Posts Tagged ‘Leaves of Grass’

Burroughs on Whitman

I have to agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Walt Whitman. When Burroughs’ writes, “The image of Walt Whitman seems generally to have in his mind is that of the Earth,” (36). We must understand that Whitman does not offer changes to readers; he merely describes the relationship between man and nature. “Collecting I traverse the garden of the world,” (149). I think it is interesting how Whitman uses the metaphor of a garden here. In one sense, he describes Earth as a commodity for the human race because gardens are typically located near a home. Whitman expresses his personal relationship and vision of the Earth rather than attempting to explain how to change what has already taken place. However, in an earlier passage Whitman writes, “I will plant companionship,” (148). This line might offer the reader some way to find harmony for living in nature. If Whitman traverses the earth “planting companionship”, he is not looking to destroy what nature has produced. Instead, he is looking for ways to involve himself in nature.

Burroughs also states, “He corrects this false, artificial Nature, and shows me the real article, that I hail his appearance as the most important literary event of our times,” (38). This is especially important to understand when we read Whitman. It is interesting how Whitman writes about nature outside of its intrinsic beauty. “Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease,” 461). Granted, Whitman does combat the ugly side of nature with the growth of something new, but he uses the intense imagery of a “disease”. Whitman breaks free from the Romantics by ridding his poetry of the fabricated natural images. Instead, Whitman can show readers what can come of the “disease”. Burroughs assessment definitely has truth, but he cannot tell the reader how to interpret Whitman’s writings. The reader has to make up their own mind, but we have to understand that Whitman wrote about his personal relationship with nature.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed” Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 27-5-282, 284-293, 459-462. pub. Random House 2001

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001


Whitman’s unrealistic social ideals

In reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” I was especially intrigued by his ideals of community and equality as they were presented in his poetry. In “For You O Democracy” Whitman’s beliefs regarding these issues came through especially strongly. Whitman seemed to have very unrealistic ideals, especially for the time period, regarding women and other underrepresented minorities and their place in American society. In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman states: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America… I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s neck.” This statement brings to mind a society that is built on entirely equal footing; the reality of social prejudices based on race, gender, and religion are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, Whitman uses nature symbolisms to pull this idea together; as we have seen throughout this semester, nature is historically a subject of oppression. The image of a tree as the “glue” that holds a country together is one we have not seen depicted thus far throughout the semester and brings forth an interesting paradox. As Americans have been conditioned to view nature as something to conquer and use as they need it, these statements of nature as powerful and all-encompassing are meant to make readers rethink their habits and values.

Another area where Whitman deviates from the norm is in his discussion of gender and nature. Although throughout his poetry he describes nature as feminine and having an almost sexual appeal, in “To the Garden the World” Whitman says “By my side or back of me Eve following/ Or in front, and I following her just the same.” This reference to a female coupled with Whitman’s apparent indifference whether he is in charge or no leads me to believe that he held ideologies inconsistent with most of his male peers; he seems to view women as a group much more equally (albeit still quite sexually) than other men of his time.  Accordingly, in the aforementioned “For You O Democracy,” Whitman describes Democracy as both the “manly love of comrades” and “ma femme.” These contradictory labels, coupled with his incongruous descriptions of American society and equality, prove to me that Whitman was aiming to write poetry that would get his readers to rethink how they felt about oppressed groups; unfortunately, the contradictory aspects of much of his writing muddles his main arguments. The dichotomies between women being leaders, but also sexual beings, and an entirely equal democratic society as strong and masculine, but at the same time feminine, confuses the reader as to what Whitman’s ultimate goal is.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed” Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 27-5-282, 284-293, 459-462. pub. Random House 2001