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Walt Whitman's America

By Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University (This essay is adapted from his introduction to "Leaves of Grass")

​If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse.


You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville's "Moby-Dick," Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and Emerson's two series of "Essays" and "The Conduct of Life." None of those, not even Emerson's, are as central as the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," whose 150th anniversary we now mark.

Whitman, the American bard, our Homer and our Milton, broke the new road for the New World. D.H. Lawrence, alternately furious at Whitman and in thrall to him, saw his precursor as the poet of the Evening Land, sharing in Melville's litany for the doom of "the white race." The 20th century's dominant American wrtiter,


Faulkner, carried on from Melville in what now can be read as a tetralogy: "As I lay Dying," "The Sound and the Fury," "Light in August," and "Absalom, Absalom!" Whitman's true heirs at home included T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Hart Crane's "The Bridge," and Wallace Stevens's "The Auroras of Autumn." Abroad, the catalog is too large for quick compilation: Lawrence, Lorca, Pessoa, Vallejo, Neruda, Borges, Paz are perhaps the most notable.


Walt Whitman was the crucial celebrant of what I think we yet will call the American Religion, the momentary fusion of all denominations in an amalgam of Enthusiasm and Gnosticism that marked the beginning of the end of European Protestantism in America, and which began in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1800. The Southern Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, Adventists, and other native strains are ongoing emanations of what began there. Our theologians and prophets of the American Religion include Emerson, Joseph Smith, and Horace Bushnell, among others. The philosopher William James is its psychologist, and Walt Whitman forever will be its poet-prophet, who sings only songs of myself. We now have an American Jesus and an American Holy Spirit, and have largely banished Yahweh, except that he marches as Warrior God, endlessly trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.


Whitman's full aesthetic achievement is still undervalued and misunderstood. He is the greatest artist his nation has brought forth. Indeed, no comparable figure in the arts has emerged in the last 400 years in the Americas: North, Central, South, or the Caribbean. His six major poems: "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and the triad of elegies: "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" have their peer only in Milton's "Paradise Lost," in Bach's endless fecundity, in the glory of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling -- baroque masters of sublimity. To call Whitman, at his strongest, baroque must seem at first paradoxical for a poet who professes to chant "Spontaneous Me," but Whitman is no improviser. His artistry reflects conscious study of his precursors in the language, despite his American nationalist ambivalence toward British tradition.


Whitman restores the primal androgyne "Adam early in the morning." He is our Vedas, our Bhagavad-Gita, our Sutras -- and also our Zohar, an esotericist of extraordinary originality. Emerson was Elijah or John the Baptist to Whitman's American Christ. Is not Walt as enigmatic, elusive, evasive, fascinating as the Jesus of Mark's Gospel? Whitman self-published "Leaves of Grass" and sent it unsolicited to Emerson, who responded to the brash and canny self-promoter on 21 July, 1855, that it was -- as a century-and-a-half later it still is -- "the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed." Emerson continued, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. . . . I give you joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. . . . I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging." Emerson invented the American Religion; Whitman incarnated it.


Emerson showed his own wit and wisdom in commending Whitman for wit and wisdom rather than for exuberance and democracy. As our greatest American poet, Whitman is the supreme Formalist, though "Formalist poetry" is a redundancy. His art is nuance, delicacy, inventiveness, intricate matching of sound to sense. All poetic form, however newfangled, is necessarily metaphoric, a substitution of figurative for literal. And no poet makes it as impossible for us to know what is figurative and what is literal as Whitman.


The more deeply you read him, the more you encounter his suppressed allusiveness, his gathering self-awareness of the complexities of poetic tradition, which he urges himself to usurp. In his battle for self-reliance, he remains Shakespearean and High Romantic, as much a Wordsworthian as Emerson himself. The poet James Wright celebrated "the old man, Walt Whitman" less for his famous dialectic of Myself and the Real Me or Me Myself than for his "delicacy" of poetic form. The delicate, unknowable soul was the greater mystery for Whitman, as it was for Emerson, who summarized for them both, in "The Over-Soul," "The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her." And, more enigmatically, "The soul knows only the soul."


Whitman's prime trope is not the vital Myself or its homoerotic double, Me/Myself, but the fourfold Soul, the haunting, immemorial litany: Night, Death, the Mother, the Sea. This ancient, universal metaphor he rendered as peculiarly American, by reasserting the power of his poetic mind over the universe of death. Whitman, the American Jesus, longed for the day, resurrection, the father, the shoreline, and out of this longing created the poem of our climate that James Wright named the Shore-Ode. Whitman's elegies for the self are our American answer to Wordsworth's English Romantic Crisis-Ode, to Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality . . . ," Coleridge's "Dejection: an Ode," Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," and Keats's great odes. Whitman is darker than they. To the British romantics, experiential loss is compensated by imaginative gain; to us as to Emerson, echoing Lear, "Nothing is got for nothing," echoing Lear to Cordelia: "Nothing will come of nothing . . . ."


Like Elijah and John the Baptist, the bard of "Leaves of Grass" also "gets out" into the Wilderness, but it is a way station only, and wildness is anything but formless: this new American poetry's paradigm is the King James Bible, with nuances of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, geniuses of translation whose stylistic sublimity is equaled in English only by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, and Whitman. Whitman's highest art is Exodus, the metaphor of "get thee out from" Ur of the Chaldees or from Egypt into the promised land of a still undiscovered America. While Walt does keep shouting "Kosmos!" I cannot locate New Age Cosmic Consciousness in him. The early notebook fragments contain the seedbed of this getting-out. It is a Resurrection:


In vain were nails driven through my hands./ I remember my crucifixion and bloody coronation/ I remember the mockers and the buffeting insults/ The sepulcher and the white linen have yielded me up/ I am alive in New York and San Francisco,/ Again I tread the streets after two thousand years./ Not all the traditions can put vitality in churches/ They are not alive, they are cold mortar and brick,/ I can easily build as good, and so can you: -- / Books are not men --


Whitman finally won over even the aging Henry James, who in his youth had given a bad review to "Drum-Taps." The American public, the brash young Henry insisted then, would reject Whitman in the name of their higher culture. Later, and much wiser, the master of the American novel would ask that "Lilacs" be read aloud to him, and wept (as I do) at the magnificence of our greatest poem's closing harmonies:


Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,/ The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,/ And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,/ With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,/ With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,/ Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,/ For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands -- and this for his dear sake,/ Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant in my soul,/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.


Its more than Tennysonian organ tonalities are the antithetical completions of the confident simplicity that opens itself to us in 1855:


I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume, you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you./ I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.


Though Whitman later denied it, Emerson made the first "Leaves of Grass" possible. Emerson credited Whitman with the "Appalachian enlargement" of our literature. "As sane as the sun" was one of Whitman's final tributes to Emerson. My own favorite among Whitman's anecdotes is of his last visit to the then senile Emerson. The greatest of our poets so stationed his chair that he could stare fully at the benign countenance of his mentor, and each sat silently, Whitman in loving reverie, Emerson in the tragic solitude of an Alzheimer's victim. It was the final act in a grand drama of influence that is still ongoing in our literary culture.

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