Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! — W. W.
Over a hundred years ago, Walt Whitman proclaimed a New Age that would come to this, the country of democratic experiment, and which would sweep the world with a fraternal New Order. Few poets have ventured so much optimism in their work, and few have lingered into our day with such resounding and contemporary truth.
Whitman was the voice of fraternity, the bard of democracy, the spokesman for the wearer of plain clothes. He himself gave up the adornments of straight society to experience life at its most elemental and, therefore, for him its most beautiful. He was a carpenter and a nurse, and he was a great poet, an artistic genius of the first rank.
He was also a prophet, and in his work can be found much that sounds like pre-glimpses and precognitions of a New Jerusalem which he, along with the founding fathers of the U.S., thought to be this country. In Whitman’s vision the greatest was yet to come, and it was his “vision” — that sustaining truth which a biographer, R. M. Bucke, has called “cosmic consciousness” — that informs us through his work of those spiritual, intuitive, and suggestive qualities which we are now perceiving as keynotes of a New Age.
His was certainly a transcendental joy, and it colors and suffuses nearly all he wrote. Critics traditionally responded to such spiritual ecstasy with doubt and the inability to comprehend: one has to be in a mystical set — on the way to illumination — before one can be illumined. And before our own generation those few souls who could transcend the dying fall of Western Civ were his main admirers. Other poets and writers approached him through the lie of formalism, as in the case of Eliot and Pound, or through the weight of tradition, as was the case of Santayana and the early Henry James. But there were those like W. C. Williams and D. H. Lawrence who saw in his work healthy signs of the Ideal, that place in consciousness that was Divine and yet practical in a simple, ballsy way.
Listen to the following lines:
I have said the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul; And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is; And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral, drest in his shroud . . . And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes. Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then; In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; I find letters from God dropt in the street — and every one is signed by God’s name, And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go, Others will punctually come forever and ever.
Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, of mighty Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breeding; No sentimentalist — no stander above men and women, or apart from them; No more modest than immodest . . . Whoever degrades another degrades me; And whatever is done or said returns at last to me . . . I speak the pass-word primeval — I give the sign of democracy; By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
And these dazzling lines:
I loafe and invite my soul . . . I celebrate, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
This was not egotism but the expression of a man who had worked through the appliances of the ego. This was space: his freedom and his art, for he above all poets celebrated esprit, the freedom inherent in spiritual joy, of seeing the world as One. The sublime, the suggestive, the whole; wonder, amazement, delight; energy, love, freedom: these characteristics define Whitman and his vision. It is with this vision that he tells those to come of their mission:
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come! Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you must justify me. I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness. I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main things from you.