Third Whitman Lecture

Both "Passage to India" and Democratic Vistas were published in 1871 --which means that at last we talked about some "American literature since 1865." All semester, though, we'll be able to use the 1855 "Song of Myself" as a point of reference for measuring the re-visions of American writers as the nation approached and then inhabited the 20th century. We started doing that today, by talking about how WW's post-Civil War work is different from his earlier vision.

In DV (page 136) WW says he has "never abandon'd the faith," and I talked about how that's true --but I also tried to show how, in the poem and the essay, he keeps the faith in different ways.

I began with "Passage," as a re-assertion of the high Romantic program: returning to paradise, marrying the mind to nature, reconciling science & religion, material & spiritual realities. Unlike "Song of Myself," where the self is its own occasion, here (as in his later poetry generally) WW finds his occasion "out there," in current events, specifically in achievements of modern technology (Suez Canal and Transcontinental Railroad, both completed in 1869). These material successes complete the circle of the world, and imply closing of spiritual circle: Fall into alienation (section 5) leads, through poet, back to paradise (section 7). If Columbus discovered the physical "new world," poet, "true son of God," discovers or discloses the metaphysical "new world" that restores all the sundered parts into unity, and oneness with "primal thought," with godhead. In Modernist literature, religion and myth can exist in only an ironic relation to contemporary history (that's the organizing principle of, for example, The Waste Land and The Sound and the Fury), but in his poem WW claims to reveal "a worship new" by showing the identity of, for example, truths of science and fables of religion. This is a "new worship" for the Christians in his audience, but it's essentially the same set of beliefs he'd celebrated and prophetically announced in "Song of Myself." America is still the redeemer of world history, the poet is still a kind of priest, and by the end of "Passage," when he and his soul are sailing the furthest seas of God, he's entirely back inside the mystic communion where "Song of Myself" is set.

I went on, though, to suggest some differences from the 1855 poem: in "Passage," WW asks "art" to do more, cf. way poem asserts that cosmos and history are themselves divinely ordered, but at the same time works harder than "Song of Myself" had to to create its own aesthetic order; and while poem abstractly asserts idea of soul's return to paradise/godhead, it doesn't make me feel that idea as "Song" did, i.e. it's less sensual, ideas vs. visceral experience. To me, "Passage" is a beautifully structured re-assertion of program that nonetheless doesn't really "do" as WW intended poems to do -- arouse, convert, convince me.

Democratic Vistas, on the other hand, is much less coherently structured, but to me much more "convincing" -- especially in the way WW admits his doubts about America and the push and shove of modern history. I spent quite a bit of time contrasting WW in 1855 with WW in DV: tense change, way America's greatness depends on future, Adam in the Garden gives way to Moses in the wilderness, trying to lead his people to the Chosen land; and talked about way, if in 1855 WW emphasized the need to sing the body, here he is most anxious to represent the soul (America's material future definitely going to be great, but he's concerned about a gigantic body and no national soul).

To save that soul, WW calls for a true literature -- i.e. poetry like WW's. You can connect the doubts of DV to WW's life history, especially the popular failure of his poems (I mentioned in this connection the way he describes the aged, imprisoned Columbus of "Passage to India," whose achievement took centuries to recognize -- "was the deferment long" is the way the poem puts it) --but as I said, you can't attribute what WW concerned with solely to this kind of private grudge. His anxiety about the way American society is going after Civil War, & the friction between materiality and spirituality, the sense of a gap between the big physical forces abroad in America after 1865 and desires & longings of soul, for meaning, faith, etc. -- these, as I said, are issues that preoccupy "American lit since 1865," and that we'll keep discussing.

And ended by talking about role WW gives work of literature to play in this. To WW, job of literature not to record reality, but (now, with anxiety about mere reality/materiality of American life) to "resist" it; to him poetry remains potentially redemptive, poet as saviour -- if, as we also noted, readers are willing to do their job (you should take what he says about reading near the top of page 147 to heart!). "The work of the New World," WW finally says, "is not ended, but only fairly begun." We have books and readers and a long way to go . . .

Back to Syllabus