Posts Tagged ‘whitman is God?’

Jen’s Bridge to the Blog 1/24/2013

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Although I am a reader who does not typically give an unnecessary amount of attention to authorial intent, I have concluded that one cannot read “Song of Myself” without understanding the historical context in which Whitman wrote, as well as giving thought to his political and social agenda. As with most literature, “Song of Myself” is a response to historical events. As we have discussed in class, Whitman was writing during a time in which the union was being threatened—people were forgetting about the democratic values on which the country was founded and society was increasingly plagued by evils like slavery and “the mania of owning things” (line 688).

I believe that Whitman thought it was his duty as a poet to address these social ills, rectify the material body and the spiritual soul, and bring society back to a state of faith. In class, we have talked about Whitman as a prophet-like figure who brings a spiritually important message to the American people. In this way, “Song of Myself” becomes what we learned is referred to as a “jeremiad,” a long work that laments society’s wrongs named for the prophet Jeremiah. When pointing toward his society’s verge of spiritual collapse, I think that Whitman makes it clear that his message is about egalitarianism and democracy, values which he saw as the unifying forces needed to mend the ever-thinning ties that held the nation together. In fact, in a very prophetic moment, Whitman says, “I give the sign of democracy;/ By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on/ the same terms.” As we discussed today, his message of equality can also be seen in his use of parataxis in listing the “common” people of America. In all, there seems to be strong evidence for this theory of Whitman as prophet.

However, we have also gone further and touched on the idea of Whitman as a Christ figure, especially when he refers to his own “crucifixion and bloody crowning” (960). When Dr. Scanlon asked us at the end of class about our thoughts on Whitman’s repetition of the “I am…” mantra (beginning with “I am the hounded slave…” in line 834), I immediately thought of the phrase as an allusion to Christ’s frequent use of the phrase to describe both his humanity and divinity (e.g. “I am the Bread of Life.” “I am the Way”). In addition, according to Christian tradition, “I Am” was the first name of God. However, I wonder if Whitman, in light of his democratic message, wants to highlight the divinity of one man or entity. Instead, his message often seems to be that of pantheism—the belief that God is found in all people and things and that everyone and everything are equally divine. Thus, there definitely seems to be some tension between Whitman’s desire to be prophetic and reformist and his simultaneous desire to reinforce the values of American egalitarianism. Essentially, this is my question: How can Whitman claim to have this sense of prophetic or divine authority without subverting his own argument that no one person should be subordinate to another?