Whitman: Reconciling Hope

Since my first reading of Whitman about a year ago, I have mostly thought of him in terms of my own relationship to how I feel about humanity, as well as America specifically. At times, he has lifted me up, baptizing me in optimism, other times he has saddened me, if not by his own sadness, then by the mere feeling of gladness for him that he lived in a time where it was still possible to maintain such an optimistic attitude.

Throughout the works we’ve read so far, Whitman repeatedly preaches a universal humanity. For example in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry he writes,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you in one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.

Then he bursts into a long catalogue of shared universal human experiences, later proclaiming,

These and all else were the same to me as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me.

While Whitman does seem optimistic of a universally shared soul containing much beauty, proclaiming to be the same as everyone and everything, It would seem that he is in the great minority of viewing the world this way, which would seem to cause him a certain amount of anguish.  This capacity to perceive things the way they actually are is not too different from descriptions of “the poet,” given by Wordsworth or Emerson. I think this anguish is very present in Whitman, and I also see instances where he sees injustice in slavery, inequality of woman, and that of animals too, clearly disappointed in the men of his time. There are a few instances of hope which I think help reconcile this feeling of anguish for Whitman, his poetry being part of this reconciliation process.

Democracy seems to play a huge part in Whitman’s ideas. He sees universal equality as transcribed in nature, and refers to this realization as “the great American lesson,” obviously referring to democracy.  During his time, democracy was still very much an experiment. Other less progressive forms of governing could have been seen my Whitman as halting human progression, distancing us from nature by creating an unbalanced class system, and generally corrupting peoples thoughts via conformity. He hopes democracy will uplift the individual, helping people think for themselves. He also had very high hopes for his own book Leaves of Grass in functioning as an illuminator in this way.

Ultimately it seems he desperately wants people to join him in this way of living and seeing things. But like many profound thinkers such as the French Existentialists, the truest way of living is the most engaging and the most challenging road. In his inscriptions, Whitman writes,

For life and death, for the body and for the eternal soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.

It very much requires a brave soldier to approach the world as Whitman did, prepared to make the drastic conclusions necessary.

To Live outside the law you must be honest.

-Bob Dylan

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One Response to Whitman: Reconciling Hope

  1. Jennifer Green says:

    I agree, although I read more urgency in Whitman’s mission of “universal humanity” rather than anguish. Yes, he did desire that his world view and system of beliefs would be eagerly received and was often desperate for his voice to be heard. But on the same note, he did accept that not everyone would and could be converted and didn’t seem to be disheartened by the concept of failure. In the 18th section of “Song of Myself” he writes,

    “Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
    I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit
    in which they are won.”

    And then a few lines later,

    “Vivas to those who have fail’d!
    And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
    And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
    And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
    And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes

    I believe that the only anguish he may have expressed was sympathy for the lives that would miss out on his enlightened teachings.

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