Whitman and Mysticism
What is mysticism: Mysticism is not a coherent philosophy of life, but more a temper of mind. A mystical experience, according to BERTRAND RUSSEL, involves insight, a sense of unity and the unreality of time and space, and a belief that evil is mere appearance. A mystic’s vision is intuitive; he feels the presence of a divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of sense perception. He feels that God and the Supreme Soul animating all things are identical. He sees an essential identity of being between Man, Nature and God. He believes that “all things in the visible world are but forms and manifestations of the one Divine Life, and that these phenomena are changing and temporary, while the soul that informs them is eternal”. The human soul, too, is eternal. Transcendentalism is closely connected to mysticism, for it emphasizes the unintuitive and spiritual above the empirical.
Whitman’s poetry is full of mystic and transcendental strains: He was deeply influenced by Emerson, the American transcendentalist. His thought was intuitive and not systematic like a logician’s. He wrote like a mystic:
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible to proof, is its own proof.
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities, and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immorality of things and the excellence of things.
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the Soul.
Whitman believed the soul to be immortal. He felt identification with all animate and inanimate things around him. What is interesting about Whitman’s mysticism is that, as Schyberg observes, “in his book we can find the typical characteristics of absolutely all the various mystic doctrines”.
Whitman is a mystic with a difference: One cannot call him a pure mystic in the sense of oriental mysticism. He is not a praying man. Like all mystics he believed in the existence of the soul, and in the existence of the Divine Spirit, in the immortality of the human soul, and in the capacity of a human being to establish communication between his spirit and the Divine Spirit. But he differs from the oriental or traditional mystics in that he does not subscribe to their belief that communication with the Divine Spirit is possible only through denial of the senses and mortification of the flesh. Whitman declares that he sings of the body as much as of the soul. He feels that spiritual communication is possible, indeed desirable, without sacrificing the flesh. Thus there is a great deal of the sexual element in Whitman’ s poetry, especially in the early poetry-Section 5 of Song of Myself is a case in point where the sexual connotations are inseparable from the mystical experience.
The Material World is not denigrated: Whitman does not reject the material world. He seeks the spiritual through the material. He does not subscribe to the belief that objects are illusive. There is no tendency on the part of the soul to leave this world for good. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, we see the soul trying to play a significant role in the administration of this world of scenes, sights, sounds, etc. Whitman does not belittle the achievements of science and materialism. In Section 23 of Song of Myself, he accepts the reality of materialism and says:
Human for positive science!
Long live exact demonstration!
Nature and man shall be disjoined and diffused no more.
Seeking the divine reality: Whitman accepted the Theory of Evolution but could not believe evolution to be a mechanical process. In the slow process of growth, development and change that science was revealing, Whitman saw God making Himself evident and unmistakable to man. The soul of man finds full dissatisfaction only in seeking out the reality behind the manifestations. As he says in Passage to India:
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
At the end of the journey the soul meets with God-or the “Great Camerado” as he says in Song of Myself.
Whitman’s sense of unity of the whole: His cosmic consciousness.: Whitman has throughout his poetry shown his faith in the unity of the whole, or “oneness” of all. This sense of the essential divinity of all created things is an important aspect of mysticism and is also closely related to Whitman’s faith in democracy calling for equality and fraternity. Song of Myself is replete with lines proclaiming this “oneness”. He knows
… that all men ever born are also my brothers… and all the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a keelson of the creation is love.
He praises, not merely life, but the absolute wroth of every particular and individual person, every real existing being. Whitman equates all opposites, and accepts evil as much as part of Reality.
In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the poet has achieved the unity of all mankind: “The simple, compact, well-joined scheme myself disinterested yet part of the scheme”. Time becomes one in Whitman’s poetry. Past, present and future are merged into a spiritual continuum. Thus in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he says:
It avails not, time nor place-distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
Or ever so many generations hence.
Mysticism governing the images and symbolism of Whitman’s poetry: The mystic quest for Reality and communion with the Divine easily lends itself to be represented in terms of the voyage image. The Song of the open Road is a poem whose theme is a journey symbolic of an exploration of the spiritual as well as the physical universe. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking symbolizes the mystic quest for reality and the ultimate discovery of the meaning of life. When Lilacs last in the dooryard Bloom’d use symbols and images designed to affirm the importance of Death. Death is seen as a deliveress because it leads to new life, and the poet having had the mystical experience of this truth, seeks to be a “uniter of here and hereafter”
As G. W. Allen points out, the “attempt to indicate the path between reality and the soul very nearly sums up Whitman’s whole intention in Leaves of Grass”. The mysticism here is obvious. The cosmic “I” of Whitman’s poems is on a perpetual journey. His soul is but a fragment of the world soul. The mass of images which race through his poems symbolize the unity and harmony in himself and all creation. The spear of grass assumes mystical significance through its symbolic value-celebration of individuality and the enmasse, exclusion of none, exception of all. In Song of Myself, Whitman speaks of God as his beloved and his “bed-fellow” sleeping at his side all night. The mystical experience is conveyed in terms of highly charged sexual imagery.
Whitman seldom lost touch with the physical reality even in the midst of mystical experience. Physical phenomena for him were symbols of spiritual reality. He believed that “the unseen is proved by seen”; thus he makes use of highly sensuous and concrete imagery to convey his perception of divine reality. He finds a purpose behind natural objects-grass, sea bird, flowers, animals-for,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death…
… al leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars…
Indeed, one might say that mysticism constitutes the very poetic form of Whitman’s poems, he looked upon the universe as constituting a unity of disparate objects, unified the Divine Spirit; thus his poems are “Leaves of Grass” signifying at once separateness and unity. Whitman’s dominant metaphor of grass presents a case for unity and harmony, a basic component of structure.
Mystical structure of Song of Myself: Song of Myself is perhaps the best illustration of Whitman’s mysticism influencing meaning, form and symbolism. Says James E. Miller: “When viewed in terms of the phases of the traditional mystical experience, Song of Myself takes on a comprehensive structural shape”.
The reader can rediscover what the poet by observing his own spear of summer grass and by launching his own mystical journey. Song of Myself is an “inverted mystical experience”¬- While the traditional mystic attempted to annihilate himself and mortify his senses in preparation for his union with the divine, Whitman magnifies the self and glorifies the senses in his progress towards union with the Absolute.
Conclusion: Whitman is a mystic as much as he is a poet of democracy and science, but a “mystic without a creed”. He sees the body as the manifestation of the spirit which is “delivered” by death into a higher life. A spear of grass is not an inert substance for him but God’s handkerchief, “the flag of disposition”. Often in his sensibility, matter is dissolved, trees become “liquid” and contours “fluid”. The real is transmuted and he has cosmic visions. He becomes a comet travelling round the universe with the speed of light.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies,
And drift in lacy jags.
If Leaves of Grass has been called a “Bible” of America, it has a great deal to do with its mystical strain. True, Whitman’s brand of mysticism is not identifiable with the selflessness of the Christian variety or the passivity of the Oriental. What we may call Whitman’s mysticism is “democratic” mysticism-available to every man on equal terms and embracing contradictory elements. But it is undeniable that mysticism is central to the meaning of Leaves of Grass.