Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

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?


Question 1: A Song of the Rolling Earth

In “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” Walt Whitman discusses the connection between human beings and nature.  Whitman characterizes the titular “song” as a grouping of words, and these words are “in the air, they are in you” (275).  Furthermore, Whitman states, “Human bodies are words, myriads of words” (275).  Because Whitman also says, “Air, soil, water, fire – those are words” (275), he creates a clear connection between human beings and their natural environment.  He also says, “human bodies are words” (275), thereby characterizing the human body as belonging to nature, a view somewhat similar to Emerson’s.  However, Whitman also creates a dichotomy between humans and nature.  He personifies nature as a perfect maternal figure, one who “does not argue, / Is not pathetic, has no arrangements, / Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise” (277).  Instead, he describes nature as “the eloquent dumb great mother” (277).  With this characterization, Whitman imbues nature with only the positive aspects of humanity, while separating negative traits from nature.  Whitman also falls into the tradition of personifying nature as female, a conventional technique that is still effective in the poem due to Whitman’s imbuing of nature with other human traits than femininity.

Whitman’s characterization of humans becomes more complex with the later verses.  He states that “the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete, / The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken” (280).  Whereas previously Whitman had stated that humans are directly affected by nature, he now states that the influence of nature on humans can only go so far.  The way nature is perceived depends entirely on the individual person, and nature becomes a reflection of oneself just as oneself is a reflection of one’s environment.  His repetition of the words “I swear” at the start of several verses indicates the immediacy with which the speaker addresses the reader, as well as indicating a spiritual understanding of nature the speaker wishes to pass on to the reader.

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

Walt Whitman’s From Pent-Up Aching Rivers!

Walt Whitman’s From Pent-Up Aching Rivers is a rhapsodic exultation of wilderness,but  more specifically the wilderness of the human body. Wilderness and wildness can be interchangeable in this case, as wildness inhabits wilderness as an inherent quality. Whitman uses a river image of coursing, palpitating lust that also conjures images of blood coursing through veins, “From pent-aching rivers/From that of myself without which I were nothing” (Whitman 116). A river is a good image for wilderness and sexual impulse. It has no static or conforming body, only the confines of eddies and banks which tend to be especially fertile places, and there is a wild, uninhibited and primal quality to its formlessness and power. Just as it would be with some primordial Paleolithic dweller’s carnal lusts, a sort of wild, unadulterated passion that suffers no social neurosis—it is pure and unmarred by cultural notions and it takes action in “tremulous aching” (Whitman 117). It just is what it is. In Garrard’s Ecocriticism this idea is only hinted at, “The sublime provocation of the mountain scenery, and the near hysteria at the moment of ‘contact’ it enables, tends to belie the permanently threating proximity of that other wilderness, the human body” (Garrard 67). However, the subject briefly pops up throughout the book.

This “mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment,” could be the mentality of John Muir’s “Palaeolithic consciousness” or it could be what both Social Ecologists and Eco-Marxists would unhappily refer to Deep Ecologist’s “demands a return to a monistic, primal identification of humans and nature”, to which the former would consider a false monism because it is, “a dialectical perspective that envisages the evolution of human culture, or ‘second nature’, from ‘first nature’” (Garrard 21-29). The ‘first nature’ delirium experienced in this poem is onset by a searching for it and when it comes, there is a realization that it good, “Renascent with grossest Nature or among animals” (Whitman 117). And is not clean or perfect, which makes it even more primordial. As Burroughs believed, Whitman couldn’t have had it any other way, this essentially being the assimilation of Nature and its animal consciousness.

Another example of this Luddite harmony is Friedrich Schiller’s commentary on John Clare’s poetry, where he claims that ancient people did not differentiate between themselves and nature and were far less alienated from it. The evidence was in their simple language that “was more authentic, because it was intuitive, unalienated and inarticulate” (Garrard 45). Whitman does just this. He speaks in senses, not in linear, symbolic rationality. It is all sense and hedonism. It is a melting, melding existence here and it goes from sense to sense not rhetorically or dialectically. It is also pure and parallel to wilderness. If it were completely illogical it may be even more truthful.

Finally, we have a powerful sex scene beneath the stars where lovers rapturously enjoy each other. The stars in Whitman’s time must have seemed like the last bastion of wilderness and purity. Also, again, in reference to ancient Greek civilizations, the stars were not just lights but Constellations, as they are today, where couples and lovers are eternally encased because of their amorous exploits. These ancients did not decipher between nature and man. This thought could include the sentiment of a Constellation being a human, morphologically inhabiting a natural body, which in turn makes a case for the interchangeability of wilderness and wildness. Yet, not only are they a natural body, they are a spiritual, celestial body: the highest form of wilderness and wildness, as they are untouchable and indomitable entities that were created out of lust. Not to mention Zeus often took form as some fecund animal like a bull to partake in his sexual adventures.

So as the lovers ecstatically intertwine the sky and the stars consecrate their lovemaking with a beauty and spirituality that seems to make the universe vital and balmy.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed”CH./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 275-282, 284-93, 459-462. Pub. Random House 2001

Group 1’s Fourth Blog Post

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

Walt Whitman; Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 1 only!

  1. Write an ecocritical analysis of a Whitman poem of your choosing. What is the argument of this poem?  Besides applying some of the ecocritical interpretative techniques you’ve learned in this course in answering this question, be sure to also consider the specific elements of poetry as a form, like speaker and listener, imagery, patterns of sound, form, meter, lineation, etc. Some questions to consider regarding these elements of poetry include: Who is the speaker, where is s/he, and what is the speaker’s state of mind? Does the poem have an implied listener and to what effect? What images are most striking in this poem? Do they seem conventional, familiar, surprising, experimental? Why?What patterns of sound to you find in this poem and what effect do they give? How are the poem’s lines structured?
  2. Find a contemporary newspaper or magazine article that relates to an idea in Thoreau’s Walkingor Whitman’s poetry. In your response, explain the connection between the article and Thoreau/Whitman, making sure to quote from each to showcase the connection. Besides giving a BRIEF summary of the article and thoroughly explaining the connection to Thoreau/Whitman, be sure to also address the significance of the connection. In other words, what do we gain/learn from connecting Thoreau/Whitman to this contemporary issue (or, if you prefer, from connecting this contemporary issue back to Thoreau/Whitman)? You are also required to include a link to the article in your post.
  3. After reading the excerpt from “A Critical Glance into Thoreau” by John Burroughs, do you agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Thoreau? Why or why not? In your response, be sure to quote from Thoreau’s Walden and/or “Walking” to support your answer. As a reminder, Burroughs’ discussion on Thoreau can be found on pgs. 487-489 of the course pack.
  4. After reading the excerpt from Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person by John Burroughs, do you agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Whitman? Why or why not? In your response, be sure to quote from Whitman’s poetry to support your answer. As a reminder, Burroughs’ discussion of Whitman can be found on pgs. 483-485 of the course pack.

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about more than one text, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support. If the question you chose asks for more than one quote in the instructions above, then be sure to follow those instructions.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text. If some summary is asked for in the prompt you chose, keep that summary brief and concise.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.
  • Don’t forget your Works Cited!

Group 1, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, October 18.

Group 2, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, October 20.