“Content with the present, content with the past,
By my side or back of me Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same” (248)
Right away, in the first poem of “Children of Adam,” “To the Garden of the World,” Whitman proposes a utopia that most of us cannot fathom as ever being America. But, as he addresses “the world anew ascending” (248), he brings to mind both the biblical Garden of Eden as well as the developing nation. His act of situating America as the “garden of the world” surfaces many interesting ideas understood through exploring several points of comparison between Eden and the way Whitman sees our nation.
Suggesting that one be “content with the present, content with the past” drives home a point that I brought up in class on Tuesday. That is, that Whitman is concerned with and urges America to ascertain itself in the present, and further, to be ok with it. In Eden, utopia was lost to Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but through eating the fruit, they exchanged ignorance for knowledge even if it came hand in hand with a trade of bliss for suffering. Beginning anything is, in many ways, an act of embracing a world of ignorance; therefore, the people breaking away from England to begin America were readily exchanging knowledge, comfort, and protection, for vast ignorance and uncertainty. But, through this line, Whitman urges the people of America to think on this transition only in a way that brings them contentment, and to embrace the here and now as it comes rather than concern themselves with fear or regret.
Further, Whitman introduces the importance of equality (most directly between men and women here) as a necessary ingredient to achieving contentment with the present and past when he introduces Eve. Though many of you have been grappling with Whitman’s view on women and what role he desires that they play in his America, (I am still struggling with that myself) it is clear here that, at the very least, he acknowledges women’s importance and presence in the setting forth on this journey into knowledge and discovery. Whitman suggests that every man and every woman may relate to one another at this level because no one knows what is ahead and therefore it makes no difference who leads and who follows; everyone is embarking on new territory.
Lastly, (well, for this blog at least) Whitman’s positioning of himself as Adam allows him to become, figuratively speaking, the man who begat all other men. This is Whitman again placing himself as the leader, the prophet, the father of the American people, allowing him to present himself as the poet America “needs” (as we discussed extensively in class last week). His role as Adam is important because it suggests that he, being the first man, was made in the direct image of God and therefore may be considered closest to him. It also makes the claim, as this poem seems to put an optimistic spin on the usually depressing story of the expulsion from Eden, that walking away from the direct presence of God, or any authority, to discover one’s own way may be a better and more exhilarating way to achieve peace and unity.