Part III: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."
O joyous seer!
Recorders ages hence, yes, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread
And read thee by the aureole 'rond thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus!
(Hart Crane's homage to Whitman, in The Bridge)
Aside from Shakespeare, more books have been written about Walt Whitman than any other American or British writer. The interest generated by Whitman testifies to his universal appeal and to the complexity of his thought, poetry, and personality. In high schools in American today many of his poems are required reading and hardly a college student of American literature has not read his "Song of Myself." There are many varying interpretations of him, naturally, but undoubtedly he emerges most strongly as a mystical, intensely spiritual man, for his poetry and life reveal him as such. Living in 19th century America (1819-92), he was influenced by the transcendentalists (especially Emerson), witnessed the Civil War as a stretcher-bearer in the Washington hospitals, and lived to see and abhor the encroaching materialism that he feared was undermining the young nation's spirituality. But in addition, as a poet, seer and sage, he experienced much more for he was a mahatma in the true sense, and was even adept at cosmic travel. He know well that the "great Camerado" is there, and his "Song of Myself" is something of an American Song of the Lord, though it is not accepted as authorized Scripture.
Whether or not Whitman possessed certain unusual spiritual powers is beside the point. His sense of cosmic consciousness seems as highly developed as Christ's and Buddha's at least his Leaves of Grass testify as strongly in his case as the Evangelists and the Sutras do for Christ and Buddha. Actually, all men are eternal, but the point is they don't know it. as Whitman writes: "I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself, (They do not know how immortal, but I know.)" (SofM,7) "Song of Myself" reveals Whitman to be fully aware of both his divinity and immortality, and indicates that he was at a highly advanced state of God consciousness. This state seems to have been precipitated by a revelation (or illumination) that occurred at the age of about 36, when the Supreme Lord touched him one June morning in the woods, and was sustained throughout his life to greater and lesser degrees. This initial illumination gave birth to America's greatest poetic outburst "Song of Myself," a hymn of joy celebrating the Creator, the creation, and the immortality of the soul. Other poems in Leaves of Grass shed additional light on his philosophy and science of God, but only his first major poem, the "Song of Myself" of 1855, is considered here. It is this poem that provoked Emerson's unconditional praise ("I greet you at the beginning of a great career") and brought Thoreau to Whitman's Brooklyn printshop with lists of Hindu writings.
In the poem's opening lines. Whitman strikes the theme of the unity of the creation, the "song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun," proclaiming the creation to be non-different from the Creator.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (section 1)
The "Self" speaking here is Bhagavan, using the poet as a mouthpiece, Paramatma speaking through jivatman. This cosmic "I" is non-different from His creation, for He permeates every atom, and every atom belongs to Him yet He is also beyond this creation which He spins as a spider spins its web. "and these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them…And of these one and all I weave the song of Myself." (Sec.15)
The vision of the unity of the creation, the insight that the creation rests in the Creator, is communicated to the jivatman, Walt Whitman, by Bhagavan in an overwhelming mystical experience. In this experience, Bhagavan functions in the rasa of lover, and Whitman the beloved, in what is an early climax in the poem and one of the greatest statements in our literature of the exquisite beauty and wonder of the entire creation, from the grand pervading Spirit of God to the seemingly insignificant "mossy scabs" and "pokeweed."
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all
the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff stiff or dropping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed. (Sec.5)
Throughout this creation, the Self functions unattached. The dates, wars, sicknesses, etc. "come to me days and nights and go from me again,/ But they are not the Me myself." (4) The finite Whitman is ofter jolted and bruised in the game, the leela or play of the Lord, but his true Self is always the untouched and unattached Witness within:
Apart from the pulling and hauling astands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an implacable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. (4)
This Supreme Self is not a part of the material creation, though the material creation is His song. "I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth." (7) This Self, in which Whitman has seen his own jiva to be integrally one, is totally full and self-sufficient in itself.
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content,
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself. (20)
For Whitman, the individual body and soul are no less wonderful and worshipful than the Supreme. As part and parcel of the Supreme, he sees himself as good as the Supreme, as eternal and as divine. "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son," he described himself, then goes on to delight in the miracle of himself, which is the miracle of any man, and, indeed, of life itself. "Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle." (24) He sees his individual soul as journeying in eternity through countless cosmic changes, traveling from the infinity of the past to the present.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings…
All forces have been steadily employ'd to complete the delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul. (44)
It is his soul that ascends "dazzling and tremendous as the sun," and that laughs "at what you call dissolution," and that looks at the crowded heavens and questions, "When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be filled and satisfied then?" and answers, "No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond." (46) for it is his soul that is "tenon'd and mortis'd" in the granite of eternity. With a clean sweep of his hand, he absorbs previous incarnations, "outbidding" them and bestowing equal divinity on the average, common man:
Magnifiying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah…
Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha…
Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days….
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself,
bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see…
The supernatural of no account, myself waiting my time to be one of the Supremes…
By my life-lumps! Becoming already a creator… (41)
The surety of this conviction results from his perception of the omnipresence of the Supreme Lord. He sees the creation "lav'd" all over by the Creator, as a fish by the water of the ocean.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letter from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that whereso'er I go
Others will punctually come for ever and ever. (48)
The Supreme Lord, for such a devotee, is common, actually cheap. He is the one Great Commodity that can be purchased without money, for it is love alone that finds and binds him. "I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth." The Lord is eager for His creation to love Him, and He gives Himself freely.
What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come to my good will,
Scattering it freely forerver. (14)
Yet Whitman intimates that the Creator has His own Superior Abode, where He "waits" for all in eternity.
My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,
The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms,
The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there. (45)
Interestingly enough, Whitman envisions a purification process by which his individual soul can return to God "on perfect terms." The soul leaves the body, as Krishna says, "As the wind carries away the scents from their places." (Gita 15.8) but before he can go to Krishna, he must qualify. Krishna is the "steady and central," the "lover true," "the Great Camerado" Who satisfies completely. In His ocean of bliss, Whitman's individual soul debouches.
I ascend from moon, I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small. (49)
A quotation from "Passage to India," a later poem, should throw considerable light on the relationship between jivatman (the individual soul) and Paramatma, the Supreme Soul:
Bear me indeed as through God regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, have me all over,
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou center of them,
Thou mightier center of the true, the good, the loving,
Thou moral, spiritual fountain-affection's source-thou reservoir,
(O pensive soul of me O thirst unsatisfied-waitest not there?
Waitest not haply for us somewhere there the Comrade perfect?)
Thou pulse thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?
Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And filest, swellest full the vastnesses of space.
("Passage to India," section-08)
For Whitman, the soul, after death, retains its individual identity and becomes a great fish swimming in God's ocean of bliss. For him, faith in the Supreme Lord means faith in his individual soul. Bathing in the light of God, the individual soul itself takes on the divine properties of creator, launching "superior universes." But this is never through any separate, individual or derived power it simply results from God's using the living entity as an agent, as a powerhouse of electricity uses an electric bulb to diffuse its light. The lightbulb sheds the light, but it is dependent on the "pulse," the "motive of the stars, suns, systems," which is the Supreme Lord.
It is apparent that this God consciousness is also synonymous with "cosmic consciousness," for the universe figures prominently in "Song of Myself," and though it is considered wonderful, it is not considered as wonderful as the eternal soul. The universe is created, maintained for a while, and then destroyed.
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems.
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward and forever outward…
There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage,
If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were at this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run,
We should surely bring up again where we now stand,
And surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther…(45)
Through all the cosmic changes, the soul remains the same forever. Whitman exhorts men and women to maintain their placidity through all these cosmic changes, for their souls remain untouched by them.
There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe,
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed
before a million universes. (48)
Whitman himself is not frightened by the cosmic leela, in fact he is delighted by it, and seems to have had an ability for "astral traveling," like Narada Muni, the Eternal Spaceman.
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. (20)
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision. (33)
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns O grass of graves O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not sway anything, how can I say anything? (49)
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags., (52)
As far as the methods of God consciousness are concerned, Whitman was too much of an individualist to have anything to do with institutionalized religion. Like Thoreau and many other transcendentalists, he was strictly secular. Fulfilling Emerson's image of the free man independent of the past and of the past's institutions, Whitman declares, "No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,/ I have no chair, no church, no philosophy…" (46) By surrendering everything to God, he takes on responsibilities and actions but relinquishes fruits and results. He holds "creeds and schools in abeyance," and permits to speak "Nature without check with original energy." (1) It is this social independence that has made orthodox religionists wary of him.
Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, consel'd with doctors and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones. (20)
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds. (24)
This attitude is not due to irreverence or irreligiosity, but is the logical outgrowth of his enlightenment. Krishna Himself says, "To the enlightened Brahmin all the Vedas are of as much use as a pond when there is everywhere a flood." (Gita, 2.46) Having reached shore, Whitman simply discards his raft. Consequently he has been criticized by religionists who profess godliness but whose hearts are in the wrong place due to ignorance and entanglement. Such hypocrites disgust Whitman.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self-contained…
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…
Not one kneels to another, not to his kind that lived thousands of years ago….(32)
For him it is not the outward show that is important rather, by their fruits ye shall know them, and the fruits of the soul are joy and bliss, not lamentation. "What have I to do with lamentation?" He makes it clear, however, that he is not anti-church or anti-religion.
I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,
My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern…
Drinking mead from the skull-cup, to Shastas and Vedas admirant, minding the Koran…
Accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing assuredly that he is divine….(43)
Like many true devotees, Whitman considered it a great virtue "to argue not concerning God," knowing Him to be beyond words and theosophies. "Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself." (3) It was possibly the vain discussions about God that drove him out the churches into the open fields and lonely night-time beaches of Long Island. "Logic and sermons never convince,/ The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul." (30) And least of all does he advocate discussions with atheists and non-believers.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait. (4)
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic. (25)
Whitman has been accused of a childish, "unrealistic" optimism and of a total disregard of evil forces in the universe. He was well aware of evil forces he did not stay in a closet, but was active in the Civil War. The evil forces were there, but in actuality he was transcendental to them. Since the Supreme Lord is in control, evil also has its place. One of Whitman's greatest assets is his ability to absorb evil without being tainted by it. "I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also." (22) Like the Supreme Himself, as a poet he purifies what was previously indecent, revealing the divine function behind the guise.
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. (24)
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon Myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue. (21)
Seeing himself in all creatures, seeing the perfect unity of the creation as a "song of myself," he does not criticize the mysterious ways of God, nor does he judge men heavily. Whenever he sees a man falling prey to a vice, he sees himself doing the same. This divine quality of tolerance and forgiveness possibly turned him away from the hypocrites of religion who are prone to criticize and condemn others for the faults that are in themselves. Whitman does not believe in criticizing and condemning (knowing this is not in man's jurisdiction), but in helping or as Christ said, "I came not in of the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Me might be saved." Good and evil exist within the modes of Prakriti (Nature) and Whitman knows his real Self to be beyond the modes.
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder's or rejecter's gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown. (22)
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. (24)
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them. (20)
This echoes Christ's "Judge not that ye be not judged, for wherein ye judge another thou condemn'st thyself." Whitman was a mahatma who believed in a merciful God who wants men to love Him, not in a God Who created a world just to condemn it. Whitman does not condemn or lament. With open eyes he regards the demoniac and atheistic and considers with wonder that such absurdities and incongruities can be.
What behaved well in the past or behaves well today is not such a wonder,
The wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel. (22)
Throughout "Song of Myself," Whitman discourages man in looking for signs and wonders. It is the sage who seeks the Divine and miraculous in all things. His method or Krishna Consciousness involves seeing God every second in the most commonplace and generally accepted things. He stresses the great miracle of the commonplace, of daily life. "A…clod, a stone, and gold are the same." (Gita, Vishnu/8) to him because he sees all things reflecting the Divine.
The bull and the bug never worshipp'd half enough,
Dung and dirt more admirable than was dream'd….(41)
I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish…
That I walk up my stoop, I pause to consider if it really be,
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books. (24)
He chooses the most commonplace, most handy phenomena as the great symbol to bind the creation the grass, which grows among all people irrespective of color, caste, or creed. Grass is the Great Democrat of the vegetation, and as Whitman'sLeaves of Grass, it accepts and welcomes all.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe. (17)
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars…
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels… (31)
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times… (48)
Like Emerson, Whitman saw the haunting past as one of man's greatest enemies. The past is completed and the future uncertain, so these only serve to divert man's mind and energy from the overwhelming importance of the eternally exfoliating present. "This minute that comes to me over the past decillions,/ There is no better than it and now." (22) Whitman declared that the man in Krishna Consciousness must be aware of the constant miracle and wonder of the present, and not allow his mind to wander over the past or things to come. Death comes now, birth comes now, liberation comes now, the vision of God comes now, or, as Christ said, "The kingdom of God is at hand." "The clock indicates the moment, but what does eternity indicate?" Whitman asks, and the answer is now. Guru Whitman instructs the neophyte:
Long enough have you dream'd contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life. (46)
Being at "one" with the creation necessitates acceptance of the moment as being the best possible; happiness lies in the delight of suddenly awakening to find yourself here after so many trillions of years. The is eternal, and we are eternal. Only appearance change.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. (3)
Whitman also believes in the transmigration of the soul, from lower forms of life and from body to body. "And as to your Life I reckon you are the fore." (49) When he sees animals, he is reminded that he was doubtless one himself in the past. The animals "bring me tokens of myself…I wonder where they get those tokens,/ Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?" (32) In fact, he sees his body and his spirit as integral with all the forms of the creation, that he incorporates the lower forms then "distances" them in his evolution toward the Godhead.
I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call anything back again when I desire it. (31)
As for the future, he does not put returning to earth again out of the question. "Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years…(43)
As for death, Whitman, the courage teacher, welcomes it as joyfully as anything else. In fact, he is called the poet of "death and lilacs" because of his frequent and beautiful treatments of death throughout Leaves of Grass. ("What is finally beautiful but love and death?) "I know I am deathless," he proclaims. (20) The Supreme Lord Himself accompanies the soul through the passage of birth and death, so why fear? Rather, there is cause for welcome.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and am
not contained between my hat and boots.
The Lord witnesses the passing of the individual soul through various dresses (bodies) and knows its history of rebirths, as Krishna affirms in the Gita, "Many a birth have I passed through, O Arjuna, and so have you. I know them all, but you know them not." (Gita, 4.5) Even in this lifetime, Whitman was well acquainted with death, witnessing innumerable deaths of soldiers in the Washington hospitals. In fact, he muses that the leaves of grass may even transpire from the breasts of young men. This is not morbid; life and death are one, inextricably woven.
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapes,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier. (6)
Life is an omnipresent force, and death simply a transition to another form of material existence or, possibly, liberation and union with the Great Camerado.
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.
And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polishe'd breasts of melons. (49)
At the conclusion of the poem, Whitman magnificently describes the parting of the soul from the body. "I depart as air," he begins, then finally concludes, "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If his bodily remains to Nature, his spirit returns to the eternal abode. His concluding lines remind one of Krishna's "Abandon all dharmas and come to me alone for shelter." (Gita, 18.66):
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (52)
It is the ultimate promise of the Supreme an eternal abode of peace, knowledge and bliss that Whitman is indicating. He was aware that Krishna is waiting there for all His children to return to Him. By Krishna's grace, he was communicated this knowledge to write for an American audience and world audience in an age of materialistic chaos and anti-spiritualism. In such a difficult age, Krishna sends His blessings in many ways, and it is by His grace that we find joyful Walt loafing along the American roadside like a polite old mendicant, offering his Leaves of Grass to the dizzy and wearied Twentieth Century traveler, offering indeed a "matchless gift" and promise:
Do you see O brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death it is form, union, plan it is eternal life it is happiness. (50)
(Next Issue: Krishna Consciousness In American Poetry, Part Iv: Hart Crane's The Bridge and the 20th Century.)