Images of Earth and Eros in Walt Whitman’s Poetry
A Presentation by Matthew D. Segall at the 2013 Cosmology of Love Conference
Come, said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the universal.
In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed perfection.
By every life a share or more or less,
None born but it is born, conceal’d or unconceal’d the seed is
– “Song of the Universal” (Leaves of Grass, p. 380)
For the next 20 minutes or so, we’re going to dive into the kosmic personality of Walt Whitman. I turn today to Whitman’s poetry in a time of widespread ethical and ecological autism because its provides a powerful reminder, a reminder from a more idealistic age when the dream of American democracy was still gestating and had not yet become the nightmare we are struggling to awaken from, a reminder of how we might make the magnetic lure of transcendent spirit transparent to the feelings and desires of our earthly, electrified bodies.
For those interested in such things, Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, at 1:45 in the morning on May 31st, 1819. He died on March 26, 1892–almost exactly 121 years ago today. In this short talk I’d like to draw from a handful of Whitman’s poems in an attempt to draw out the cosmological and spiritual implications of his images of earth and eros. I will also try to shed light on the philosophy underlying his image of imagination itself, particularly as enacted in the poem “Eidolons.”
You could say that Whitman provides we mere plebeians with a rough-and-ready American version of high German Idealist philosophy. But there is more than abstract metaphysics flowering in his verse, there is love. In the poem “The Base of All Metaphysics” (Leaves of Grass, p. 281), Whitman comes right out and confesses to us his philosophical influences, his teachers. He also offers us his poetic argument that it is not finally science, philosophy, or theology that provides the basis of metaphysics, but love [change slide]:
And now gentlemen,
A word I give to remain in your memories and minds,
As base and finale too for all metaphysics.
(So to the students the old professor,
At the close of his crowded course.)
Having studied the new and antique, the Greek and Germanic
Kant having studied and stated, Fichte and Schelling and
Stated the lore of Plato, and Socrates greater than Plato,
And greater than Socrates sought and stated, Christ divine having
I see reminiscent to-day those Greek and Germanic systems,
See the philosophies all, Christian churches and tenets see,
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
Of the well-married husband and wife, of children and parents,
Of city for city and land for land.
Whitman, it is true, is perhaps the most original poet in the history of the English language. However, as I will explore a bit later in my discussion of his image of imagination in the poem “Eidolon,” when it comes to the songs sung by a creative genius–a Conway, an Emerson, a Goethe, or a Shakespeare–clearly distinguishing between the copy and the original may be more difficult than we at first suppose. The genius, despite his or her unique originality, is able to dip into and express a universally recognizable substratum of beauty.
For initiates into the imagery of Whitman’s poetry, several spiritual commitments tend to result: One recognizes first of all that truly becoming responsible for the self- and world-making power that we each wield within us and together must weave between us–I mean the power of imagination–will require a dramatic alchemical re-formulation of all the habitual dualistic dramas determining our daily lives: life v. death, male v. female, egoic identity v. corporeal existence, society v. nature, master v. slave, rich v. poor, Spirit v. matter, etc. These divisions are but blood clots in our collective cardiovascular circuit, clots that must be dissolved and coagulated anew according to the living power of the human imagination.
[Change Slide] The following is from Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:
This is the female form
This the bath of birth, this the merge of small and large, and the
Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is
the exit of the rest,
You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul.
The female contains all qualities and tempers them,
She is in her place and moves with perfect balance,
She is all things duly veil’d, she is both passive and active,
She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as
As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness,
See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female
The male is not less the soul nor more, he too is in his place,
He too is all qualities, he is action and power,
The flush of the known universe is in him
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred–is it the meanest one in the
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just
as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)
Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest
Do you suppose you have the right to a good sight, and he or she
has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float,
and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation
For you only, and not for him or her?
Most literary scholarship during the 20th century has focused almost exclusively on the erotic and psychological dimensions of Whitman’s poetry. According to Whitman Scholar David Reynolds, this is likely due to the prevailing interest in Freud’s psychoanalytic materialism for much of the last century, such that “many have preferred to contemplate Whitman as Oedipal father-hater and mother-lover or Whitman as homosexual rather than Whitman as religious seer” (Walt Whitman’s America, p. 252).
Now, to be fair to literary scholars, one hardly needs to exaggerate the sexual content of many of Whitman’s poems: an older, ailing Whitman even wrote to a friend in 1889 (three years before his death) summarizing the content of Leaves of Grass with the following:
“Sex; sex; sex; whether you sing or make a machine, or go to the North Pole, or love your mother, or build a house, or black shoes, or anything–anything at all–it’s sex, sex, sex: sex is the root of it all. Sex–the coming together of men and women: sex: sex” (letter to Traubel, quoted in Williams, p. 103).
Despite all this, the scholarly focus on sexuality has tended to background the cosmological and religious dimension of eros expressed in almost every line of his nearly 300 published poems. In 1872, when he was 53 years old and just a year before his first stroke left him partially paralyzed, Whitman again offered a summation of his poetic adventure, not with reference to sex, but this time to spirit. Whitman wrote that “one deep purpose underlay the others, and has underlain it and its execution ever since,” namely, “the religious purpose” (WWA, 252).
Of course, this isn’t an either/or dilemma–either sex or spirit–but a question of both/and: most of us in this room would probably agree that any dualism said to exist between the erotic lures of our earthly lives and the lure of Spirit into the realm beyond is evidence only of a cultural wound that needs to be healed with great care. “Was it doubted,” asks Whitman, [Change Slide]
…that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
-“I Sing the Body Electric”
In another poem, “The World Below the Brine,” Whitman sings an earthly, animal poem that shamelessly weaves together the bottom-dwelling weeds of the sea with the wings of angels in heaven: [Change slide]
The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick
tangle openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the
play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes,
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy
sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed
by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
Any inquiry into Whitman’s poetic mission will inevitably encounter the erotic and earthly imagery of his songs, but it is precisely here that we have the best chance to catch a glimmer of his somewhat secret vision of the Spirit of the Universe and the religion of imagination. Scholars have focused on the surface of these images, but they are more than skin deep, they point to something deeper still than matter.
From Whitman’s point of view, the modern, scientific materialist age, with all its encyclopedic knowledge of and industrial power over nature, did not undermine religion or natural theology; it rather handed the spiritual reigns from popes and priests, back to poets and artists. Now the poets are the “divine literati,” no longer content to remain the unacknowledged legislators of the world (Shelly), they must become the most widely recognized expressions of pure truth, beauty, and goodness heard the whole world round. Whitman taught us that we must discover the poetic roots of our knowledge if we hope to wield its power responsibly. This is Whitman’s message, that poetry is the voice of the common people sung in the language of Creation itself; that poetry is our most powerful weapon in the cosmopolitical war against the modern misenchantment project.
So what are the secrets of Whitman’s poetic religion of imagination? They shine through most brightly in the poem “Eidolons,” which is Greek for “images.” In this poem he swiftly translates the language of physis into psyche, and psyche back into physis, revealing how both of these powers speak the same language, that of images. It is not the language of eternal forms stamped onto mutable material by a perfect mold, as though the earth were just a poor imitation of some far off divine sphere. The spell of such a language no longer holds our human heart’s attention, since it turns God into a distant designer when what we so desire is a “fellow-sufferer who understands” (Whitehead). Whitman’s God, like Whitehead’s, is the poet of the world, the maker and wearer of the endless procession of sacred masks passing their lives upon the surface of earth. Here, then, is Whitman’s “Eidolons”: [Change Slide]
I met a seer,
Passing the hues and objects of the world,
The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
To glean eidolons.
Put in thy chants said he,
No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
That of eidolons.
Ever the dim beginning,
Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
Ever the mutable,
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
Lo, I or you,
Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
But really build eidolons.
The ostent evanescent,
The substance of an artist’s mood or savan’s studies long,
Or warrior’s, martyr’s, hero’s toils,
To fashion his eidolon.
Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidolon.
The old, old urge,
Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
From science and the modern still impell’d,
The old, old urge, eidolons.
The present now and here,
America’s busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
These with the past,
Of vanish’d lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors’ voyages,
Densities, growth, facades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
Exalte, rapt, ecstatic,
The visible but their womb of birth,
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
The mighty earth-eidolon.
All space, all time,
(The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
Fill’d with eidolons only.
The noiseless myriads,
The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
The true realities, eidolons.
Not this the world,
Nor these the universes, they the universes,
Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidolons.
Unfix’d yet fix’d,
Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
Eidolons, eidolons, eidolons.
The prophet and the bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy, interpret yet to them,
God and eidolons.
And thee my soul,
Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
Thy mates, eidolons.
Thy body permanent,
The body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
An image, an eidolon.
Thy very songs not in thy songs,
No special strains to sing, none for itself,
But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
A round full-orb’d eidolon.
This poem so perfectly shares Whitman’s secret of cosmic imagination that I fear anything I might try to add after reading it can only obscure its brilliance! In an attempt to avoid muddying the waters, I’ll turn to another brilliant prophet for hermeneutic help. Not long after Whitman, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols of “how the True World finally became a fable”:
The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”
Whitman, like Nietzsche, is no longer willing to resent the world, to repent for being flesh and blood, to long for another, less earthly existence. His earthly poetry tells a different tale, not of sinful life haunted by fallen copies of original Ideas, but of a sensuous life, a life lived dancing with appearances saved by poetic song–appearances, images, eidolons, lifted from their derivative status to become the many faces of an always disguised, always disporting divinity. In “Eidolons,” Whitman is able to tie together everything from the birth and death of stars, to his inmost personal identity, to the voyages of countless captains in their warships, to the facts and instruments of science, to the industrial and political might of America, to the geological forces of earth as so many instances of the one “old, old urge” driving divine imagination. “Eidolon” is saying, quite simply, that Images are the only true realities, and that Imagination is the only true religion.