and lead me and run ahead when I walk” (Whitman 358), however, the poet is conjoined with his “gang of blackguards” in the engulfing grip of Darkness which devolves the constructs of leader and led into the formlessness wherein the speaker fades away. Here, in a much more fluid way, the task of the poet is to be the lover of both man and the universe, and it is through that congress that all will be blended into a higher level of connectedness.
This amalgam of poet, audience, and darkness-personified universe is a prime example of the importance of the physical connection between man and nature. In these poems the natural is not simply a means by which to observe the metaphysical Universe, but very much a part of that Universe. As the narrator begins to explore the dreams of the Sleepers the poet’s own distinctiveness begins to fade away. Furthermore, there is a special emphasis on the tactile connection of holding hands in both “When the Full-grown Poet Came” and “Song of the Answerer”. In the latter, the scene depicted is in many ways reminiscent of a wedding ceremony being presided over by the poem’s “Answerer”.

And I stand before the young man face to face, and take his
right hand in my left hand and his left hand in my right
And I answer for his brother and for men, and I answer for
Him that answers for all, and send these signs (Whitman 141)

Again the Christian paradigm is echoed in this construction as the poem illustrates how the poet, the young man, and the Answerer are immersed in the Universal by means of a physical connection. Whitman does not appear to wish this connection to be a purely philosophical or symbolic one, but an integral and tangible part of the experience of the Universal Soul. Though the narrator of the above remains vague, it could very well be the connected hands that are being established as an example and sent out as “signs”. John Irwin explores the lateral nature of this relationship as, rather than a one-way street leading from nature to the metaphysical, he writes that, “the metaphysical is a radically different way of experiencing the physical” (Irwin 865). This in turn illuminates a symbiotic relationship between the physical and metaphysical where both are needed in equal parts to be truly connected to the Universal Soul. If the previous poems are matrimonial in their physicality, “The Sleepers” represents a consummation of that relationship. Therein the narrator urges the Darkness to, “Double yourself and receive me Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without him” (Whitman 358). Here again however the reading becomes problematic as the poet prophet seems to become disconnected from the lover he had sought to unite with the Darkness. The following lines seem to distance the narrator from his lover in favor of his relationship with the Universal supporting what Christopher Loots has described as Whitman’s penchant for being the, “poet of oneness” (Loot).

He whom I call answers me and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.
Darkness, you are gentler than my lover,

This would suggest an abandonment of humanity and its connection to the Universal in favor of the narrator’s private individual connection were it not for the poem’s concluding lines,

I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat, I follow, I fade away(Whitman 358)

Instead of being alone in the dark Universal the poet finds that the visual distinction between his lover and the Darkness is gone and they have become physically one entity, and it is the poet prophet’s turn to follow the “heart-beat” into that borderless collective.
Ultimately, this collective suggests that the poet and his art will introduce new forms of religion to replace the institutions that have thus far defined the means by which humanity has communicated with the Universal. Whitman, like Emerson, puts forward the poet as the prophet of the new understanding who will give voice to the new forms. The Poet, “announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor” (Emerson 450). This messianic language is not unique to Emerson as in “To Him That Was Crucified” Whitman annexes Christian language to present an innovative theology, “We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers nor anything that is asserted” (Whitman 323). Whitman abandons the notion that the Earth is a temporal prison to which original sin doomed humanity and elevates it to a co-equal part of the Universal whole. This elevation, poet to messiah and poem to scripture, is a means by which Whitman could couch a foreign ideology in a familiar framework, as was the habit of many religions before it. Whitman even goes so far as to suggest that each person will eventually become a prophet unto themselves and be lead by the artist to the Whole, “You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me, you shall listen to all sides and filter them for your self” (Whitman 27). In this way the poet and the poem become the Answerer’s “sign”, Nature’s “blender”, and the Darkness’ “lover”.
The poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleepers”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, are an illuminating lens when examining the role of the poet, the importance of a physical connection with nature, and succession of art as religion. First, they construct the poet prophet image wherein the poet is the intermediary between humanity and the Universal self. Secondly, they demonstrate that the physical is not merely a symbolic tool with which one can contemplate the metaphysical, but an intrinsically valuable part of the Whole. Lastly, they establish a framework through which the individual religious experience can be freed from the antique modes and allowed to adopt the fluidity and individuality that will lead to an undreamt of interconnectedness between all people and things. While, “Whitman’s confidence in his own poetic capacity to supersense and thereafter translate such sublimity into language is indefatigable”(Loot), it’s his versatility of phrase that allows for the infinite paths that are required for the individual exploration of the Universal whole.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Essays & Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1983. Print.

Irwin, John. “Whitman: Hieroglyphic Bibles and Phallic Songs.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print.

Loots, Christopher ““That Inscrutable Thing”: Holography, Nonlocality, and Identity in American Romanticism.” Configurations 24.1 (2016): 71-108. Project MUSE. Web. 28 Jun. 2016.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Whitman, Walt. “The Sleepers.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Answerer.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “To Him That Was Crucified.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “When the Full-grown Poet Came.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Leave a Reply