Paper Topic: Examining Nature through the Lens of Walt Whitman.

For my final paper, I plan to write about Walt Whitman and if he saw nature as a commodity, or an opportunity for the advancement of America. After reading Whitman, it is obvious he has extreme love for nature and the earth, but he writes in a different manner than any other poet we have read this semester. Garrard’s trope of “New World Wilderness” also shows up in Whitman’s work. He romanticizes nature throughout his work, but does this by showing the “intrinsic value” of everything in nature. Whitman further describes the cyclical aspects of nature in, To the Garden the World, and then in, Pent-Up Aching Rivers, Whitman uses vivid sexual imagery to describe the procreation of the Earth. I want to explore Whitman’s poetry to see discover his true thoughts of nature.

My first experiences with Whitman came a few years back in an American poetry survey, and the main discussion of Whitman was his place between transcendentalism and realism. I plan to reevaluate this position because I will have the opportunity to look at Song of the Redwood Tree among his other poems, specifically selections from Song of Myself.

Questions to analyze in my paper:
1. Does Whitman’s use of sexual imagery describe his desires for intimacy with a humanly figure or only an earthly figure?

2. How important are Whitman’s words about the cycles of earth in A Song of the Rolling Earth and To the Garden the World?

3. When Whitman uses the imagery of man and woman together, (From Pent-Up Aching Rivers) does he actually reference the unity of man and nature? Is this describing a harmonious relationship where man and nature coexist, or is it describing a relationship where man can take what is necessary from nature?

4. Does Whitman use homoerotic imagery to combat the idea of “Mother Earth”? Could this imagery be seen as natures feeling towards man?

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christys21 on October 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    In response to your 3rd question:

    I do not believe he ever directly refers to woman and man.

    Your questioning of whether he was referring to nature in the “relatonship” is an extremly intriguing thought. Can he be indrectly describing his relationship to nature or analyzing it. He seems to suggest that they are capable of existing together, considering how he describes a relationship capable of growing.

  2. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I like that you’re choosing to research and write about Whitman, as I found his works to be completely unique within the context of our coursepack as well as compared with all the other poetry (mainly the Romantic stuff) that I’d read before. However, I feel like your initial question of whether “he (Whitman) saw nature as a commodity, or an opportunity for the advancement of America” arranges a false dichotomy inasmuch as commodities were and continue to be essential for the “advancement of America” that you mentioned.

    Aside from that, I thought your question regarding sexual imagery within Whitman’s poetry to be very provocative and worthwhile. Good luck!

  3. Posted by brightgirl04 on October 27, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I agree with the other two commenters have said. You state Whitman has an extreme love for nature and the earth you could ask and examine which ecological position Whitman would fit under.

  4. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I think this is a very interesting topic especially when you focus on the relationship between man and nature is symbolized through sexual imagery as we know goes along with the pastoral trope. The question I liked the most was “3. When Whitman uses the imagery of man and woman together, (From Pent-Up Aching Rivers) does he actually reference the unity of man and nature? Is this describing a harmonious relationship where man and nature coexist, or is it describing a relationship where man can take what is necessary from nature?” I would expand on this and ask:

    8. Does this harmonious relationship between man and nature have any emotional value or is it strictly resources and aesthetic values?

  5. Like the commentators above I think you’re on a good track. I especially liked your 3rd question too

    “When Whitman uses the imagery of man and woman together, (From Pent-Up Aching Rivers) does he actually reference the unity of man and nature? Is this describing a harmonious relationship where man and nature coexist, or is it describing a relationship where man can take what is necessary from nature?”

    Another question I would ask would be what does Whitman suggest that nature provides for man? (Like whats the point of sexual imagery, or importance of it, when he could have described it in another way?).

  6. Posted by bharta1 on October 28, 2011 at 1:00 am

    From Pent-Up Aching Rivers is so good! I think if you were to use any of that poem in your paper you could, if so inclined, also dig around in a Ecofeminist perspective of nature is being some transgendered or omni-gendered thing or maybe neutered. Either way, not much to do with nature as commodity but thought I’d mention it.

    If Whitman thinks of nature as a commodity, consider what kind of commodity he is looking for. Like Caitlin, who was a painter, does Whitman see nature as a symbolic commodity, meaning, the apex, the highest form of poetic topics, and if this is so, the symbolic commodity of nature perhaps provides him with being one of the first progenitors of American Nature Poetry. The best, most influential or sellable items…Caitlin was a painter, he needed his subject to paint, why did Whitman choose nature to paint with words? (I’m not sure, was he very successful during his life time? I’m doubting it) What value did he see in it from a artist’s viewpoint? What does nature provide him?

    Also, another question you may want to add is in O Pioneers, Whitman seems to express a call to arms to cultivate this American land, chase it down and get it, how does his poetry oppose wilderness?

  7. This question is interesting Whitman use of homoerotic imagery does connect human desires and nature together. Also, nature having feelings towards man instead of it being the other way around is very intriguing.
    Another question: What do you think Whitman wants his readers’ reactions to be concerning their activism for nature?

  8. Posted by lmc908 on October 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I like your first question because I also wondered abut his sexual references and as to whom they were addressed to and for what purpose. I would also like to know more about his ideas on nature, I wonder if they can be narrowed down?

    Question: Are the sexual allusions in reference to the relationship between man nature? Can an ecofeminist perspective be drawn from it?

  9. Posted by lcmills on October 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Although it would be rather difficult to determine Whitman’s “true” feelings about nature through interpretation, the poems you are looking to analyze will certainly reveal some possibilities regarding his perceptions of the environment and whether it is gendered in his mind.

    Perhaps it would be beneficial to either try to draw a stronger connection between Whitman’s view of nature as commodity and nature as human/mother, or to choose to focus on one instead of both.

    How do Whitman’s various representations of nature ascribe value?

  10. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    I think that Whitman is a challenging and rewarding topic choice (I too am focusing on Whitman texts). I think that Q1, while being pretty specific, ,opens the door to Whitman’s overall philosophy, and is a prime example of him using nature to explain human desire, which might be not as separate as we think.

    Q14 – What purpose does describing human desires for sexual union and companionship with images of nature serve? Is the description to enhance the representation of intensity of these human emotions or to link the natural world with our instinctual drive to procreate?

  11. I really like question 14 (right above mine). Since you want “to write about Walt Whitman and if he saw nature as a commodity, or an opportunity for the advancement of America,” here’s a question on that note:

    How does Whitman define “advancement” or “progress?” Does he completely celebrate human progress and condone environmental destruction in the name of it, or is he critical of progress?

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