Whitman’s Divinity

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“What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but that man or woman is as good as God?  And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?  And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?”  ~“Laws for Creations” (Autumn Rivulets)

“Why, who makes much of a miracle?  As to me I know of nothing else but miracles. . .   To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, Every cubic inch of space is a miracle, Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same.”  ~”Miracles” (Autumn Rivulets)

“Young man I think I know you–I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.”  ~”A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” (Drum-Taps)

“Or Time and Space, Or shape of Earth divine and wondrous. . .Be ye my Gods.”  ~”Gods” (By the Roadside)

“Yet underneath Socrates clearly see, and underneath Christ the divine I see, The dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend to friend. . .”  ~”The Base of All Metaphysics” (Calamus)

“We two, how long we were fool’d, Now transmuted, we swiftly escape as Nature escapes, We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return. . .”  ~”We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d” (Children of Adam)

“Spontaneous me, Nature. . .”  ~”Spontaneous Me” (Children of Adam)

“And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?. . .  If anything is sacred the human body is sacred. . .”  ~”I Sing the Body Electric” (Children of Adam)

“And I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul, And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is. . .And I say to humankind, Be not curious about God, For I who am curious about each am not curious about God. . .  I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. . .  Why should I wish to see God better than this day?”  ~”Song of Myself” (48)

“My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths.”  ~”Song of Myself” (43)

“Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from, The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.”  ~”Song of Myself” (24)

“Good in all. . .To be this incredible God I am!  To have gone forth among other Gods, these men and women I love. . .O amazement of things–even the least particle!  O spirituality of things!”  ~”Song at Sunset” (Songs of Parting)

“Chanting the square deific, out of the One advancing. . .Life of the great round world, the sun and stars, and of man, I, the general soul, Here the square finishing, the solid, I the most solid, Breathe my breath also through these songs.”  ~”Chanting the Square Deific” (Whispers of Heavenly Death)

“We consider bibles and religions divine–I do not say they are not divine, I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still, It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life, Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth, than they are shed out of you.”  ~”A Song for Occupations” (3)

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892).  John Burroughs called him “The Poet of the Cosmos.”  Vilified and censored in his day; clipped and snipped while largely ignored in our day.  A mysterious man with little mystery left after piles of biographies and analyses.  People seem still to be curious, often most curious about his sexual orientation or exploits.  Criticized for his self-absorption, his ego, his wildness and heretical views.  Who should care about the old Grey Poet? 

It is my view that Whitman, the man and the work, offers a critical contribution to individual and communal identities, national politics and spiritual understandings.  It is the latter that I wish to focus on here.  People of faith would do well to listen to Whitman’s words and the “incarnate word” of his life.  And non-theists would greatly benefit from a closer look at this explorer of ideas.  He was a freethinking prophet, a bridge-maker beyond belief and a guide for any who dare to saunter down the open road beyond the fields of faith.  If ever a person showed us how to venture out Beyond God, Walt Whitman is the poet, the person and the preacher of the more excellent way.

Was Whitman a believer in any recognizable religious sense?  Did he believe in God at all?  Was his God simply a sense of divinity absorbed into the cosmos, a poetically playful as well as intellectually rigorous pantheism?  Questions we probe and scan over the body of the man and his writings (the tree and the “leaves”) reveal a complex person who was both a product of his 19th Century context and a person who simply and profoundly chose to step outside of the mainstream of that context–to create, as it were, his own context.  How did he do that?  This is perhaps the greatest question that will bring us back time and again to the poet’s “spiritual” experience and “vocation.”  

Whitman, as represented in the quotations above, blended an intense understanding of the divine and sacred into an extreme experience of immersion into radical culture.  Whether spending time with the “cab” drivers on the streets of New York City, editing newspapers, working as a clerk in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. or ambling into the fields or forests to write poems, this spiritual explorer and pathfinder opened up new insights into the human person that placed the person at the center of an equally “sacred” community, nation, world and universe.  Poetry can do that!  Yet, for the man from Paumanok (Long Island), poetry was closer to the original vision of that activity:  a solid, participatory relation with the environment (the surrounding circle of life) indistinguishable, inseparable from active creation of one’s environment.  As a “poem” was a “making or doing” for the Greeks, so the poem for Whitman was an embodying of life itself right in the center of the whirlpool of all existence.  For him, the body and the soul were one.  Plain and simple.  No separate existence.  And “soul” for the poet was great and divine while equally ordinary, commonplace and definitely not other-worldly or even super-natural.  Whitman was pre-eminent among all modern poets as a realist, a very this-worldly incarnation of Personhood, the Self, the I and the I Am, without much of any hint at a “transcendent” unless that meant a contextualizing of the Individual, the concrete grounding of the universal sense of Individual or Self (I do not consider Whitman a member of the Transcendentalist camp, yet he certainly bivouaced in the general area of the wide and wild frontiers.  He packed his well-worn tent with a vast self-reliance, crisscrossing the pathways of Emerson and his club, without “camping out” too near their more acceptable and warming campfire). 

Did his singing of the universalized Self, balanced with the particularized Self make Whitman a kind of Westernized Hindu or Buddhist?  Not precisely.  No more than Emerson or Thoreau.  There are elements woven into his work that seem to bow to the East but they are strands and threads (or leaves) he casts into his green and growing field of poems.  They are intriguing images for him and help him do what he is best at:  throwing open the doors and windows of the mind (body, soul, spirit. . .Self), breaking the barriers of East and West (Orient/Occident as well as American bifurcation) to “do” what all great poetry “does”–embodies creative expression and evolution. 

What would Whitman say his “spirituality” or “religion” was?  I think he’s fairly clear about this.  “My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths” he warbles in Song of Myself.  He was encompassing, radically inclusive and used the language of faith to scatter the seeds of belief and unbelief in the same field.  His “Leaves of Grass” were planted and nourished on Civil War battlefields as well as country lanes and city boulevards.  His written words were grown organically from the blood of young men, North and South, the scars of slaves, erotic exploration, the questions of children and all that made his world meaningful.  His words were rooted in reality and nurtured in the free and open air breathed by all–mingled with breezes from the battlefields and the injustices wrought by political and religious machinery.   In a literal way practiced by few before or since, this man, this poet, this American Soul, wandered and wondered among common people and the “great” (commoners with a name and position), settlers, slaves, soldiers and others who were never left faceless or meaningless.  Whitman was present, fully, to record the commonest events as having uncommon significance and universal meaning.  

I like to refer to Whitman during the War years as a “chaplain.”  His volunteer service in the hospitals, especially in Washington, exemplifies everything I learned in twenty-five years of interfaith chaplaincy.  In “Specimen Days” as well as in the “dark” poems of “Drum-Taps” this man reveals a completely immersed human being who was unafraid of the suffering of strangers.  In the light of my long experience immersed in the dark and forgotten places where most fear to tread, I can only conclude that Walt Whitman was, in every meaningful way, a chaplain of the highest caliber.

What does this image of Whitman as Chaplain present to us?  A very confusing picture!  Especially if one is either a narrow theist or a narrow non-theist.   The confusion is highly productive here!  In “Laws for Creations” the poet expounds his earth-shaking, belief-rattling sensibility:   “What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but that man or woman is as good as God?  And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?  And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?”  Alright.  Every one is “divine;” all is “sacred.”  Then what?  What does religion do with that?  What does science do?  Sink into it.  All he says is, this is me, the poems, the experiences, the life, thought and meditation. . .these are all me, and they are you, if you pick up and read this book, this life in paper and ink and blood and brains.  We live the Civil War and slavery and the assassination of Lincoln with Whitman.  And we live the crossing of passengers on Brooklyn Ferry and the singing of birds and the passages of a lifetime in the songs of this one representative poet.  In the very experience of life and living, of walking into the temples and terrors and smelling the scent of death mingled with the scent of a lover by a river–we come alive and in that emergence we strangely, uncomfortably welcome the release of “faith” and “unfaith” of “my side and your side,” and there is the wondrous, the “miracle” that makes everything a “miracle”–our common, earthly acceptance of one profound troubling fact:  we are compost.  “Something startles me,” the poet admits, “the earth is terrifying but wonderful in its power to cleanse all the refuse, all the diseased corpses, recycled and renewed by the earth.  “It distills. . .It renews. . .It gives such divine materials to people, and accepts such leavings from them at last” (“This Compost,” Autumn Rivulets). 

Whitman is divine, if divine means “connected to the vine” of relationships that hold the cosmos together (the threads, the strands, the strings).  And he reminds us of our divinity, the sacredness of all life.  And this does to “faith” and religion what few have the ability to do:  transforms it all, absorbs, recycles and renews into compost to grow something better, something greater.  And Whitman not only prepared the way; he brought the Good News, the holy book–the only one that brings life because it is Life:  Nature.  “We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.”  This is our repentance, our conversion, our salvation, and our own terrestrial, natural divinity.

Chris Highland         

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