- Whitman and the Rescue of Particulars
Are individual lives completely destroyed by death? Walt Whitman, not a true believer in any one religion that guaranteed an afterlife, found this question endlessly troubling and in his poetry he tried a variety of answers, which may be sorted out this way:
1). Human beings do not cease to exist when their bodies die; they survive with an improved kind of individuality in a next realm.
2). Human beings live on after death in a spiritual mystery, which may not preserve their individuality but is wonderfully good.
3). Individuals are destroyed by death, yes, but this is not bad, it is perfectly all right, because the record of their lives is preserved by some spiritual power, some version of God.
4). Individuals are destroyed by death, yes, but this is perfectly all right because to have participated in the ongoing story of humanity is infinitely good.
5). Individuals die and vanish, and this is a frightening loss, though it is mitigated somewhat by the ways in which succeeding generations remember them.
6). Ordinary remembering by survivors is not enough to mitigate the fear and pain of the obliteration of individuals; mortal individuals need a special kind of acknowledgment that preserves a precious trace of their individuality; and the specially powerful machine that produces this special acknowledgment is poetry.
Whitman was someone who never wanted to say No; he always sought ways to say Yes no matter how his affirmations might contradict each other. As Leaves of Grass evolved across [End Page 32] the decades, he kept all six of the above responses to mortality afloat, using his incredible charm and bravura to dodge having to choose one of the answers at the expense of the others. My own focus—tilting toward obsession—is on the sixth answer: the idea that poetry can provide a specially valuable and comforting kind of acknowledgment that significantly compensates for (without undoing) the removal of individuals from earthly life. Like most non-religious poets, I find this idea marvelously alluring, even if it leads toward delusion. I want to consider the extent to which Whitman was tempted by this idea—an idea that obviously elevates the importance of poetry and the poet—though he repeatedly rediscovered the danger of relying too entirely on poetic commemoration as humanity’s answer to death.
In his most sweeping surges of optimism, Whitman assures us that death is no problem, and therefore poetry performs no necessary service in response to death. In section 13 of “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman proclaims:
Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to fitting spheres,Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
Whitman devotes his rhetorical flair to one of his favorite poetic effects, which is the dissolving of differences: the binary distinction between body and soul is rejected in favor of the insistence that the “real” body is the soul—or, it is the individual aspect of ourselves that survives the destruction of the physical (and unreal?) body. A few lines later Whitman declares that the human body “includes and is the soul”—a phrase characteristically evasive, preferring not to choose whether body contains soul or precisely equals soul. Here, as almost everywhere, Whitman is unconcerned with satisfying any logical philosopher. As he says in “Song of Myself” section 25, “Writing and talk [End Page 33] do not prove me, / I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face, / With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.”
Insofar as he can sustain the mood of visionary optimism, Whitman presents himself as a bearer of good news, rather than as a supplier of something painfully lacking in human existence. Indeed, sometimes he suggests even more modestly (though admittedly the adjective “modest” sounds very odd applied to Whitman!) that he is simply a reminder of good news, reminding healthy persons of the wondrous good fortune they already recognize intuitively. More often, though, he feels he must bring his good...