Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of

Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

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ans Rhythm and Verse


Whitmans use of rhythms is notable. A line of his verse, if scanned in the routine way, seems like a prose sentence, or an advancing wave of prose rhythm. Yet his work is composed in lines, not in sentences as prose would be. The line is the unit of sense in Whitman.

Whitman experimented with meter, rhythm, and form because he thought that experimentation was the law of the changing times, and that innovation was the gospel of the modern world. Whitmans fondness for trochaic movement rather than iambic movement shows the distinctive quality of his use of meter. An iamb is a metrical foot of two syllables, the second of which is accented. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by an unaccepted one. The iambic is the most commonly used meter in English poetry, partly because of the structure of English speech. English phrases normally begin with an article, preposition, or conjunction which merges into the word that follows it, thus creating the rising inflection which is iambic. Why, then, did Whitman prefer the trochaic to the iambic meter? It was partly due to the poets desire for declamatory expression and oratorical style, since the trochee is more suitable for eloquent expression than the iambic meter. Whitman also liked to do things that were unusual and novel.


Imagery a Special Technique of Walt Whitmans


Imagery means a figurative use of language. Whitmans use of imagery shows his imaginative power, the depth of his sensory perceptions, and his capacity to capture reality instantaneously. He expresses his impressions of the world in language which mirrors the present. He makes the past come alive in his images and makes the future seem immediate. Whitmans imagery has some logical order on the conscious level, but it also delves into the subconscious, into the world of memories, producing a stream-of-consciousness of images. These images seem like parts of a dream, pictures of fragments of a world. On the other hand, they have solidity; they build the structure of the poems.


The Use of Symbols in Whitmans Works


A symbol is an emblem, a concrete object that stands for something abstract; for example, the dove is a symbol of peace; the cross, Christianity. Literary symbols, however, have a more particular connotation. They sometimes signify the total meaning, or the different levels of meaning, which emerge from the work of art in which they appear. A white whale is just an animalbut in Melvilles Moby Dick it is a god to some characters, evil incarnate to others, and a mystery to others. In other words, it has an extended connotation which is symbolic.

In the mid1880s, the Symbolist movement began in France, and the conscious use of symbols became the favorite practice of poets. The symbolists and Whitman had much in common; both tried to interpret the universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from traditional forms and methods. But the symbols of the French symbolists were highly personal, whereas in Whitman the use of the symbol was governed by the objects he observed: the sea, the birds, the lilacs, the Calamus plant, the sky, and so on. Nevertheless, Whitman did have an affinity with the symbolists; they even translated some of his poems into French.

Whitmans major concern was to explore, discuss, and celebrate his own self, his individuality and his personality. Second, he wanted to eulogize democracy and the American nation with its achievements and potential. Third, he wanted to give poetical expression to his thoughts on lifes great, enduring mysteriesbirth, death, rebirth or resurrection, and reincarnation.

The Self

To Whitman, the complete self is both physical and spiritual. The self is mans individual identity, his distinct quality and being, which is different from the selves of other men, although it can identify with them. The self is a portion of the one Divine Soul. Whitmans critics have sometimes confused the concept of self with egotism, but this is not valid. Whitman is constantly talking about «I,» but the «I» is universal, a part of the Divine, and therefore not egotistic.

The Body and the Soul

Whitman is a poet of these elements in man, the body and the soul. He thought that we could comprehend the soul only through the medium of the body. To Whitman, all matter is as divine as the soul; since the body is as sacred and as spiritual as the soul, when he sings of the body or its performances, he is singing a spiritual chant.


Whitman shares the Romantic poets relationship with nature. To him, as to Emerson, nature is divine and an emblem of God. The universe is not dead matter, but full of life and meaning. He loves the earth, the flora and fauna of the earth, the moon and stars, the sea, and all other elements of nature. He believes that man is natures child and that man and nature must never be disjoined.


Whitmans concept of the ideal poet is, in a way, related to his ideas on time. He conceives of the poet as a time-binder, one who realizes that the past, present, and future are «not disjoined, but joined,» that they are all stages in a continuous flow and cannot be considered as separate and distinct. These modem ideas of time have given rise to new techniques of literary expressionfor example, the stream-of-consciousness viewpoint.

Cosmic Consciousness

Whitman believed that the cosmos, or the universe, does not consist merely of lifeless matter; it has awareness. It is full of life and filled with the spirit of God. The cosmos is God and God is the cosmos; death and decay are unreal. This cosmic consciousness is, indeed, one aspect of Whitmans mysticism.


Mysticism is an experience that has a spiritual meaning which is not apparent to the senses nor to the intellect. Thus mysticism, an insight into the real nature of man, God, and the universe, is attained through ones intuition. The mystic believes in the unity of God and man, man and nature, God and the universe. To a mystic, time and space are unreal, since both can be overcome by man by spiritual conquest. Evil, too, is unreal, since God is present everywhere. Man communicates with his soul in a mystical experience, and Whitman amply expresses his responses to the soul in Leaves of Grass, especially in «Song of Myself.» He also expresses his mystical experience of his body or personality being permeated by the supernatural. Whitmans poetry is his artistic expression of various aspects of his mystical experience.


Bardic Symbols


No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the «Bardic Symbols» symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the the [sic] true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet's full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,

Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,

Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,

Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil

upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or

what I am,

But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,

Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory

signs and bows,

With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I

have written or shall write,

Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.

If indeed, we were compelled to guess the meaning of the poem, we should say it all lay in the compass of these lines of Tennysonthe saddest and profoundest that ever were written:

Break, break, break,

On thy cold gray stones, O sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me! 1

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of «divine despair 2

We think it has been an error in Whitman to discard forms and laws, for without them the poet diffuses. He may hurry forward with impulses, but he is spent before he reaches the reader's heart through his bewildered understanding. Steam subject, is a mighty force; steam free, is an impalpable vapor, only capable of delicate hues and beauty with the sun upon it. But O, poet! there is not a sun in every sky.


The theme of love


Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book's reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called «Song of Myself,» «The Sleepers,» and «I Sing the Body Electric,» which are «about» sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of «manly love» and «sexual love,» with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the

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