Whitman was greatly impressed by three great engineering achievements: the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), the laying of the transatlantic undersea cable (1866), and the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Utah to produce the nation's first transcontinental railway (1869). These events resulted in improved communication and travel, thus making possible a shorter passage to India. But in Whitman's poem, the completion of the physical journey to India is only a prelude to the spiritual pathway to India, the East, and, ultimately, to God.
The poet, in section 1, celebrates his time, singing of "the great achievements of the present," and listing "our modern wonders": the opening of the Suez Canal, the building of the great American railroad, and the laying of the transatlantic cable. Yet these achievements of the present have grown out of the past, "the dark unfathom'd retrospect." If the present is great, the past is greater because, like a projectile, the present is "impell'd by the past."
Here Whitman presents the world of physical reality, an antecedent to the world of spiritual reality. The essential idea in emphasizing the three engineering marvels is to indicate man's progress in terms of space. The space-time relationship is at the heart of the matter. The present is significant, but it is only an extension of the past and, therefore, its glories can be traced to times before. Man has mastered space, but he must enrich his spiritual heritage by evoking his past. His achievement in space will remain inadequate unless it is matched, or even surpassed, by his achievement in time and his spiritual values.
In section 2, Whitman envisages a passage to India which is illuminated by "Asiatic" and "primitive" fables. The fables of Asia and Africa are "the far-darting beams of the spirit," and the poet sings of the "deep diving bibles and legends." The spanning of the earth by scientific and technological means is only part of the divine scheme to have "the races, neighbors." The poet, therefore, sings of "a worship new," a spiritual passage to India.
The poet here identifies time with space and merges them in the realm of the spirit. Modern miracles of science are all part of a divine plan, of "God's purpose from the first." Thus the poet sings of a new religion which will combine the scientific achievements of the present with the spiritual attainments of the past.
Man's achievements in communications are shown in the portrayal of "tableaus twain" in section 3. The first tableau, or picture, is the first passage through the Suez Canal "initiated, open'd" by a "procession of steamships." The second picture is the journey of the railway cars "winding along the Platte" River to a junction of the Union and Central Pacific railroads. These two engineering achievements have given concrete shape to the dreams of the "Genoese," Columbus, "centuries after thou art laid in thy grave." Columbus dreamed of "tying the Eastern to the Western sea"; his ideal has now been fulfilled.
The underlying significance of the two events which Whitman describes here is to show that man's material advancement is only a means to his spiritual progress. The poet seems to master the vastness of space through his visionary power. And his thoughts also span time: modern achievements are a realization of Columbus' dream of linking East with West. His discovery of America was only a first step toward finding a shorter passage to India.
Section 4 tells how "many a captain" struggled to reach India. History seems like an underground stream which now and again rises to the surface. Thus Whitman praises Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route to India, and who thus accomplished the "purpose vast," the "rondure [rounding] of the world."
This is a tribute to the courage and adventurous spirit of the West in seeking a passage to India. The poet has a vision of history "as a rivulet running," and this dominates his sense of space. History is conceived of as a progression of continuous events which are like a flowing stream. This stream joins the spiritual sea and the poet's vision endows historical happenings with spiritual meaning.
Section 5 presents the spectacle of this earth "swimming in space," endowed with incredible beauty and power. Since the days of Adam and Eve, Whitman says, man has asked the meaning of life: "Who shall soothe these feverish children?/ . . . Who speak the secret of impassive earth?' After the scientists and explorers have achieved their goals, the poet, who is "the true son of God," will forge the links of spiritual union. "Trinitas divine" will be achieved through the visionary power of the poet; he will fuse "Nature and Man."
The earth has been spanned by the efforts of engineers and technicians, Whitman says, and now it is for the poet to bring about the unity of East and West in the realm of the spirit. In his general survey of history, Whitman seems to encompass all time. The poet is the "true son of God" because, in visualizing the union of man and nature, he responds to the divine call within him. He is thus a true explorer and a discoverer of spiritual India.
In section 6, the poet sings of the "marriage of continents." Europe, Asia, Africa, and America are dancing "as brides and bridegrooms hand in hand." The "soothing cradle of man" is India. The poet perceives India as an ancient land of history and legend, morals and religion, adventure and challenge. Brahma and Buddha, Alexander and Tamerlane, Marco Polo and other "traders, rulers, explorers" all shared in its history. "The Admiral himself" (Columbus) is the chief historian. The poet says the culmination of heroic efforts is deferred for a long time. But eventually their seeds will sprout and bloom into a plant that "fills the earth with use and beauty."
Here Whitman has explored the swift passage of time and has invoked the India of Buddha through the present achievement of the linkage of continents by modern technology. The poet thus becomes a time-binder. He also attempts to fuse the familiar with the unfamiliar and the physical with the spiritual. He stands "curious in time," but he also stands outside of time, in eternity, in his spiritual quest.
Section 7 confirms that a passage to India is indeed a journey of the soul "to primal thought." It is not confined to "lands and seas alone." It is a passage back to the Creation, to innocence, "to realms of budding bibles." Whitman is anxious for himself and his soul to begin their journey.
The language of section 7 is highly metaphorical. The return of the poet and his soul to the East is envisaged as a journey back to the cradle of mankind, to the East, where many religions had their birth. It is a journey "back to wisdom's birth, to innocent intuitions." The poet and his soul seek a mystical experience of union with God in the realm of the spirit.
In section 8, the poet and his soul are about to "launch out on trackless seas" and to sail "on waves of ecstasy" singing "our song of God." The soul pleases the poet, and the poet pleases the soul, and they begin their spiritual exploration. They believe in God "but with the mystery of God we dare not dally." They think "silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death." The poet addresses God as "O Thou transcendent,/ Nameless," as the source of light and cosmic design and a "moral, spiritual fountain." Whitman "shrivels at the thought of God,/At Nature and its wonders," but he expects the soul to bring about a harmonious reconciliation with these forces. When the soul accomplishes its journey and confronts God, it will be as if it had found an older brother. It will finally melt "in fondness in his arms."
The last two sections of this poem are marked by an upsurge of spiritual thought and an ecstatic experience. The poet and his soul, like two lovers, are united in harmony. They seek the mystical experience of union with God. The poet reflects on the nature of God as a transcendental deity. By comprehending God, the poet is enabled to comprehend himself and also man's complex relationship with time, space, and death. The soul is eternal and establishes its relationship with time. The soul is vast and expansive and thus forms a relationship with space. The soul is alive forever and thus conquers death.
In section 8, the poet and his soul together seek to perceive the Divine Reality. Both eagerly await a mystical experience of union with God, of merging with the Divine Being. God is conceived of as a "fountain" or "reservoir" and this image is similar to the basic metaphor of water, which is necessary to nourish the greenery" of Leaves of Grass.
In section 9, the journey which the soul embarks on is a passage to more than India." It is a challenging spiritual journey. Whitman asks the soul if it is ready: "Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?" The passage to the divine shores, to the "aged fierce enigmas," and to the "strangling problems" is filled with difficulty and "skeletons, that, living, never reach'd you" — but it is a thrilling journey. The poet, fired by the spirit of Columbus, is intent on seeking an "immediate passage" because "the blood burns in my veins." He "will risk . . . all" in this bold and thrilling adventure; but actually it is safe enough, for are they not all the seas of God"? Thus the passage to India — and more — is a journey of man through the seas of God in search of an ideal. It is marked by intense spiritual passion.
This last section presents the final evolution of the symbol of India, which began as a geographical entity and culminated in a timeless craving of man for the realization of God. The words "passage" and "India" both have an evolving symbolic meaning and significance in this richly evocative poem and the growth of their meanings is indirectly the growth of the poem itself.