In this chapter we will focus on Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, examining it from the perspective of Pure Consciousness Mysticism. We will also look at how Whitman represents the possible development of what can be termed nature mysticism, and to help understand the particular embraciveness of Whitman's work we will also look at the ideas of the modern British mystics Douglas Harding. Whitman is generally known as a poet, and perhaps one of the best American poets of the 19th Century, but with no particular religious emphasis. The poets and authors of the beat generation (Jack Kerouak and Allen Ginsberg for example) are sometimes seen as his inheritors, but they have only taken some of the outward imagery, mainly that of the open road. It was his contemporary, Richard Maurice Bucke, who, more than anyone, saw a mystic dimension to Whitman and cited him in his book Cosmic Consciousness1 as the best example of his kind, though he was often ridiculed for his enthusiasm for this cosmic dimension in Whitman (R.C. Zaehner called him fatuous and silly2).
A good reason for English-speaking readers to immerse themselves in Leaves of Grass is that it is in the original, in an English only slightly removed from contemporary usage. The Gita suffers from being written in Sanskrit, a language which is not spoken today, and is reputed to be of great subtlety and poetry, and especially suited to expressions of the transcendent. This means that one is to a great degree at the mercy of the translator, whose personality one is indirectly encountering when reading the Gita. I have three translations, which goes some way to reducing the vagaries of an individual translator, but cannot compensate for not reading it in the original. No such problem exists with Leaves of Grass: you are meeting Walt Whitman directly, and some of the problems of interpretation of Leaves are in fact just because of the deliberate attempt by Whitman to be present in his book. Gay Wilson Allen points this out in the introduction to his definitive modern biography of Whitman, citing this verse:
Comrade, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we alone?),
It is I you hold and who holds you.3
We also have many accounts from his contemporaries of Whitman the man, the most notable being two biographies, one by Bucke published in 18834, and another by the naturalist John Burroughs in 18945. The English social reformer Edward Carpenter also wrote from personal experiences of Whitman6, as did the American writer, William Douglas O'Connor, in a polemic defence of Whitman7.
While Bucke and (to a lesser extent) Burroughs and Carpenter saw Whitman as an archetypal mystic others were less sure: Evelyn Underhill considered that Whitman, 'amongst modern men possessed in a supreme degree the permanent sense of the glory, the "light rare, untellable, lighting the very light"' (this quote is from 'The Prayer of Columbus' in Leaves). But she could not call him a pure mystic, not possessing the full form of illumination.8 William James included Whitman in a chapter of his Varieties of Religious Experience entitled 'The Religion of the Healthy-Minded'. James was influenced by Bucke (which Zaehner seemed to regret), but lamented the lack in Whitman of Greek clarity about good and evil:
"Just as here cruelty and sympathy ring true, and do not mix or interfere with one another, so did the Greeks and Romans keep all their sadnesses and gladnesses unmingled and entire. ... Walt Whitman's verse, 'What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as perfect', would have been mere silliness to them". 9
Whatever James found laudable in this respect in the Greeks, he found missing in Whitman's 'outpourings'. Whitman appears too brash; "his gospel has a touch of bravado and an affected twist". Zaehner, a more recent writer on mysticism, classed Whitman with the 'nature mystics', more of which later.
2.2 Whitman's Life
Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island, USA (Ramakrishna in 1836). His mother was a Quaker and his father a carpenter (a fact sometimes alluded to in Christ-comparisons). Whitman had only a simple education, but became a teacher, a printer's assistant, then editor of various newspapers, and writer of prose and poetry. His mother's Quaker influence, and the natural surroundings of Long Island were undoubted influences on him, but his evolution into the writer of Leaves is unchartable; in the 1984 preface to Gay Wilson Allen's critical biography Allen considers that the secret of this transformation during his early thirties has eluded all the biographers.10 Whitman's instinct for writing led him to publish numerous articles, and some early novels, all of which were so eclipsed by his Leaves that none remain in print today, and are universally considered mediocre. For Bucke however the explanation of the transformation was simple: Whitman had entered cosmic consciousness.
Whitman's habit of mixing with the ordinary folk of Long Island, Manhattan, or wherever he was, gave him the subject matter and broad appeal that the more literary-circle types lacked. He mingled with workmen and took pleasure in doing their work with or for them, in a way that we would find very odd today, with our regimented and bureaucratic world of qualifications and identity passes. He liked to steer the vessels of friendly captains in Brooklyn harbour, but gave up eventually when he nearly caused an accident. He was particularly fond of the Broadway stage[coach] drivers, as he found them 'uncommonly talented' with their horses in the most difficult of thoroughways, and would join them up on the box — he spent the whole of a winter in the 1850s driving a stage for a sick driver, so that the driver 'might lie without starving his family.' Towards the end of the 1850s he was a frequent visitor to the New York Hospital where he looked after disabled drivers. Leaves of Grass brought him notoriety and fame, and through its publication he later met some of the literary notables of his age: Emerson, Thoreau, and Oscar Wilde. In 1861, when Whitman was forty-two, the American Civil War broke out, and Whitman's brother George joined up; he was injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and Walter travelled to be with him. He spent time with the wounded, comforting the injured and dying young soldiers, and also spent much of his spare income (which was small in the first place) on treats for them. At Fredericksburg the field hospitals consisted of shabby tents, where the wounded were lucky if the blankets they lay on had a layer of leaves or grass between them and the hard ground. He not only tended to the wounded but mixed with the soldiers in the camp in his usual informal way and commented that he found himself 'always well used'. A correspondent of the New York Herald wrote this about Whitman's ministrations:
I first heard of him among the sufferers on the Peninsula after a battle there. Subsequently I saw him, time and again, in the Washington hospitals, or wending his way there, with a basket or haversack on his arm, and the strength of beneficience suffusing his face. His devotion surpassed the devotion of woman. It would take a volume to tell of his kindness, tenderness, and thoughtfulness.
Never shall I forget one night when I accompanied him on his rounds through a hospital filled with those wounded young Americans whose heroisms he has sung in deathless numbers. There were three rows of cots, and each cot bore its man. When he appeared, in passing along, there was a smile of affection and welcome on every face, however wan, and his presence seemed to light up the place as it might be lighted by the presence of the God of Love. From cot to cot they called him, often in tremulous tones or whispers; they embraced him; they touched his hand; they gazed at him. To one he gave a few words of cheer; for another he wrote a letter home; to others he gave an orange, a few comfits, a cigar, a pipe and tobacco, a sheet of paper or a postage-stamp, all of which and many other things were in his capacious haversack. From another he would receive a dying message for mother, wife, or sweetheart; for another he would promise to go an errand; to another, some special friend very low, he would give a manly farewell kiss. He did the things for them no nurse or doctor could do, and he seemed to leave a benediction at every cot as he passed along. The lights had gleamed for hours in the hospital that night before he left it, and, as he took his way toward the door, you could hear the voices of many a stricken hero calling, 'Walt, Walt, Walt! come again! come again!' 11
Whitman was greatly affected by these experiences, as the following comments in letters to his mother showed:
Mother, I have real pride in telling you that I have the consciousness of saving quite a number of lives by keeping the men from giving up, and being a good deal with them. The men say it is so, and the doctors say it is so; and I will candidly confess I can see it is true, though I say it myself. I know you will like to hear it, mother so I tell you. 12
In a later letter he says:
Nothing of ordinary misfortune seems as it used to, and death itself has lost all its terrors; I have seen so many cases in which it was so welcome and such a relief. 13
In 1865 he was appointed as a clerk in the Department of the Interior, only to be dismissed shortly afterwards when it was discovered that he was the author of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's friend William Douglas O'Connor published his defence of Whitman and attacked the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, for dismissing him (the pamphlet may have been the first time that the epithet 'The Good Grey Poet' was associated with Whitman). Secretary Harman of the State Department had sacked Whitman from his recent appointment as a clerk for "being the author of an indecent book", and went so far as to say that even if the President had ordered it he would not re-instate him. Bucke reported that a friend had been with Abraham Lincoln when Whitman passed outside the window of the East Room at the White House and described Lincoln's assessment of Whitman as follows. The President asked who he was, and was told that it was Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass. 'Whitman "went by quite slow, with his hands in the breast pockets of his overcoat, a sizeable felt hat on, and his head pretty well up."' The President, 'says nothing, but took a good look until Walt Whitman was quite by. Then he says — (I can't give you his way of saying it but it was quite emphatic and odd) — "Well, he looks like a man." He said it pretty loud, but in a sort of absent way, and with the emphasis on the words I have underscored.'14 Whitman in turn had great respect for the President and on his assassination in April 1865 wrote 'When Lilacs Last in the dooryard Bloom'd', a great elegy for the dead man, and included it amongst a series of poems in the section of Leaves called 'Memories of President Lincoln'.
In 1868 an edited version of Leaves was published in England by William Michael Rossetti. The was read by Anne Gilchrist, widow of Alexander Gilchrist (the biographer of William Blake), who then received the unexpurgated version and becomes one of its champions, leading her to visit Whitman in 1876. Meanwhile, in 1873, and at the age of only 54 Whitman suffered his first paralytic stroke, leaving him lame. His mother died in the same year, and Whitman was now far from the peak of health and good cheer that he described in 'Song of Myself'. He visited Emerson on his sick-bed in 1881, a year before Emerson's death, and in 1882 met Oscar Wilde. In 1883, Richard Maurice Bucke, by now a close friend of Whitman's, published his biography, which included many letters and articles from both hostile and friendly press. In 1884 Whitman was finally able to buy his own house in Mickle Street in Camden, from profits made from Leaves. He lived here until his death in 1892, known to all as the 'Sage of Mickle Street'. It was four years before his death that a second stroke rendered him, at the age of 73, almost immobile, though he continued to receive a stream of visitors, many of them writers.
In chapter two of Bucke's biography he describes Whitman while he was Bucke's guest in Canada, or while travelling, having written the greater part of the biography in the same room as its subject. In fact Whitman was very much against the idea of a biography, but, when Bucke told him that was determined to go ahead and might as well help him get it right, Whitman finally agreed and oversaw its development. According to Bucke Whitman had penetrating blue eyes, ears that were large and handsome: his face was the noblest; he was extraordinarily physically attractive; everyone who met him seemed to love him. That people were drawn to him comes out in 'City of Orgies' (all the following extracts from Leaves are Jerome Loving's edition15):
City of orgies, walks of joys,
Nor to converse with learn'd persons, or bear my share in the soiree or feast;
Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me response to my own — these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.
If this were the only poem by Whitman (and of which I have left out the bulk), one would think it fantasy, but one gradually realises, reading the rest of Leaves, and the impressions Whitman made on his friends, that Whitman loved and was loved on a scale that most of us cannot understand, or at least not outside of a religious context. Bucke describes the impact Whitman had on a friend (who had been reading Leaves) after only some hundred words from the poet: "but shortly after leaving, a state of mental exaltation set in ... compared to slight intoxication by champagne ... or falling in love." The state lasted about six weeks and left a permanent change in the mind of this person.16
Bucke described Whitman's favourite occupation as strolling or sauntering about outdoors, and in company would comment favourably on almost anything, though inclined more to silence. Bucke says:
He never spoke deprecatingly about any nationality or class of men or time in the world's history, or feudalism, or against any trades or occupations — not even against any animals, insects, plants, or inanimate things — nor any of the laws of Nature, or any of the results of those laws, such as illness, deformity or death. He never complains or grumbles either at the weather, pain, illness, or at anything else. He never in conversation, in any company, or under any circumstances, uses language that could be thought indelicate. (Of course he has used language in his poems which has been thought indelicate, but none that is so.) 17
Bucke concluded: "Perhaps, indeed, no man has ever lived who liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman." This is a key insight into the man, and this quality comes over in his poems in such a way that any lengthy immersion in them either provokes this quality in the reader, or leaves them cold and hostile. Whitman liked children, and they him; he made a habit in later life of attending a local school twice a week just to play with the children and tell them stories. It was not unusual on a hot summer's day to find a child fast asleep in his lap in a meadow.
Whitman was fastidiously clean in his body and clothes, though he wore unfashionable and plain garments, with no concessions to the refinements of others. Bucke talks about his physical presence:
"For young and old his touch had a charm that cannot be described, and if it could, then the description could not be believed except by those who know him either personally or through Leaves of Grass. This charm (physiological more than psychological), if understood, would explain the whole mystery of the man and how he produces such effects, not only upon the well, but among the sick and wounded." 18
Bucke recalls a distant relative of Whitman, while agreeing with Bucke's views on Whitman's gentler qualities, was quite conversant with a 'deepest sterness and hauteur' in him, now mastered in older age, 'a combination of hot blood and fighting qualities'.
John Burroughs' descriptions of Whitman echo those of Bucke; Burroughs shared a tent with Whitman in the army, and found him large-looking, always clean, kind, but able to be freezing in his manner, and well able to fend off bores. Burroughs' biography and analysis of Whitman is as unreservedly favourable to him as is Bucke's, but written in a more restrained way, perhaps fitting Burroughs' occupation as a naturalist and writer on nature. Burroughs, like many others, grew to love Leaves over a period, initially nervous that Whitman was the 'poet of evil too'. He commented that no other poet of the era could had given him 'the solid prizes of the Universe', referred to in Whitman's well-known lines:
For your life adhere to me,
(I may have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of that?
Must not Nature be persuaded many time?)
No dainty dolce affettuoso I,
Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck'd, forbidding, I have arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them.
(Starting from Paumanok, v. 15)
Burroughs said of Whitman's appearance:
With all his rank masculinity, there was a curious feminine undertone in him which revealed itself in the quality of his voice, the delicate texture of his skin, the gentleness of his touch and ways, the attraction he had for children and the common people. 19
The sea, too, had laid its hand upon him, as I have already suggested. He never appeared so striking and impressive as when seen upon the beach. His large and tall gray figure looked at home, and was at home upon the shore. The simple, strong, flowing lines of his face, his always clean fresh air, his blue absorbing eyes, his commanding presence, and something pristine and elemental in his whole expression, seemed at once to put him en rapport with the sea. 20
Burroughs tells of a trip in 1879 or '80 where Whitman visited red Indian prisoners in the company of well-known politicians and government officials (yet another example of Whitman's inclination to simply be part of events with which he had no formal business). The sheriff explained to the Indians who the distinguished men were, but they paid little attention as they filed past until Whitman brought up the rear. The old chief looked at him steadily, then extend his hand and said "How." All the other Indians followed suit.21
Edward Carpenter was an English social reformer and prolific writer who visited Whitman twice, once in 1877 and once in 1886. He recorded his first impressions in Days With Walt Whitman.
Meanwhile in that first ten minutes I was becoming conscious of an impression which subsequently grew even more marked — the impression, namely, of an immense vista or background to his personality. If I had thought before (and I do not know that I had) that Whitman was eccentric, unbalanced, violent, my first interview produced quite a contrary effect. No one could be more considerate, I may almost say courteous; no one could have more simplicity of manner and freedom from egotistic wrigglings; and I never met anyone who gave me more the impression of knowing what he was doing than he did. Yet away and beyond all this I was aware of a certain radiant power in him, a large benign affluence and inclusiveness, as of the sun, which filled out the place where he was — yet with something of reserve and sadness in it too, and a sense of remoteness and inaccessibility.22
Carpenter's allusion to the sun may remind us of how Arjuna saw the sun in Krishna, and Harvey in Meera. The following passages tell us more about Whitman, and perhaps also about Carpenter's own sensitivity.
When we went in to dinner Mr. Stafford was already seated; I think he was about to say grace. Walt, with greater grace, stood for a moment bending over him from behind, and clasped Stafford's head in his great hands; then passed on in silence. What a large sweet presence — so benign, yet so determined! 23
In India where the behaviour of the enlightened ones has been under scrutiny for thousands of years, the use of the hands has been formalised in a system of mudras, or gestures, each with its own meaning. We see it quite spontaneously in Ramakrishna24, and in the instinct of Asit Chandmal in his tender photographs of Krishnamurti's hands25. In Western religious art, the hands of saints are often stretched out in blessing, and we have a long tradition of the 'laying on of hands', but Whitman's blessing of Mr. Stafford was a simple act that came from Whitman's own nature, and widely exhibited amongst the mystics. Carpenter's comment in the following passage about nowness is relevant to the eternal quality of the mystic, and also indicative of his own mystical instincts:
Whitman had the knack of making ordinary life enjoyable, redeeming it from commonplaceness. Instead of making you feel (as so many do) that the Present is a kind of squalid necessity to be got over as best may be, in view of something always in the future, he gave you that good sense of nowness, which imports colour and life to the thousand and one dry details of existence. 26
Carpenter did not miss the other side of Whitman either, as he tells how 'Madame Darbiney D'Aubigné' foundered on his colder shores:
She had been, she told us, all over the States and seen many celebrities, but could not return to Europe without visiting Whitman — and it was only by a piece of luck that she had found out where he was staying. However, it soon began to appear that her interest in Walt was not so great, naturally, as in herself; for after a few preliminary compliments she settled down to tell us all about the wonderful D'Aubigné family to which she belonged. It ramified all over the civilised world she said; and the name was spelt in ever so many ways, but they were all branches of the same family, they were related to each other — as her own name indeed showed. Walt listened in an amused manner, and for about ten minutes was quite decently courteous and patient. Then I suddenly perceived that his face was becoming 'precipitous'; the little woman of course was addressing him, no one else being of any importance; but he seemed to be becoming deaf, there was no speculation in his eyes; it was rather awful; for a minute or two she tried vainly to effect a lodgement for her words, to get any kind of handhold on the sheer surface, and then gathering up her tackle, she made the best of a bad job, bade a hasty good-bye and disappeared. 27
On Carpenter's second visit, in 1886, Whitman had already suffered his first stroke, and had only eight years to live, a fact that sorrowed Carpenter because of the decreasing mobility and vitality of a man whose passion for life he well understood.
William Douglas O'Connor was a friend of Whitman's for many years and showed great enthusiasm for him and his work, though we may be less inclined to give his testimony the weight that Bucke, Burroughs and Carpenter deserve. O'Connor had neither the wider reading of Bucke or Carpenter, or the groundedness that Burroughs shows in his nature writings, and is even rather damaging to Whitman in an absurd short story called 'The Carpenter', in which an elderly figure, who is clearly meant to be both Whitman and Jesus, appears as deus ex machina to an ill-fated family and brings them good fortune28. The story illuminates Whitman not at all, but does show the kind of sycophancy that figures like him often engender. More interesting, though probably still a little exaggerated, is this extract from O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet — A Vindication:
— I know not what talisman Walt Whitman carries unless it be an unexcluding friendliness and goodness which is felt upon his approach like magnetism; but I know that in the subterranean life of cities, amongst the worse roughs, he goes safely; and I could recite instances where hands that, in mere wantonness of ferocity, assault anybody, raised against him, have of their own accord been lowered almost as quickly, or, in some cases, been dragged promptly down by others; this, too, I mean, when he and the assaulting gang were mutual strangers. I have seen singular evidence of the mysterious quality which not only guards him, but draws to him with intuition, rapid as light, simple and rude people, as to their natural mate and friend. I remember, as I passed the White House with him one evening, the startled feeling with which I saw the soldier on guard there — a stranger to us both, and with something in his action that curiously proved that he was a stranger — suddenly bringing his musket to the "present", in military salute to him, quickly mingling with this respect due to his colonel, a gesture of greeting with the right hand as to a comrade; grinning, meanwhile, good fellow, with shy, spontaneous affection and deference; his ruddy, broad face glowing in the flare of the lampions.29
The picture that we build up from these accounts of Whitman is of an exceptional man, but, for Pure Consciousness Mysticism, his personality is not of primary concern, any more than the Krishna's personality is of primary concern. However the picture of Whitman as a man is important as a background to Leaves, and Leaves is of importance in the way that it illuminates the infinite and the eternal. It is Whitman's unique embraciveness in his poetry that makes it important to have a picture of his life and influence on those who came into contact with him; his embraciveness presents a challenge to the common view of how a mystic can live in the world and it is important that we do not see it as just a literary device.
Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855 and the final edition was published in 1881, having undergone many revisions and additions: it was received with reactions that ranged from adulation to shocked outrage. We must remember that this was the Victorian era, and despite the ruggedness and openness of America in some ways, it was not prepared for the earthy nature of some of Whitman's verse. The book was reviled by many who should have known better, and was even banned in Boston in 1882 (incidentally, the year he met Oscar Wilde).
Here are some quotes from those who were against Leaves of Grass. The Brooklyn Daily Times carried an article on September 29th 1855 with the following comments (all the following extracts are from Bucke's biography of Whitman):
"This poet celebrates himself, and that is the way he celebrates all. He comes to no conclusions, and does not satisfy the reader. He certainly leaves him what the serpent left the woman and the man, the taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, never to be erased again. What good is to argue about egotism? There can be no two thoughts about Walt Whitman's egotism. That is what he steps out of the crowd and turns and faces them for."
An example of a section that 'comes to no conclusions' in Leaves of Grass is verse 34 of "Song of Myself", where he describes the massacre of four hundred and twelve young soldiers in Texas after surrendering to the enemy. He describes the slaughter neutrally, other than to call the men "Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud and affectionate"; he says, "The work commenced about five o'clock and was over by eight". It is astonishing the first time one reads it in its lack of condemnation or outrage, but as one gets to know Leaves, it seems quite in keeping with the rest, and in keeping with the mystic's deeply known understanding of the eternal, as Krishna explains to Arjuna. Perhaps Hubert Selby Junior's descriptions of his tenement dwellers in Last Exit to Brooklyn has taken the cue from Whitman: quite appalling scenes of every-day human brutality, but in an odd way made tender by the lack of judgement that the author conveys: a compassion from dispassion. As in many of the adverse criticisms of Whitman made at the time, there is often a perceptiveness in them. The comment made that Whitman "steps out of the crowd and turns and faces them" (for his egotism) is somehow a vivid and graphical portrait of his stance, though as to the egotism, that is for each person to make up their minds on.
While Europe, including Britain, was generally more in favour of Whitman than America seemed to have been, the London Critic of 1855 was not:
"Is it possible that the most prudish nation in the world will adopt a poet whose indecencies stink in the nostrils? We hope not; and yet there is a probability, and we will show you why, that this Walt Whitman will not meet with the stern rebuke which he so richly deserves. ... Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art, as a hog with mathematics. ... The very nature of this man's compositions excludes us from proving by extracts the truth of our remarks; but we, who are not prudish, emphatically declare that the man who wrote page 79 of The Leaves of Grass deserves nothing so richly as the public executioner's whip."
Whitman was accused by many of being 'unacquainted with art', though in fact he was widely read in classical and contemporary literature. His poems are possibly devoid of the artificial, which perhaps offended the more traditional of readers, including Longfellow who said: "Well, I believe this man might have done something if he only had a decent training and education."30
The whip appears again in the Boston Intelligence (May 3rd 1856):
"We were attracted by the very singular title of the work to seek the work itself, and what we thought ridiculous in the title is eclipsed in the pages of this heterogeneous mass of bombast, egotism, vulgarity, and nonsense. The beastliness of the author is set forth in his own descriptions of himself, and we can conceive of no better reward than the lash for such a violation of decency as we have before us."
It was Boston's District Attorney that turned the revulsion felt by the moralists into the only actual banning of the book. The New York Criterion in November 10th 1855 wrote:
"Thus then, we leave this gathering of muck to the laws which, certainly, if they fulfil their intent, must have power to suppress such obscenity. As it is entirely destitute of wit, there is no probability that any would, after this exposure, read it in the hope of finding that; and we trust no on will require further evidence, for, indeed, we do not believe there is a newspaper so vile that would print confirmatory extracts."
One almost regrets the passing of Victorian prudery, that made these passages possible; these and many more, while amusing to us, also are oddly instructive about Whitman. Possibly the strangest attack on Whitman came however from D.H.Lawrence in 1923 in Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence cannot stand that Whitman ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE (Lawrence's capitals): it takes a steam-engine to do that. Lawrence wails: "Oh Walter, Walter, what have you done with it? With your own individual self? For it sounds as if it had all leaked out of you, leaked into the universe."31 Lawrence cannot stand it! He cannot stand that Whitman can become the universe or anything in it, and in particular not a 'greasy Eskimo'. If Lawrence's attack were not so funny, and in an odd way to the point, one would be rather ashamed of him. Lawrence does get to the heart of Whitman in what he rejects, and we will consider this issue of identity and its apparent loss later on. Lawrence, in the same book, also makes an absurd attack on people with blue eyes, saying that they are 'never quite human'32; did he know that Whitman had blue eyes? We aren't amused at the end of the 20th century by the idea that some people are less human than others, whether blue-eyed or Eskimo; nor are we amused that Huxely, Orwell, or Churchill were supporters of eugenics in the thirties. These men did not rise above their time in some respects; Whitman seemed to have in all respects.
Let us look now in more detail at contemporary appreciation of Whitman's work. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America's established poets of the age, was so impressed by Leaves of Grass that he wrote the now-famous letter to the author, starting off:
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of 'Leaves of Grass'. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
Without asking Emerson, Whitman had the letter published in the New York Tribune in 1855, and it was this and Emerson's word-of-mouth enthusiasm that may well have enabled Leaves to survive its early years. The two men met, but Whitman and Emerson were poles apart in their temperament, Emerson being a refined establishment intellectual, graduating in divinity, and pastor for a time at the prestigious Second Unitarian Church in Boston, while Whitman was a carpenter's son and a man of the rough outdoors. Whitman took Emerson for a beer in a rowdy pub, but despite this indelicate introduction, and Emerson's public annoyance that Whitman should publish his letter without permission, they saw each other, albeit infrequently, until Emerson's death. Emerson was ambivalent in his attitude to Leaves, as the following letter to Carlyle in 1856 shows:
"One book, last summer, came out in New York, a nondescript monster, which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American — which I thought to send you; but the book throve so badly with the few to whom I showed it, and wanted good morals so much, that I never did. Yet I believe now again, I shall. It is called Leaves of Grass — was written and printed by a journeyman printer in Brooklyn, New York, named Walter Whitman; and after you have looked into it, if you think, as you may, that it is only an auctioneer's inventory of a warehouse, you can light your pipe with it."
Emerson also referred to Leaves as a singular blend of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Tribune, and we shall see some of those similarities to the Gita later on. Whether Carlyle lit his pipe on Leaves, I do not know, though Whitman was an admirer of his, excepting the gloominess of his later work. Whitman gives us this interesting insight into his relationship with Emerson (and at the same time a foretaste of how he relates to Nature, in this case trees) in the following passage:
10 - 13 October : I spend a good deal of time on the Common, these delicious days and nights — every mid-day from 11.30 to about 1 — and almost every sunset another hour. I know all the big trees, especially the old elms along Tremont and Beacon streets, and have come to a sociable-silent understanding with most of them, in the sunlit air, (yet crispy-cool enough), as I saunter along the wide unpaved walks. Up and down this breadth by Beacon street, between these same old elms, I walk'd for two hours, of a bright sharp February mid-day twenty-one years ago, with Emerson, then in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm'd at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual. During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. It was an argument-statement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, 'Children of Adam'. More precious than gold to me that dissertation — it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each part of E's statement was unanswerable, no judge's charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put — and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way. 'What have you to say then to such things?' said E., pausing in conclusion. 'Only that while I can't answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it,' was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House. And thenceforward I never waver'd or was touch'd with qualms, (as I confess I had been two or three times before.)33
Anne Gilchrist, herself respected in literary circles, by Carlyle, Swinbourne, and Tennyson amongst others, read one of Rossetti's imprints of Leaves, and fell in love with it, writing to Rossetti that she was spellbound and could read no other book. In 1870 she published an anonymous article in the Boston Radical called 'An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman', which gave unreserved praise for Leaves of Grass. Whitman forwarded a letter and photograph to her. The following year, on Rossetti's encouragement she wrote directly to Whitman with what amounted to a proposal of marriage, but he responded to her letters in the most delicate of ways, saying that he was not insensible to her love, and to accept a brief reply because he had put himself body and soul into Leaves, "my best letter". He concluded: "Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy." Anne Gilchrist was not put off and wrote further letters until Whitman was forced to write in 1872: "Let me warn you about myself and about yourself also, you must not construct such an unauthorized and imaginary figure and call it W.W., and so devotedly invest your loving nature in it. The actual W.W. is a very plain personage and entirely unworthy of your devotion."
Whitman received other 'love' letters, however, from men as well as women, an unlikely example being from Bram Stoker, the future author of Dracula. In 1876, some time after Whitman's stroke and the death of his mother, Anne Gilchrist arranged to come to Philadelphia with her three children, despite Whitman's attempts to put her off. He visited her with John Burroughs, and found that he liked her and her family, and even stayed for some short periods in a room she had set aside for him. His stroke had left him lame, and he looked nearer seventy than sixty. Her dream of a closer union was not realised in fact, and the Gilchrists returned to England in 1879. Anne Gilchrist's published letter praising Leaves was in contrast to the prudish comment by an American man of letters that he would not wish it to be left around "in case a woman pick it up and venture beyond the title page". She defended the manly openness about it, saying why should a man pretend to a woman's modesty? She quotes Whitman: "The full spread pride of man is calming and excellent to the soul," continuing, "of a woman above all" (my italics). A similar thing was also said by Nietzsche, though in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. She finished her letter with this thought, perhaps relating to her husband:
"Wives and mothers will learn through this poet that there is a rejoicing grandeur and beauty there wherein their hearts have so longed to find it; where foolish men, traitors to themselves, poorly comprehending the grandeur of their own or the beauty of a woman's nature, have taken such pains to make her believe there was none — nothing but miserable discrepancy."
It is partly this reinforcement of the sense of 'miserable discrepancy', that makes Nietzsche and his work suspect. More of that later, but for now, how superb does Whitman seem! Throughout Leaves he never leaves women out, and never diminishes them. Take for example this passage:
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do no laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)
(from Song of Myself)
Compare this with what D.H.Lawrence would prefer him to say:
'Look at that prostitute! Her nature has turned evil under her mental lust for prostitution. She has lost her soul. She knows it herself. She likes to make men lose their souls. If she tried to make me lose my soul, I would kill her. I wish she may die.' 34
It is hard not to despise Lawrence for this, and for it not to wipe out every tender and perceptive comment he made on the relationships between men and women. Perhaps Lawrence just chose to empty his bile on a soft target — American 'pretensions' at literature — knowing that his British audience would lap it up. But Lawrence looks paranoid, spiteful, and churlish next to Whitman's generosity. Whitman does not talk about relationships in any analytical way, he just includes women in all his gestures:
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
(Song Of Myself, v. 21)
Is he just making an effort in his poetry to include women? It would be hard to do on such a grand scale if it were not his nature one suspects, and this is supported by a typical remark to Bucke on quite another subject (drink):
"[alcohol] takes away all the reserved control, the power of mastership, and therefore offends against that splendid pride in himself or herself which is fundamental in every man or woman worth anything."
Whitman's inclusion of women is not a feminist issue in this book, but rather it relates to a characteristic of a person approaching the transcendent: a distance from one's sexual identity, and the sense of conflict between the sexes that so gripped D.H.Lawrence for example. What of Whitman and women in his own life, other than Anne Gilchrist? Bucke once asked him why he had not married — "Did you remain single of set purpose?" Whitman replied: "No, I have hardly done anything in my life of set purpose, in the way you mean." He added, "I suppose the chief reason why I never married must have been a overmastering passion for entire freedom, unconstraint; I had an instinct against forming ties that would bind me." Bucke commented: "Yes, it was the instinct of self-preservation. Had you married at the usual age, Leaves of Grass would never have been written."
In 'Sometimes with One I Love' Whitman suggests another formative cause for Leaves:
Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn'd love,
But now I think there is no unreturn'd love, the pay is certain one way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return'd,
Yet out of that I have written these songs.)
The 'sting of slighted love' often appears in Leaves. Biographers make much of Whitman's relationships with younger men, and there is a homosexual reading made of some of the Calamus poems, but Whitman denied this, claiming in a letter to John Addington Symonds that he had sired six illegitimate children (1890). Carpenter devoted a whole chapter in his book on Whitman to the subject of his alleged children, of which he tells us only four had survived, but that one had produced a grandchild. The question of Whitman's sexuality is not relevant to Pure Consciousness Mysticism, but it is amusing to note that the poet Allen Ginsberg (a long-time Buddhist) recently claimed on British television to have a homosexual lineage with Whitman. Ginsberg says that he slept with Neil Cassidy, who slept with Gavin Arthur, the grandson of Chester Arthur (president of the USA from 1881 to 1885), who had slept with Edward Carpenter, who claimed to have slept with Whitman (though I have found no such claim in his writings). This may or may not be nonsense, Ginsberg admitting that Whitman 'wasn't candid about his physical loves if he had any'.
We turn now to Bucke, Burroughs and Carpenter for appraisals of Whitman's spiritual side. Bucke introduced Whitman as "the best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense", or cosmic consciousness, as he called it throughout his book of the same name. I think he was perfectly entitled to do so, but has naturally been a little suspect for it ever since. Bucke's analysis of the world's mystics may have been the first serious attempt (just before the end of the nineteenth century), and may have partly inspired and was certainly referred to in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, and in Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, published in 1911, and in many texts on the subject ever since. I think the subject has evolved and reached a maturity where no serious student of it could call any example of the mystic as the best or most perfect: each adds a new perspective, and each will touch some more than others. Bucke was probably more than just a serious student of mysticism however: he was Whitman's disciple, and all the intellectual rigour in the world cannot diminish the natural impulse to see one's teacher as special. (In India it has always been regarded as the greatest possible good fortune to meet such a person in one's lifetime.) A recent re-appraisal of Bucke (long overdue) by Robert May gives a good biography of Bucke and assessment of Whitman's impact on him; it also points out that the dominance of the behaviourist schools of psychology resulted in Bucke's ideas being largely ignored in the twentieth century35.
Bucke had a system however, and later commentators on mysticism have to a limited degree adopted it and expanded on it. He required that candidates for cosmic consciousness display a sense of immortality, a loss of the sense of sin and fear of death and a range of characteristics that he called a subjective light, a moral elevation, and an intellectual elevation. Moreover he required that all these, which mark what he calls cosmic consciousness, should appear fairly suddenly and in contrast to the previous nature of the person which he characterised as self-consciousness (probably intended more as the German Selbstbewusztsein than the painful sort associated with shyness etc.). He found in his survey that this transition took place in a person's mid-thirties more often than at another time in their life, and he demonstrated that Whitman underwent such a change at around the age of 35 or 36, quoting this passage in support of a transformation experience:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled you head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of creation is love, …
('Song of Myself', v. 5)
We should be grateful to Bucke for drawing our attention to this passage, and it has often been quoted by other commentators since Bucke, and usually with the interpretation that it was a moment of grace, or penetration by the divine. Indeed the imagery is erotic, one of penetration, but we find that erotic imagery is widespread in mysticism: the reader is referred to a survey of this in Christian and Jewish mysticism by Bernard McGinn36; we shall examine oriental examples of it in the next chapter; and some of my poems in the Appendix have this quality. Certainly, if we only take Leaves as the result, the change from Whitman's previous writings is dramatic, and lends some support to Bucke's idea of a sudden transition or illumination. If we were to accept this idea, and there are many cases to support it including for example Krishnamurti's, then we also have to account for those like Krishna who seem to born with the characteristics that Bucke enumerates, and live their whole life that way.
Bucke writes, in the context of the world's religious books:
Leaves of Grass is such a book. What the Vedas were to Brahmanism, the Law and the Prophets to Judaism, the Avesta and Zend to Zoroastrianism, the Kings to Confucianism and Taoism, the Pitikas to Buddhism, the Gospels and Pauline writings to Christianity, the Quran to Mohameddanism, will Leaves of Grass be to the future of American civilisation. Those were all Gospels, they all brought good news to man, fitting his case at the period, each in its way and degree. They were all "hard sayings" and the rankest heresy at first, just as Leaves of Grass is now. By and by it too will be received, and in the course of a few hundred years, more or less, do its work and become commonplace like the rest. Then new Gospels will be written upon a still higher plane.
In the mean time Leaves of Grass is the bible of Democracy, containing the highest exemplar of life yet furnished, and suited to the present age and America.
John Burroughs found that Whitman was "swayed by two or three great passions, and the chief of these was doubtless his religious passion." He then goes on to say, "Now there is no trace of this [traditional] religion in Whitman, and it does not seem to have left any shadow upon him. Ecclesiaticism is dead; he clears the ground for a new growth. To the priests he says: "Your day is done."" What does Burroughs think that Whitman puts in the place of Ecclesiasticism? He notes that for Whitman, "any glimpse of the farm, the shop, the household — any bit of real life, anything that carried the flavour and quality of concrete reality — was very welcome to him!" Whitman himself comments in 'Song of Myself':
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
Burroughs concluded that "In the past this ideal was found in the supernatural; for us and the future democratic ages, it must be found in the natural, in the now and here." On Whitman's deathbed Burroughs mused that "It is the face of an aged loving child. As I looked, it was with the reflection that, during an acquaintance of thirty-six years, I never heard from those lips a word of irritation, or depreciation of any being. I do not believe that Buddha, of whom he appeared an avatar, was more gentle to all men, women, children, and living things."
Edward Carpenter made direct analogies in the Appendix to Days With Walt Whitman between passages from Leaves of Grass and passages from the Upanishads, Buddhist texts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Teh Ching, and the New Testament. He presents an interesting comparison between Whitman and an Indian seer, that probably sums up his attitude to both Whitman and Leaves.
I have two portraits — photographs — which I am fond of comparing with each other. One is of Whitman, taken in 1890; the other, taken about the same time and at the same age (seventy years), is of an Indian Gnani or seer. Both are faces of the highest interest and import; but how different! That of Whitman deeply lined, bearing the marks of life-long passion and emotion; aggressive and determined, yet wistful and tender, full of suffering and full of love, indicating serenity, yet markedly turbid and clouded, ample in brow and frame and flowing hair, as of one touching and mingling with humanity at all points — withal of a wonderful majesty and grandeur, as of the great rock (to return always to that simile) whose summit pierces at last the highest domain.
The other portrait, of a man equally aged, shows scarcely a line on the face; you might think for that and for the lithe, active form that he was not more than forty years old; a brow absolutely calm and unruffled, gracious, expressive lips, well-formed features, and eyes — the dominant characteristic of his countenance — dark and intense, and illuminated by the vision of the seer. In this face you discern command, control, gentleness, and the most absolute inward unity, serenity, and peace; no wandering emotions or passions flit across the crystal mirror of the soul; self-hood in any but the highest sense has vanished — the self has, as it were, returned to its birthplace — leaving behind the most childlike, single-hearted, uncensorious, fearless character imaginable.
Yet just here one seems to miss something in the last character — the touch of human and earthly entanglement. Here is not exactly the great loving heart which goes a few steps on the way with every child of man; here is not the ample-domed brow which tackles each new problem of life and science. Notwithstanding evident signs of culture and experience in the past, notwithstanding vast powers of concentration in any given matter or affair when necessary, the face shows that the heart and intellect have become quiescent, that interest in the actual has passed or is passing away.
This passage is of particular interest to us as we consider the quality of embraciveness peculiar to Whitman, and how it may differ on the whole to that shown in Indian mysticism. We will return to this, but first we will look in more detail at Leaves of Grass itself.