Spirituality vs. Religion

While reading the inscription, Starting from Paumanok, what struck me most was the religious undertones. Without having extensive personal background on Whitman, reading Song of Myself prior to Paumanok gave me the impression that Whitman, although spiritual, seemed tolerant to all religions and belief systems. He admits uncertainty in his quest for answers, especially in stanza 20 of Song of Myself when he asks, “Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” Reading Paumanok, I almost felt as if Whitman wanted to retract some beliefs he stated in Song of Myself, or at least give a disclaimer and further explanation of his updated beliefs.

There are numerous reasons why Whitman might have become more strictly religious, as it is common for people to become more religious the older (and therefore closer to death) they get. On the other hand, maybe after years of assessment he simply decided on a belief system he could completely devote himself to. In stanza seven of Paumnaok, he concludes by stating, “(Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion/Nor land nor man or woman without religion.)” (180) which I read to mean “nothing would be anything without religion.”

While love seems to be the ultimate goal and purpose in Song of Myself, stanza nine of Starting from Paumanok seems to place the importance of religion before love, when he says: “It is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and/yet it satisfies, it is great/But there is something else very great, it makes the whole coincide” and then he goes on to say in stanza ten “The greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion” (181).

Once I started reading Paumanok from this perspective, I became increasingly aware of each mention of death. He is clearly aware and respectful toward the subject of mortality, seeming delicate in his approach. In Song of Myself, he has an optimistic, assertive attitude toward death when he says “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (194).

Although Song of Myself and Starting from Paumanok could be perceived as contradictions to each other, Whitman might argue that this decision was a conscious one, again proving that he does in fact “contain multitudes.”

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