First Whitman Lecture

"Leaves of Grass . . . has mainly been . . . an attempt, from first to last, to put a person, a human being, (myself, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in America,) freely, fully, and truly on record."
from "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," WW's preface to the 1888 Leaves of Grass

"I know perfectly well my own egotism, . . . and must not write any less"
from Section 42, "Song of Myself"

Today I tried to focus on "Song of Myself" as the "record" of an American Romantic Self -- part epic poem ("I sing myself"), with the self as hero; part psalm or hymn ("I celebrate myself"), with the self as God.

One of the issues we'll look at in the works we read throughout the semester is the way modern American literature addresses the quest for faith. The Romantic Self (for Wordsworth or Emerson as well as for Whitman) emerges in part to fill a growing void -- as "God" was becoming harder to find "out there" -- in conventional Christianity, the Bible, and so on -- the British Romantics, the American Transcendentalists and Whitman relocated godhead, divine power, within the self. In "Song of Myself," the Me Myself "knows" its oneness with what Whitman calls the "kosmos," "knows" itself as creator/saviour, through experiences like the transcendant moment evoked in Section 5: Whitman's account of mystical communion (in a sense the whole poem tries to stay inside this timeless moment, where all time & space, all phenomena, are one with consciousness). And instead of the Bible as the "revelation" of the eternal and divine truth, in "Song of Myself" all phenomena are hieroglyphics or texts that reveal the unity of, the holiness of and the interrelationship between the soul and body, mind and matter, each and all. The poem begins with the self "observing a spear of summer grass." In Section 6, the child's question "what is the grass?" opens up the spiritual meaning of that empirical fact, the scriptural significance of the material world ("All things are written to me, and I must get at what the writing means").

Early in the 20th century, the critic T. E. Hulme called Romanticism "spilt Christianity" -- with that in mind we looked at the way Whitman appropriates and redefines the vocabulary of 19th century Christianity throughout the poem: "miraculousness" of the common, "holiness" of every part of the cosmic whole: "I believe in the flesh," "the scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer." Section 41 is a kind of culmination of this process: "the supernatural of no account," because the natural world "here" & "now" -- what Wordsworth calls "the simple produce of the common day" -- is redemptive, divine.

Then I went on to try to describe a crucial difference between WW & the British Romantics -- his "Me Myself" identified with, not in opposition to, national life, society; the self he sings explicitly "American," the "new world" as setting & idea; values of democracy and liberty; hero as common man, &c.

To WW, idea of "America" as important as "self" & "kosmos" -- indeed, self and "America" as idea one of the few reciprocal relationships in the poem; we looked, for ex, at Section 38, and way WW hitches a ride with the pioneers, appropriates the idea of America's manifest destiny, to solve one of the crises of the poem.

We'll come back to this idea -- to WW in 1855, history as purposeful, progressive, moving toward "new heaven and new earth" -- later in the course, when we look at the way the 20th century Modernists viewed history as chaos & futility. I ended the lecture by noting the historical irony that WW (despite his assertions that "time avails not") couldn't escape -- WW's faith in "unity" in 1855, as America actually moving toward fratricidal carnage of Civil War. I said we'd talk next week about the consequences of the way he's identified his "word of the modern," his faith and vision, with American realities -- for Monday, though, we're sticking with "Song of Myself" -- it is large; it contains multitudes.

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