Ecocritical analysis of “song of the redwood-tree”

In the poem “Song of the Redwood-Tree” Whitman employs specific devices to evaluate nature as implicitly valuable, outside of man’s use, while at the same time emphasizing that the instrumentalism inherent in development is acceptable on the basis of the “promise” for a “grander future” (264). This is not to say that Whitman does not acknowledge the loss, what is destroyed in the process of implementing nature, but rather that this sacrifice further sanctifies the American future. This is apparent in the “death-chant chanting” that the poet hears, and thus attempts to convey to the audience, but that the “choppers… the quick-ear’d teamsters… and jack-screw men” are deaf to. It is the sound “not of the past only but the future” (259). Whitman simultaneously explains that the Redwoods, and nature more generally, represent a valuable history. But, he is also suggesting that this becomes appropriated into the history of America, which informs the promise of an ideal American future.

Clearly there is a conflict of time within the text, the movement between nostalgic elegy and utopian idealism. These may be consistent with an American pastoralism which is fairly constant in a number of Whitman’s poems. But the main point of the text still seems to be the pursuit of an ideal America, and less an appreciation of aesthetics. The value of nature exists as implicit, but not merely in its beauty—or rather its beauty is in all that it comes to represent: as the material necessary to construct a society “proportionate to nature” (264).

Finally, another important device used by Whitman is the list. This is apparent in most of his poems, and serves as an approximation of polyphony which can be connected with the promise of American democracy. The best example of this in “Songs of the Redwood-Tree” is the chant from the “deities of the west” who pledge to serve the greater good/goal of Wittman’s American ideal. The repetition of “you,” essentially listing all of the abstract values that will make up this future society, obscures the voice of the poet within the falling trees while addressing the great mass of people that will make up this new society.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Song of the Redwood-Tree” Ch./Art: Excerpts p.  258-264. pub. Random House 2001


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by al002 on October 19, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I agree that Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood-Tree” poem describes the different values applied to nature by man. I found Whitman’s use of chanting and sounds created by man that are evident to man and nature contrasted to the sounds of the “death-chant chanting” (259) of the abuse of nature that man cannot hear. However, as far as Whitman’s argument in the poem is the pursuit of the ideal America can only be achieved if the aesthetic of nature is ignored or less appreciated. Is Whitman arguing that the use of nature as a resource is more valuable to an ideal America than the aesthetic value? I was not sure until I read your explanation that “The value of nature exists as implicit, but not merely in its beauty—or rather its beauty is in all that it comes to represent: as the material necessary to construct a society “proportionate to nature” (264),” Which I agree that Whitman was trying to portray in “Song of the Redwood-Tree.”

  2. When I first read “Song of the Redwood Tree,” I thought that surely, Whitman had a more “deep ecological” perspective in the way he holds the redwood trees as so mystical and pristine, and that “culture” in the way man imposes it is destructive and horrible.

    But when I read your blog post, I see the true pattern of Whitman’s thoughts – he respects nature for the aesthetic and even mysticism, but ultimately commerce and culture wins out. He says “For them predicted long, for a superber race, they too to grandly fill their time” (260). The key word here is “superber,” which indicates that while Whitman sympathizes with the trees, obviously humans are more “superb” and deserve to take out the California coast. It’s an interesting blend of deep ecology with pastoralism that I can see now a little more clearly upon a second reading.

  3. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    While it is clear that Whitman has no problems using the environment to help create a more ideal America, he also ascribes a willingness and joy to the tree being taken down. The speaker in the poem, through the voice of the redwood, explains that the hundreds of seasons passed had brought the tree to this point. But rather than being harvested for a profit, the tree suggests that all nature, when serving man is “in them absorb’d, assimilated.” (Whitman 260) Whitman suggests that while a tree is discreet from man physically, the spirit in nature is the same spirit in man, so felling a tree is not a murder, but more a transforming of spirit into another medium. A medium helpful and nourishing to mankind, as a fruit tree or fresh spring would be.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: