Thursday, March 15, 2007


Kill the Buddha:

Two Ecocritical Readings of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, in his one book Leaves of Grass, was prolific, covering sexuality and the body, travel and growth, the poetic call, death and fear, the land, patriotism, and his nation. Much of what he wrote is nearly inseparable from his environment; it was deeply tied to his own ideology, a reflection of himself. Whitman saw himself as a sort of prophet, a bard whose great task was to awaken the spirit of his nation. As a poet, he was answering a call first posed by Emerson in his essay “The Poet”:

We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admired in Homer, [ . . . ] Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination and it will not wait long for metres. (221-222)

To sing America in all its vicissitudes and grandeur would be Whitman’s literary quest, and this makes him especially open to an ecocritical reading. He painted the picture of America, both the land and the nation, to be read by its people and thus be inspired themselves. This essay will look at Whitman from ecocritical perspectives, showing two variations of interpretation, two levels of understanding, which are both ecocritical, but stylistically variant. The first is more traditional, looking at Whitman’s form and content, text and context. The second, however, will delve deeper into his ideology and beliefs, how these understanding are visible and essential to the poetry Whitman creates.

Two poems that encourage the first style of ecocritical interpretation are “Song of the Redwood-tree” and “Song of Exposition.” If we understand ecocritical exegesis as “the relationship between literature and the physical environment,” then these poems address this relationship in both form and content, and in both text and context (Glotfelty xviii). First, Whitman uses a characteristic long line, often spilling over onto the next. Little end rhyme or meter. In “Song of Exposition,” he writes,

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,

Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,

That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,

Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus,

Repeat at Jerusalem, place the notice high on Jaffa’s gate and on Mount Moriah,

The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections,

For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you. (159)

The rhyme is mostly internal, alliteration, assonance, half-rhyme, and word repetition. Whitman’s verse has a flow, an internal rhythm, a rising and falling sound like gentle sea-waves. Leaves of Grass became the prototype of what is now called free verse—a style that doesn’t observe traditional poetics, poetics that were then the dominant forms of his day. This “free” verse style is congruous with the content as well as the message Whitman wished to convey. As D. H. Lawrence states, “the function of art is moral”—but not for Walt (171). For Lawrence, “[Whitman] was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something ‘superior’ and ‘above’ the flesh” (171). Whitman was freeing Americans to what he believed was a bigger world, the new America.

Like the form, the content is free and natural as well. Whitman uses “Songs” of “the open road,” birds, trees, and himself create his poems. The settings are invariably rural or woodsy, though often memories or projections of the author’s mind. Even in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” as he celebrates Manhattan, he does it by natural means:

Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me that mast-hemn’d Manhattan?

River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide?

The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter? (132)

Instead of looking at the city, he turns to the water, the undivided and unordered river and sea. These are worth celebrating, and these make up the bulk of Whitman’s content and text.

But many would argue that the context of Whitman’s writing was not nearly so simple or innocent. In his dissertation on “The Politics of Epistemology in American and Native American Literature,” David Moore cites numerous critics of Whitman who might agree that he has “a dialectical epistemology inadequate to deal with plurality, whether hopeless or fruitful” (Moore 102). Whitman lived in the time of slavery, racism, the subjugation of Native Americans, the proliferation of industry—and none of this, or the consequences thereof, seemed “to prove a fit subject for Whitman’s powerful poetics” (Moore 101).

It must be true that Whitman didn’t deal with plurality directly. Perhaps Walt could have written a great poem on the plight of the Native American. Why was the Native American not worthy of the “Sympathy” that D. H. Lawrence derisively deems as Whitman’s essential motif? The answer, I believe, rests more clearly in my second interpretation: Whitman’s ideology. Whitman would say that his goal was more ambitious, more grandiose than helping any one group in particular. D. H. Lawrence writes of Whitman’s doctrine:

A doctrine of life. A new great morality. A morality of actual living, not of salvation. [. . .] America to this day is deathly sick with saviourism. But Whitman, the great and the first and the only American teacher, was no Saviour. His morality was no morality of salvation. His was a morality of the soul living her life, not saving herself. [. . .] He is the first white aboriginal. (172-173)

Lawrence claims that it wasn’t Whitman’s intent to deal directly with the plurality of his time. As we will see later, his work addresses the underpinnings of these issues more circuitously. Where he apparently doesn’t deal with such issues as slavery directly, he does subvert them indirectly through his ideology.

Having noted this characteristic in Whitman, there are examples to the contrary. The growth and expansion of the U.S. or “America” was a point of pride and honor to Walt. In “Song of Exposition” and “Song of the Redwood-tree,” the reader can sense a love for the land at the same instant Whitman speaks of destroying it. In “Redwood-tree,” Whitman speaks to the usurped land: “Farewell my brethren / Farewell O earth and sky,” alluding to the new era that was dawning on the West Coast in the form of this new country “America,” which is the context of the poems, or more specifically, manifest destiny (167). This passion for his country and its growth are juxtaposed with his love for nature. The relationship borders on paradox. In “Redwood-tree,” the reader can sense Whitman’s love for the natural world through his connection to it; Whitman can hear “the death-chant chanting” of the dying redwoods (167). This ability to hear the redwoods implies a sort of bond to them. He gives them consciousness. In their own voice:

I too have consciousness,


And all the rocks and mountains have, and all the earth, Joys of the life befitting me and brothers mine,

Our time, our term has come. (168)

From the voice of the trees America inherits the land. The western coast isn’t so much usurped as it is granted to America in song, and Whitman is the ambassador to receive it and write it. Americans are the “superber race,” the natural descendants, and manifest destiny is a sort of natural ordination (Whitman 168).

In “Song of Exposition,” he calls the muse to America, “the empire new,” so that she may help him sing about “a palace, loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet, / Earth’s modern wonder, history’s seven outstripping” (168, 161). He is the true patriot of America and accepts the environmental damage as, oddly, a natural progression. He writes with the passion of a man who believes he is living in the greatest land, in the greatest country in history: “history’s seven outstripping” (Whitman 161). The muse is called away from “immensely overpaid accounts,” meaning Greece, Rome, and the western tradition as a whole. America to him is truly the new world, the new paradigm of humanity, but it is growing on the stumps of the fallen redwood trees. This natural cost is not too high for Whitman, but, again, naturally ordained.

The land is bountiful, with “limitless crops,” “incalculable lumber, beef, pork, potatoes, thy coal, thy gold / and silver, / The inexhaustible iron in thy mines” (165). His tendency to list is another characteristic of his form. Clearly, Whitman was not immune to the narrow vision of his time: exploitation, not conservation. He believed in his people, his nation, and in his land’s ability to yield resources and surplus. Perhaps his idealism was not balanced by his pragmatism. The idea was manifest destiny. America bordered on the divine, and its harvest was limitless.

Today, the reader may read this philosophy in different ways. Environmentalists will be skeptical because the harm of such a worldview is now clearly evident. In attempting to grasp the plurality of his time, it appears he may have missed the mark. Whitman underestimated the greed and amorality of his fellow Americans; his ideology never manifested in reality. Not everyone loved the land the way he did, nor did the growth of our nation ever balance itself with the waning health of our natural environment.

This analysis of Whitman is congruent to my understanding of an ecocritical literary analysis. I have tentatively sketched the relationship between America and the land it was founded upon—the relationship as Whitman saw it. This relationship has been portrayed as primarily socioeconomic, i.e. his patriotism and belief in manifest destiny. But if this were the only reading of Whitman, it would be shallow and miss the force of Whitman which lies beneath his representations.

I have already hinted, and lightly discussed that there is another way to understand Whitman ecocritically: through his ideology, and it is this reading which presents what Walt would have considered the true content of his poetry. For Walt Whitman, his lines weren’t wholly about trees, manifest destiny, “America;” he didn’t disregard the Native American or the slave because they didn’t appear as images or words in the songs, but the song was sung for them, to them, and by them—it is their song as it is my song.

The relationship between the author and his reader is synonymous with the relationship between him and the land: it is a primary relationship, solidarity, a brotherhood, a relationship not common to many authors. He writes:

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is, [. . .]

I am at peace about God and about death.

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. [. . .]

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find the letters of God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name, (70-71)

Walt sees himself as a god and everyone else a god with him. The world itself is divine and death is divine. For Whitman, this means that his celebration of the world and himself is a celebration for all, an uplifting of the American spirit.

This analysis could be called a “deep” ecocritical reading. It is analogous to the relationship of a Tibetan Buddhist to the universe, not in the sense of nothingness, but in the concept of the universe as a mirror of oneself. Whitman’s spirituality and ideology can be understood through a deep ecocritical lens.

A “deep” ecocritical reading of “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” shows Whitman’s essential connectedness to the natural world. His awareness of his literary vocation is awakened in him through nature:

Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? Or is it really to me?

For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,

Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,

And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful that yours,

A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die. (204)

The song of the “mocking-bird” who lost his mate was so sorrowful, so powerful and moving that all Whitman’s “own songs awoke from that hour” (205). Nature was the vehicle for his coming into himself as a professional man. But the connection is still much deeper than this. Both “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” share the common theme of “Death, death, death, death, death” (205). This word, “superior to all,” is the essence of Whitman’s strength (204). Knowledge of this word lifts him “out of the cradle” and into the Platonic light (200). The knowledge and understanding of death empower Whitman’s life and letters.

Death, the most obvious and fearful of all natural processes, was so central to Whitman’s writing that it is impossible to conceive his poetry without it. This centrality is correlated to the centrality that it held in his own philosophy. “The smallest sprout shows that there is really no death” (27). Life was a cycle with no knowable beginning or end: “And now [the grass] seems to me the lovely uncut hair of graves” (26). Life comes out of death and death out of life. This was a great confidence to Whitman--he lived as though he wasn’t afraid to die. He wrote, “Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it” (27). He believed in the immortality of the soul and this was a subtle current beneath all of his work (38). If you can free yourself from the fear of death, then likewise you become free to live.

This knowledge gleaned from nature empowered his selfhood. He took to the “Open Road” and “learned the secret of the making of the best persons, / It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth” (119, 121). Where Whitman is no conservationist – he is a pantheist. He saw himself as “taking the exact dimensions of Jehovah,” but he “would fetch you whoever you are flush with [him]self” (61, 63). All things were holy.

This immensity of spirit, his capacity to praise and to exalt, is really the fundamental energy behind Whitman’s writing. He wouldn’t write lines like, “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” if he wasn’t a pundit and wasn’t sincere in his efforts to exalt his readers as well as himself (69). “Kill the Buddha” is a Zen Buddhist proverb with the same aim and the same understanding. Whitman attempted to empower his desired readers, the laborers, his fellow country-men, by awakening them to themselves, freeing them from fear. By himself overcoming the natural fear of death, he achieved a certain freedom that he equated with spiritual power. This power was his message and his theme - not the environment, not the issues that were present in his time; the environment was his source and vehicle; his writing, to him was eternal—not bound by the issues of his day, but open to all to hear.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Class Handout.

Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm. eds. Ecocriticism

Reader. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1923.

Moore, David. “Native Knowing: The Politics of

Epistemology in American and Native American

Literature.” Diss. U. of Washington, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Self analysis:

Time and stress. I have been unable to give this paper time and thought. I have been stressed, ill, busy, and tired. I could have done much more research. Thought alone would have helped me gain a clearer perception of what I wished to achieve with this piece. I only vaguely address the essential “So what?” question. For this reason I feel I have failed to be compelling, the string that is meant to lace the essay together is barely evident, the movement is at times obscure.

I could use much more outside evidence to place this work in the framework of other pieces written similarly, building on what they have done and failed to do.

I am most disappointed in the amount of thought that has gone into the work. It is not my best but the best I could do. I am not upset about it. I feel it stands up, has enough clarity and persuasion to be at least somewhat provocative. I do love Whitman.

And while I have the chance, thank you for a great class. Lots of good reading and discussion. Have a Merry Christmas. –Jonah.

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