Chelsea for September 1

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            So far, I am torn between overwhelming agreement with Walt Whitman and confusion over his occasional self-contradiction.  Though he seems at times to have some semblance of a self-righteous Christ complex, his ideas about the world and most particularly about poets and poetry are quite inspiring.  His passion and insistence that the United States will yield and revere the greatest poets are sentiments which are unfortunately no longer shared by the greater part of society (just ask to see Dr. Scanlon’s newspaper write-in from a reader who wrote to complain over the government paying poet laureates).  However, it is refreshing to view and understand a poet as being of the highest regard in a community, though it seems Whitman would take this esteem to the highest elevation.  This is where the aforementioned Christ complex kicks into gear.

            The didactic language of the introduction to Leaves of Grass as well as in this version of “Song of Myself” help to make the poet and therefore Whitman himself into an omnipotent Christ figure.  Throughout the introduction, Whitman manipulates biblical language and allusion so that the poet may be better imagined this way.  In addition to how greatly the poet is praised, there are specific instances where he is placed in the exact position of the biblical Messiah.  For example, Whitman writes, “The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is.  He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet….he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you” (13).  This allusion to the story of the resurrection of Lazarus as told in the book of John (11:38-44) allows the poet to take the place of Christ.  Later in the introduction, Whitman uses similar biblical language that seems reminiscent of the ever popular 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 which begins “Love is patient and kind” when he says, “Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement” (17).  Whitman also sets up his own version of the commandments (though there are more than ten) when he writes, “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals…” (11).  Another scriptural allusion, though perhaps a bit more under the radar is, “A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest” (25).  This is strikingly similar to 1 Peter 2: 9a which says, “But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people.  You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.”  The list of biblical allusion goes on and on.

            At this point, Whitman’s stance on religion has me both puzzled and intrigued.  Clearly he is educated in the Bible as his work is full of both traditional biblical allusion and less obvious biblical language, though he seems often to rebuke and/or manipulate its teachings to fit his own ideas about religion.  I have been tempted to argue that Whitman abandons faith for the idea that man or nature is supreme (or rather that he places his faith in those things), though I can’t quite get around the fact that he does not completely reject the idea that God exists (as he brings Him up many times throughout the introduction to Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself”).  Perhaps Whitman would today consider himself a universalist?  It seems that these doubts and questions are some I will grapple with over the course of the semester.  Even Whitman himself admits to his self-contradiction when he writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then….I contradict myself; / I am large….I contain multitudes” (87).  Well Walt, I guess it’s me versus your multitudes…

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5 Responses to “Chelsea for September 1”

  1. tallersam Says:
    Avatar of tallersam

    I think that saying that Whitman has “some semblance” of a Christ complex is a bit of an understatement :-). I think it’s pretty well-developed. That being said, I think that his relationship with religion is pretty interesting too.
    Considering the time in which he grew up, I think it was a foregone conclusion that Whitman would gain a thorough-enough knowledge of the Bible to be able to frequently allude to it and use its structures.
    While he does refer to a singular deity, Whitman generally makes more pantheistic remarks, along the lines of “Clear and sweet is my soul… and clear and sweet is all / that is not my soul” (29). He continually tries to place all things on an equal footing, to say that science complements poetry and that “you are not guilty to me, nor stale” (33).
    Also, the line “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself” (28) sounds very Romantic. It reminds me of a scene from “Moby Dick,” although I can’t remember its specifics (I feel pretty lame for citing Melville like that. Must find that reference!). While such a remark would sound pretty commonplace today, it (along with what writers like Dickinson, Melville, etc were saying) was pretty unusual in Protestant, antebellum America. This using of one’s self as the lense through which the world was interpreted, instead of the Christian framework, marked a big shift in American thought.

  2. meghanedwards Says:
    Avatar of meghanedwards

    Chelsea! I’m so glad you wrote about this, because I picked up on the Whitman as a Christ figure theme too (and was also rather confused). I don’t believe that Whitman rejects the idea that God exists. What I think he rejects is the idea of the church, and the ceremony that exists within it. Whitman denies that the poet has a “sabbath or judgment day” (23). He also dismisses the idea of atonement, and separating the good from the evil. What he doesn’t dismiss entirely are the priests. He notes that the people have no use for them anymore.

    I agree with you on the universalist theory, or maybe even some sort of agnostic one, especially when he says that “every one (is) good/The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good” (32). Whitman also never dismisses God entirely, and as you’ve already shown, alludes to biblical teachings and phrasings throughout his work.

    I’ll take your side against the multitudes.

  3. Erin Longbottom Says:
    Avatar of Erin Longbottom

    I was also confused by the way Whitman seemed to set himself up as this christ-like, all knowing figure, but then bash religion, and then contradict himself again by accepting some sort of god (I’m asssuming by the capitalization that he means the christian God though, not just any god). I referred to this passage in my comment on Jessica’s post, but on page 85 Whitman says “I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least.” Yet on page 58 he reveals this disgustion with people who are caught up in being repentent and feeling obligated to God. As I think about this more, maybe he’s not really arguing against God himself, but more towards everyone’s perception of God, as well as the way organized religion tells their followers to worship and understand God? I’m still gonna have to think about this…

  4. bcbottle Says:
    Avatar of bcbottle

    I definitely agree with Meghan about Whitman rejecting the ceremony of the church, I think he rejects the idea that knowledge of anything, including God, can be given, it must be learned instead.

    I think this goes farther even, leading Whitman to reject a God who exists apart, only accessible through priests. Whitman speaks of God as a bedfellow, something accessible to even the poorest of slave or the richest of kings.

  5. s-words Says:
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    If Whitman counts as a kind of Christ, does that make him a ceaseless proselytizer? And for what? Is his poetry a kind of church to himself, or does he play with biblical allusions as a way of espousing a newer and more thorough Christianity (or Christianness, maybe), a kind of wholer holiness? According to the standards typically assigned to Christian faithfulness, can “self-worship,” as given over in Whitman’s broad and irreverent terms, ever be proven compatible with exclusive fidelity to the Holy Trinity? I ask these questions partially because they are unanswerable, and partially because, as a non-Christian, I need help “getting it.”

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