"Song of the Broad-Axe" expresses Walt Whitman's fundamental ideas and his basic means of poetic expression through the use of complex symbolism. Initially the broadaxe signifies the constructive and creative spirit of the pioneers, their great zest and initiative, which led to the opening of the West in America. But it also implies and embodies the processes of mystic evolution. This evolution will ultimately assert the supremacy of good over evil. Individuality is the hallmark of man in Whitman's view, and yet he believes man to be part of the vast mass of mankind. This view of man extends to Whitman's notion of America and the American. The symbol of the broadaxe thus becomes the symbol of the growth and development of American society and of America, which is multifarious and yet a single nation. The broadaxe exemplifies the unity in diversity which is a significant quality of American society. It also symbolizes the mystic growth of man which inspires and sustains him and civilization in general.
The broadaxe is introduced in the first section. It is a "shapely" weapon, "naked," and pale. Its head is derived from the bowels of Mother Earth. Its wood is likened to limb and flesh. The axe is leaning on the grass: "To be lean'd and to lean on" are its primary functions.
The broadaxe is the principal image throughout this dramatic poem, and its various aspects are presented in quick succession. It is first seen as a physical object. It has the shape of a weapon. Next, it is given a human identity as it is linked to its " mother's bowels." Third, the axe is identified with nature, as its head is compared to a leaf. The reference to "head" implies human attributes, too -specifically, the power of thought.
In the second section the poet extends his welcome to "all earth's lands" of whatever kind — lands whereon grow the pine, oak, lemon, fig, wheat, or grape. The lands which produce cotton are as welcome as those which yield potatoes. The "lands of mines" are also welcome; it is they which yield the ore to produce the axe. This description of the diversity of lands stresses the relationship between the axe and the earth. The earth is desolate in part, but the axe is always creative. The poet also repeats the principle of unity in diversity in his description of various types of lands. Some lands are productive while others are desolate and barren, yet all are parts of the earth. All the lands share in the poet's all-inclusive vision.
The third section of the poem tells of the many uses of the broadaxe. The axe helps man to build a "sylvan hut" and to get "the space clear'd for a garden." And it also builds cities. It represents a beginning, "the outset anywhere," the spirit of those "who sought a New England and found it." It is of use to "the butcher in the slaughter-house, the hands aboard schooners," and the "lumbermen in their winter camp." The poet describes a house being built, ships being built, and "the blazing fire at night" being enjoyed — all because of the axe. The poet describes how the broadaxe is made. Then he talks about the past, when primitive workers used the axe for building and when soldiers used it in combat. The broadaxe was used in the sack and seige of cities in ancient times. It symbolized "the hell of war, the cruelties of creeds," and the lust for power among men.
The "Song of the Broad-Axe" reveals Whitman's concept of mystic evolution. In this mystical process, good is mixed with evil, but good will triumph ultimately. The broadaxe is associated with the elements of darkness, but ultimately the spirit of the pioneers which it represents will assert itself.
This third section is a fine example of Whitman's use of the catalog; in a series of pictures, a pageant of users and uses of the axe is presented. The poet's intention is to demonstrate "the beauty of all adventurous and daring persons"-the ordinary people who built this country. Whitman's ability to paint word pictures is revealed in the diversity of the scenes describing these workmen, scenes in which he includes both past and present. The uses of the broadaxe are destructive as well as constructive. "The crash and cut away of connecting wood-work" shows the destructive use of the axe (in this case, firefighting); in addition, ancient warriors used the axe as a weapon. But whether it is used to create or destroy, the axe is effective essentially because it sets the world of action in motion and in this way participates in the mystic evolution of the universe.
Section 4 celebrates "muscle and pluck forever." These are the sources of power behind the action of the axe. Whitman asks rhetorical questions: "What do you think endures?" Do great cities, manufacturing states, constitutions, or armaments endure? The answer is that these are not important in themselves and will not endure unless they are expressions of "personal qualities." The whole world is a show and "the show passes." Only the city that is great, "which has the greatest men and women" — even if it consists only of ragged huts — that city will be "the greatest city in the whole world."
In this section there is a shift of emphasis from the material to the spiritual. Action "invigorates life," but it also "invigorates death." The axe is not even mentioned in this section, but it is indirectly associated with physical action. Physical action and spiritual vigor are interlinked and are both forms of human endeavor. The poet's view that "the living" and "the dead" advance in their own way shows the mystic progression of time and the unfolding of evolution. What endures is the action of great men and women. It is only the great (symbolized by the spirit of the broadaxe) who give meaning and spiritual significance to actions and events in this world.
In section 5 the poet explains the constituents and characteristics of a great city. A great city is not made merely of long docks, tall and costly buildings, and good libraries and schools, nor is it the "place of the most numerous population." A real city is a place "where the slave ceases"; where "fierce men and women pour forth"; where "equanimity is illustrated in affairs"; and where "speculations on the soul are encouraged." The great city stands where "the cleanliness of the sexes stands" and where the "faithfulest friends" stand. Such a city is beloved by its "orators and bards" and "loves them in return."
In enumerating the characteristics and elements which make a great city, Whitman is restating some of his fundamental ideas — for instance, his opposition to slavery, his belief in "inside authority" and in the "cleanliness of the sexes." These beliefs are central to Whitman's credo and are expressed in other poems, such as "Song of Myself" and the poems in Children of Adam.
Whitman says, in section 6, that "a defiant deed" defeats all "beggarly" arguments and conquers "the materials of cities." A "strong being" who embodies the power of the race is the master of old materials and customs. The value of a community is therefore represented by its strong men and women rather than by its respectability or money-making capacity. Without strong people, what use are "theology . . . traditions [and] statute-books"?
Whitman does not think that the strong person is a tyrant; he is, rather, a spiritual leader. This leader raises his voice and power against all materialistic domination, and "the floridness of the materials of cities" is overcome by his innate spiritual energy. He is a nonconformist since he goes against the prevailing tide of materialistic gain. He is thus a representative of the spirit of the broadaxe.
Section 7 describes a barren landscape wherein the miners work. The miners and smiths produce the axe. The broadaxe has served man and mankind over the centuries. It has "served the Hebrew, the Persian, the most ancient Hindustanee," as well as the druids" and "the hardy pirates of the Baltic." It has "served all great works on land and all great works on the sea." It has served the living and the dead.
Whereas in earlier sections the broadaxe symbolized individuality, in this section it stands for unity. It unites the ancient age with the modern age. It serves the ends of pleasure as well as those of war. It also serves the dead, since it is used for making coffins. Thus it is a link between two worlds. Whitman emphasizes the unifying role of the broadaxe in the history of civilization.
In section 8, "the European headsman" is described as mask'd, clothed in red," and leaning "on a ponderous axe." His axe, fresh from slaughter, drips with the blood of his victims. The poet imagines these martyrs, including people who rose in revolt and "died for the good cause." Now the scaffold is empty, and Whitman sees "the headsman withdraw and become useless." The axe is the "mighty and friendly emblem of power" of a new race — the Americans.
Whitman's faith in the nineteenth-century concept of progress through continual human endeavor is revealed in this section. The dawn of democracy was preceded by the darkness of feudal oppression and injustice. Man's advance toward democracy was marked by intense struggles in which many valiant fighters lost their lives. But they had faith in their cause, which eventually succeeded. The broadaxe becomes the sign and symbol of this evolutionary process. It becomes the "emblem of the power," says Whitman, "of my own race."
In section 9, Whitman describes how "the axe leaps" to its work and the forests surrender to its power. The axe builds citadels, academies, ceilings, organs, windows, panels, chairs, workboxes, "boat, frame, and what not." Hospitals and steamboats are built with the aid of the axe. Many people use the axe.
There are three clear divisions in this section. First, the role of the axe in construction work is concrete proof of the advances of man and civilization. This program is especially relevant to American society since "capitols of States" are its visible proof. The forests are "solid," the utterances are "fluid," and their combination indicates the coming together of the material and the spiritual. Second, attention is focused on the multifarious users of the axe, whose "shapes," the forms it makes, are described. Third, the poet speaks of the importance of communications, like bridges, to suggest another utility of the axe. The idea of transportation, or passage, is significant in Whitman's poetry.
Whitman continues, in section 10, his description of the shapes formed by the axe. The image of the "coffin-shape" is followed by that of "the bride's bed" and "the babe's cradle." The axe also creates roofs over happy homes, such as that of "the well-married young man and woman." On the other hand, "the shape of the prisoner's place in the court-room" and the couch of the "adulterous unwholesome couple" are also products of the axe. The axe produces "the door that admits good news and bad news."
The function and the role of the broadaxe characterize the whole cycle of life and death, from the cradle to the coffin. The axe symbolizes the coexistence of good and evil. For example, the picture of the chaste wife is contrasted with that of the adulterous couple. The symbol of the door is morally ambivalent; it is characterized by both good and evil. In this way the axe becomes a complex moral symbol.
In section 11, the shape of a woman rises. She is a striking figure. She moves among the "gross and soil"d" yet is not soiled by them. She is "considerate," "friendly," and "the best belov'd," and she has no fears. She maintains her poise despite "quarrels" and "smutty expressions" because she is self-possessed. She is "strong" because "she too is a law of Nature."
This impressive personality is Whitman's New Woman. She is highly individualistic and yet well adjusted to the poet's concept of a democratic society. But her relationship with her environment is not always harmonious, although her self-possession prevents evil from harming her. Through this woman, the motif of the broadaxe as a symbol of mystic evolution is realized and strengthened.
In section 12, the poet refers to the rise of the "shapes of Democracy," the outcome of centuries of human endeavor. These shapes will inspire other shapes; eventually, the democratic shapes will cover the whole world.
This is the culmination of the poet's vision of the axe: it has now become the symbol of the total and full democracy. The concept of the "shape" is contrasted with that of formlessness. The "shape" is creative, purposive, individualistic, and it grows in terms of time and space; it is part of a cycle and also a proof of progress. The poet's vision reveals his concept of democracy and his belief that the whole world will be united in harmony, peace, and love. This is man's dream of the future, and the broadaxe becomes the symbol of that unrealized dream.