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November 17, 2009

Whitman, a Voice of American Democracy


Walt Whitman is a great poet of democracy. Indeed, he may be the greatest. As Thoreau said, Whitman “is apparently the greatest democrat the world has ever seen.” Specifically speaking, he is perhaps the greatest poet of the culture of democracy. He writes the best phrases and sentences about democracy. To describe democratic culture we may take into account the following ideas:

First, democratic culture is the soil for the creation of new works of highly artistic poems and moral writings, in particular.

Second, democratic culture is a distinctive stylization of life-that is, a particular set of appearances, habits, rituals, dress, ceremonies, folk traditions, and historical memories.

Third, democratic culture is the soil for the emergence of great souls whose greatness consists in themselves being like works of art in the spirit of a new aristocracy.

All these ideas are interconnected and appear in Whitman’s writings throughout his life. But, in our judgment, Whitman’s democratic individuality is a greatly more powerful and original idea than any of the other ideas of democratic culture that we have just mentioned. Democracy for Whitman means the assertion of one’s individuality as well as equality with others. In his view all men are equal and all professions are equally honourable. 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.

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,

By God! I will Accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

This is Whitman's expression of the idea of democracy taken from "Song of Myself." In this all-encompassing interpretation Whitman says that the freedom offered by democracy is for all not a chosen few. It included all people, not renouncing those of other races, creeds, or social standings.

Whitman celebrates no individual person, nor does he celebrate himself. Though he often says “I celebrate myself”, the self celebration throughout is celebration of himself as a man and an American. The “I” in Whitman’s poetry is not only the individual, but collective ego of humanity (universal). This “I” is an imaginative and sympathetic identification of himself with every other individual (average American). This feeling of “oneness” strongly asserts Whitman’s faith in democracy. In “Song of Myself” Whitman constructs a democratic “I,” a voice which stands not only for himself but also for all average men. The poet opines that he sings for himself, and, as he finds complete identity between himself and others, in singing himself he is also singing for others. He is confident that his beliefs and ideas are also the beliefs and ideas of others, and what belongs to him also belongs to others. Every particle and every element of which he is made has also gone into the making of others. In other words, the poet derives his ego-centric self confidence from the pantheistic faith that the inner essence of all is one and indivisible:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman has a sense of identity not only with man but with all leaving creatures. Whitman’s sense of “oneness of all” makes his democracy universal and pantheistic. The basic emotion in Whitman’s lyricism is a feeling of kinship between all creations, which is evinced in the section 6 of the poem “Song of Myself”. Here, it is the simple spear of grass that becomes the symbol of democracy. According to the poet the grass knows no discrimination. It grows all places. It grows in broad zones and also in narrow zones. It loves equality. It grow among black people as well among the white, Knauck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Chuff, etc. It gives them the same delight. It regards them all as equal.

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 programme.

Not only in his ides is Whitman democratic, but his poetic technique too reflects his democratic impulse. It is significant that he rejects the conventional forms of poetry which he left to be associated with its feudalistic and aristocratic past. His freedom with poetic form reflects his advocacy of freedom for the human soul. The free flow of words, the lines of uneven length, all express the sense of development inherent democracy.

In short, Whitman is undoubtedly the most authentic voice of the United States of America. His art is one mode of the totality of American discourse; thus, in asserting a new democratic identity through poetry, Whitman actively asserts a new democratic identity for American politics and culture.
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