AD's English Literature : Walt Whitman as the Poet of Democracy: Worth of the Individual and the Oneness of all Humanity

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Walt Whitman as the Poet of Democracy: Worth of the Individual and the Oneness of all Humanity





'I celebrate myself, and sing myself ...' Leaves of Grass, 'Song of Myself,' (1855)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the representative poet of America is primarily the poetic Spokesman of democracy whose work boldly asserts the worth of the individual and the oneness of all humanity. Truly, the English Romantic poets had been vigorous supporters of the democratic ideals but where Whitman differed from them was in his more pragmatic down- to -earth approach. His ideal of democracy was no visionary’s dream but had a practical approach to it. Whitman’s defiant break with traditional poetic concerns and style exerted a major influence on American thought and literature. Whitman has to furnish the great "psalm of the Republic," the poem of Personality—Personality as it exists in America; and, wrapped in "sublime egotism"—the egotism of a man who feels himself a king upon earth, not "wearing the purple," but in the humble guise of a working man, one whose genius
"Knows no end,
And will to countless years extend
Undimm'd, unstained, in glow;"

On the political plain he denounced all Prerogatives and vested interest; on the social plain he visualized complete harmony between the individual and society; but above all, Whitman was what may be called a spiritual democrat who saw in true democracy possibilities of universal peace, toleration, and brotherhood.

 Whitman  rebelled against the conventional poetic subjects such as kings and nobles. He sings of the common American engaged in homely tasks-- the blacksmith, the Negro teamster, the butcher, the farmers, the mother sewing, the soldier keeping watch on the battlefield. In has poetry, we hear the hum and clatter of house building, shingle-dressing, Ship joining, ferrying meaning, iron-smelting, stone-cutting and cotton-loading. These homely activities had great significance for him. To him the whole ‘Cosmos’ was beautiful and nothing was so trivial that it could not be a subject of poetry. His different editions of Leaves of Grass, written in free verse, share his democratic ideology. Here he also celebrates individuality, sensuality, fertility, and nature.

The 'genius' of the United States, Whitman proclaimed, lay 'always most in the common people,' and he, Walt Whitman, was the epitome of that common man, 'commensurate' with the people. The opening poem's very first lines were a challenge:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
'I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,' he wrote. All the appetites people possess—for adventure, nature, action, friendship, sex—he celebrated: 'Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. / I believe in the flesh and the appetites.' Such frankness, not surprisingly, met with some hostility. Leaves of Grass did not sell and acquired an unsavory reputation. One who did recognize its worth was the eminent essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Whitman celebrates himself. This may seem contradictory to any concept of democracy but the significance becomes clear in ‘Song of Myself’. In singing of himself, he sings of all, for he identifies himself totally with the average American. What he sings as worthy and glorious is what he possesses in common with all others and not what differentiates from others:

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. ”

As a prophet of democracy, Whitman manifests in him poetry the basic ideals of democracy – liberty of the individual, fraternity or brotherhood and equality- all based on the basic belief in the dignity of the human being. His unorthodox, personal, and dynamic poetic style disregarded traditional rules of rhyme and meter. He sings of the need to be free and self-reliant, to break off from the dead conventions. It is only when he is ‘free’ in the true sense of the term that the individual will be able to understand the true of the universe.

Feeling of sympathy and comradeship, the inevitable offshoots of the true democratic impulse, pervade Whitman’s poetry. He sings of mankind's common heritage which may be acquired through freedom and progress. He welcomes all to come with him on his journey along the open road. His feeling of comradeship what has been termed adhesiveness as different from imitativeness-merges into love of man for man?

Whitman approaches democracy from a new angle. His democratic faith is related to his conception of the mystical self. He believes that democracy must yield spiritual results. He takes recourse to metaphysical doctrine to discuss the material world. Undoubtedly the concept of equality had its origin in the surface world of American democracy, where it had been an ideal since the Declaration of Independence. Whitman sees in democracy the possibilities of universal peace, tolerance and brotherhood. The immense potentialities of the human being are given a chance to develop only in a democracy.

Not only in his ideas is Whitman democratic, but his poetic technique too reflects his democratic impulse. His freedom with poetic from reflects his advocacy of freedom for the human soul. The free flow of words; the lines of uneven length, all exposes the sense of development inherent in democracy. Another important aspect of style is the use of catalogues. Practically all of Whitman’s poems reflect his tendency to catalogue persons or things. If he names one race of mankind, the name of all other races press into his page; if he mentions one trade all other trades follow.

Thoreau, Robert Buchanan, Swinburne, and others, have also recognized Whitman's genius; and what, perhaps, is even more satisfactory still to Whitman, he has gained the love and admiration of thousands of his countrymen, who see in his poems the expression of their national nature and spirit. Thoreau declared that Whitman is democracy. Anne Gilchrist points out that the cumulus poems exemplify the love of man for his fellowman. The practical democrat in Whitman which prompted him to go and personally attend to the wounded soldiers of the civil war speaks with feeling of the thousands of suffering soldiers.

The earth wanted a prophet of democracy and offered him the grass as a symbol. He accepted the symbol and it is the banner of a crusade for the establishment of a new order of society in which all should be equaled all great. He does not however, abrogate his superiority as seer and spokesman. Democracy requires only that each individual consists in his freedom, not in any identity of qualities:
"O captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells!
Rise up! for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shore's a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning."

 The essays in Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman put a classic discussion of the theory of democracy and its possibilities. It can easily sum up his entire poetic voice of equality.  This essay can be better concluded in his own words. There he says, “It is only the novice in political economy who thinks it is the duty of government to make its citizens happy. Government has no such office. To protect the weak and the minority from the impositions of the strong and the majority to prevent anyone from positively working to render the people unhappy, to do the labor not of an officious inter-meddler in the affairs of men, but of a prudent watchman who prevents outrage these are rather the proper duties of a government. Under the specious pretext of affecting the happiness of the whole community, nearly all the wrongs and intrusions of government have been carried through. The legislature may, and should, when such things fall in its way, lend its potential weight to the cause of virtue and happiness but to legislate in direct behalf of those objects is never available, and rarely effects any even temporary benefit.” 




Ref: 1. The Whitman Centennial By Joseph Gustaitis 1993 Collier’s Year Book.
         2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Whitman
       3. "Walt Whitman, The American Poet of Democracy." The Australian Journal: A Weekly Record of Literature, Science and the Arts 54 (November 1869): 164–67.
       4. Walt Whitman’s Poetry: Dr. S. Sen

2 comments:

  1. barring some spelling mistakes, the discussion is interesting

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Anup thank for your scrutiny.

    ReplyDelete

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