Themes in Leaves of Grass
Whitman's major concern was to explore, discuss, and celebrate his own self, his individuality and his personality. Second, he wanted to eulogize democracy and the American nation with its achievements and potential. Third, he wanted to give poetical expression to his thoughts on life's great, enduring mysteries — birth, death, rebirth or resurrection, and reincarnation.
To Whitman, the complete self is both physical and spiritual. The self is man's individual identity, his distinct quality and being, which is different from the selves of other men, although it can identify with them. The self is a portion of the one Divine Soul. Whitman's critics have sometimes confused the concept of self with egotism, but this is not valid. Whitman is constantly talking about "I," but the "I" is universal, a part of the Divine, and therefore not egotistic.
The Body and the Soul
Whitman is a poet of both these elements in man, the body and the soul. He thought that we could comprehend the soul only through the medium of the body. To Whitman, all matter is as divine as the soul; since the body is as sacred and as spiritual as the soul, when he sings of the body or its performances, he is singing a spiritual chant.
Whitman shares the Romantic poet's relationship with nature. To him, as to Emerson, nature is divine and an emblem of God. The universe is not dead matter, but full of life and meaning. He loves the earth, the flora and fauna of the earth, the moon and stars, the sea, and all other elements of nature. He believes that man is nature's child and that man and nature must never be disjoined.
Whitman's concept of the ideal poet is, in a way, related to his ideas on time. He conceives of the poet as a time-binder, one who realizes that the past, present, and future are "not disjoined, but joined," that they are all stages in a continuous flow and cannot be considered as separate and distinct. These modem ideas of time have given rise to new techniques of literary expression — for example, the stream-of-consciousness viewpoint.
Whitman believed that the cosmos, or the universe, does not consist merely of lifeless matter; it has awareness. It is full of life and filled with the spirit of God. The cosmos is God and God is the cosmos; death and decay are unreal. This cosmic consciousness is, indeed, one aspect of Whitman's mysticism.
Mysticism is an experience that has a spiritual meaning which is not apparent to the senses nor to the intellect. Thus mysticism, an insight into the real nature of man, God, and the universe, is attained through one's intuition. The mystic believes in the unity of God and man, man and nature, God and the universe. To a mystic, time and space are unreal, since both can be overcome by man by spiritual conquest. Evil, too, is unreal, since God is present everywhere. Man communicates with his soul in a mystical experience, and Whitman amply expresses his responses to the soul in Leaves of Grass, especially in "Song of Myself." He also expresses his mystical experience of his body or personality being permeated by the supernatural. Whitman's poetry is his artistic expression of various aspects of his mystical experience.
Whitman deals with death as a fact of life. Death in life is a fact, but life in death is a truth for Whitman; he is thus a poet of matter and of spirit.
Transcendentalism, which originated with German philosophers, became a powerful movement in New England between 1815 and 1836. Emerson's Nature (1836) was a manifesto of American transcendental thought. It implied that the true reality is the spirit and that it lies beyond the reach or realm of the senses. The area of sensory perceptions must be transcended to reach the spiritual reality. American transcendentalism accepted the findings of contemporary science as materialistic counterparts of spiritual achievement. Whitman's "Passage to India" demonstrates this approach. The romanticist in Whitman is combined with the transcendentalist in him. His quest for transcendental truths is highly individualistic and therefore his thought, like Emerson's, is often unsystematic and prophetic.
Whitman used the term "personalism" to indicate the fusion of the individual with the community in an ideal democracy. He believed that every man at the time of his birth receives an identity, and this identity is his "soul." The soul, finding its abode in man, is individualized, and man begins to develop his personality. The main idea of personalism is that the person is the be-all of all things; it is the source of consciousness and the senses. One is because God is; therefore, man and God are one — one personality. Man's personality craves immortality because it desires to follow the personality of God. This idea is in accord with Whitman's notion of the self. Man should first become himself, which is also the way of coming closer to God. Man should comprehend the divine soul within him and realize his identity and the true relationship between himself and God. This is the doctrine of personalism.
Whitman had a deep faith in democracy because this political form of government respects the individual. He thought that the genius of the United States is best expressed in the common people, not in its executive branch or legislature, or in its churches or law courts. He believed that it is the common folk who have a deathless attachment to freedom. His attitudes can be traced to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century because he thought that the source of evil lay in oppressive social institutions rather than in human nature. The function of literature is to break away from the feudal past of man and artistically to urge the democratic present. Princes and nobles hold no charm for Whitman; he sings of the average, common man. He follows Emerson in applauding the doctrine of the "divine average" and of the greatness of the commonplace. A leaf of grass, to Whitman, is as important as the heavenly motion of the stars. Whitman loves America, its panoramic scenery and its processional view of diverse, democratically inclined people. He loved, and reveled in, the United States as a physical entity, but he also visualized it as a New World of the spirit. Whitman is a singer of the self as well as a trumpeter of democracy because he believes that only in a free society can individuals attain self-hood.
Whitman emphasized individual virtue, which he believed would give rise to civic virtue. He aimed at improving the masses by first improving the individual, thus becoming a true spiritual democrat. His idea of social and political democracy — that all men are equal before the law and have equal rights — is harmonized with his concept of spiritual democracy — that people have immense possibilities and a measureless wealth of latent power for spiritual attainment. In fact, he bore with the failings of political democracy primarily because he had faith in spiritual democracy, in creating and cultivating individuals who, through comradeship, would contribute to the ideal society. This view of man and society is part of Whitman's poetic program.