On a Sunday evening in July of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson stood before the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School and delivered an address that would effectively end his career as a preacher. His speech stirred up a fire-storm of attacks, both in pamphlets and from the pulpit, and caused Emerson to be banned from speaking engagements at Harvard for over twenty years. As early as 1826 Emerson had begun to question the validity of founding Christianity on the divine commission of Christ, as attested by his miracles and the sacred authority of his teachings. Over the next decade, in his private journals he repeatedly worked out his doctrine of "man's moral nature," but by 1835 he had set aside his hesitation "to take away titles even of false honor from Jesus" and his fear of misleading good people not ready to reexamine their faith. When the opportunity arose in 1838, he set out for the Harvard Divinity School to beard the lion in its den.
Emerson was well aware of the controversial nature of these ideas and although the Unitarians of his day (among whom he was still nominally numbered) had long laid siege against the dogmatism of Calvinist theology in the name of liberal Christianity, Emerson's repudiation of the special divinity of Jesus in favor of a doctrine of perpetual revelation, and his desire to draw a distinction between "Spiritual and Traditional Christianity," went far beyond the limits of even their toleration, drawing such charges as "pantheist," "atheist," and "heretic." Though his journals reveal his private agitation, Emerson remained outwardly unmoved, refusing to retract or qualify anything.
Less than twenty years later, Walt Whitman first published "Song of Myself." A journeyman printer, hack journalist, and sometimes teacher turned newspaper editor, Whitman identifies himself in Leaves of Grass as "an American, one of the roughs, a Kosmos," and this dramatized, complex conception of self was to be the subject of much of his mature poetry. Throwing off the hampering influences of Byron and the Lake poets, and with them rhyme and set meter, Whitman worked diligently over the course of the 1840s to create a new style of poetry, first expressed in Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems he would spend the rest of his life expanding and refining. Contrary to accounts he made later in life, the self-financed 1855 edition received neither critical acclaim — three (a majority) of the favorable reviews the book received were written by Whitman himself — nor popularity: the first edition of only 795 copies did not sell out. Of the prominent writers to whom Whitman sent copies, only Emerson responded: "I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be." When this letter of thanks was published without Emerson's consent in the New York Tribune, the American reading public was for the most part shocked and bewildered. It is not so surprising: "Song of Myself," while a deeply spiritual poem, rejects many of the central Christian dogmas that underlay 19th-century life. Where earlier American reformers such as Emerson had sought to make changes within the framework of Christianity, Whitman in "Song of Myself" presents a much more radical solution: a sweeping away of all traditional religious forms.
Perceiving boundless potential in human beings and the universe, Whitman is critical of organized religions whose theologies impose and enforce conceptual limits. He describes himself as "Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,"
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,
. . . . . .
Taking them all for what they are worth, and not a cent more;
. . . . . .
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself — bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see . . . — 1025-33
Rather than making God a separate Other, he sees divinity inside all things, saying that
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 letters 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 wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come forever and ever. — 1281-85
Whitman focuses on the divinity of man, singing, "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from" (520). Earlier Emerson had argued that the divinity of Jesus was simply a more complete recognition of the divinity in all human beings — itself a bold claim for a prominent thinker to make in the early 1800s. But in his more conventional approach Emerson champions reason and a collective spirituality in which the enlightened lead the general public towards understanding and a virtuous life. In line with this he holds that the two great advantages of Christianity are the Sabbath and preaching, which provide an opportunity for people to join together and hear truths expressed. In contrast Whitman is a champion of individual experience and the ineffable: "I do not know it — it is without name — it is a word unsaid; / It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol" (1309-10). He remarks that "Logic and sermons never convince" (650) and considers "a curl of smoke, or a hair on the back of my hand, just as curious as any revelation" (1036).
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Both thinkers argue against an undue veneration of tradition, but while Emerson wishes to breathe new life into "forms already existing," the spirituality found in "Song of Myself" moves completely outside Christianity and institutionalized religion. Thus, Emerson retains the dichotomies found in Christianity — good and evil, virtue and vice — stating that "Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute . . . All evil is so much death or nonentity." He submits himself to virtue and claims, "'Virtue, I am thine; save me; use me; thee will I serve, day and night, in great, in small, that I may be not virtuous, but virtue'; — then is the end of the creation answered, and God is well pleased." Whitman, however, refuses any attempt to discriminate between various experiences, good or bad, saying:
I am not the poet of goodness only — I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.
. . . . . .
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me — I stand indifferent . . . — 457-60
Rejecting Christian theology that exalts the spirit and denigrates the body, Whitman claims that he is the poet of both the Body and the Soul, neither of which must be abased to the other. He pushes this rejection further, inverting the traditional Christian relationship: "If I worship one thing more than another, it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it" (523). Whitman delights in the human body — his own and others' — rather than seeing it as a corrupting weight pulling the soul down towards hell, something to be denied or punished. For example, he sings that "The scent of these arm-pits, aroma finer than prayer; / This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds" (521-22).
Whitman continues to focus on the physicality of human beings in his examination of death. One aspect of immortality that he envisions is tied to the body's matter — atoms and molecules — which, as he points out, is not destroyed at death but merely passes into other forms. Death is not an end, it is another stage in life, as he illustrates with striking biological examples (118-19):
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,
while the corpse is "good manure" (1291) — at the close of the poem Whitman bequeaths himself to the dirt to grow from the grass he loves. Life is the "leavings of many deaths; / (No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before)" (1294-95). Just as the moon's "ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected" (1304), so death is simply another aspect of life — contradicting another Christian axiom in which death is antithetical to life, something overcome by eternal salvation.
In the same way that the body's physical matter persists after death, so Whitman perceives an immortality for the soul, which he states has always existed in the past and will always exist in the future: "Afar down I see the huge first Nothing — I know I was even there" (1150). And,
I know I am deathless;
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter's compass;
I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night. — 399-401
He takes seriously the implication of eternity — "the amplitude of time" — and thus is not concerned with ontological questions of how Being came from Non-Being:
The clock indicates the moment — but what does eternity indicate?
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers;
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them. — 1134-36
He conceives a boundless universe:
See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that;
Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that. — 1193-94
And he recognizes that, in a truly infinite timeline, there is no beginning or end:
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. — 30-31
Whitman rejects the small span of time provided by Christianity — beginning with Creation, capped by a Judgment Day leading to an eternally static afterlife — in favor of a vision of both material and spiritual evolution, an endless process occurring over the vast horizon of geological and cosmological time.
The sense of evolution in "Song of Myself" also implies universal progress. Whitman draws upon his knowledge of geology and pre-Darwinian theories of evolution to describe this process:
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me;
My embryo has never been torpid — nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care. — 1159-64
He sees this process as inevitable, powered by a principle of inexhaustible generation, a principle that makes destruction and reverses ultimately meaningless. He states that
There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage;
If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were 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 as surely go as much farther — and then farther and farther. — 1186-90
This same inevitability makes comparisons purposeless on a cultural level —
The friendly and flowing savage, Who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization, or past it, and mastering it? — 974-75
— as well as on an individual one:
Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle — they will more than arrive there, every one, and still pass on. — 425-26
He concludes "that size is only development" (424), adding:
I do not call one greater and one smaller;
That which fills its period and place is equal to any. — 1139-40
In contrast to the ruthless competition of Darwinian evolution, the process that Whitman envisions is cooperative and harmonious:
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help'd me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings . . . — 1154-57
And this theme is repeated on a personal level:
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
For after we start, we never lie by again. — 1214-16
Instead of being governed by chance, Whitman perceives a grand plan moving towards continuous self-development, stating that "It is not chaos or death — it is form, union, plan — it is eternal life — it is Happiness" (1315). He foresees no end to this process, but rather ever-increasing spiritual expansion:
This day before dawn I ascended a hill, and look'd at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my Spirit, When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?
And my Spirit said, No, we but level that lift, to pass and continue beyond. — 1217-19
Each person tramps on a "perpetual journey" (1199) through infinity where the ceaseless process of growth itself is of value, not the reaching of any specific end. Thus he states that
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 . . . — 32-34
Every being is each moment where it needs to be in its own process of development: "I exist as I am," he concludes, "that is enough" (406).
Both Emerson and Whitman fought to replace the pessimistic view of humanity found in Christian dogma with a new vision that defended the innate divinity and vast potential of each human being; as Whitman claims, "We have had ducking and deprecating about enough" (423). Yet Whitman ventures beyond even Emerson's radical attempt at reforming Christianity outlined in his "Divinity School Address," moving outside the Christian framework altogether. In "Song of Myself" Whitman explores the relationship between body and soul, the role of death in life, and the nature of spiritual development. In each area he favors unity and a rigorously democratic equality, and this vision remains as fresh, radical, and thought-provoking today as when it was first published a hundred and fifty years ago.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)
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Eternal truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times. The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in new form can they be understood anew. Always they require a new conception. — C. G. Jung