Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Restless Explorations": Whitman's Evolving Spiritual Vision in “Leaves of Grass”

Editor's Note: The following essay deliberates upon the element of spirituality that pervades Whitman's poetry and examines how the poet sends across the message of spirituality, transcendentalism and mysticism in more than one ways through his poems. His quest for the unknown and the ultimate emphasis on the need for soul's embrace of the unknown over the known forms the bedrock of this comprehensive and well-researched writeup.

The spiritual dimension of American poet Walt Whitman's work has received no shortage of critical commentary. Whitman himself clearly saw his work as spiritual, going so far as to claim in his 1855 preface to the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” that the work of trie poet would soon come to supplant that of churches and priests. At the same time, he envisioned an expanded Leaves as a sort of "New Bible," and by 1872, in another preface to his lifelong project, concluded that his by now massive book of poems had "one deep purpose" above all others, "the religious purpose" (Collect461). Pondering possible titles early on for what would become “Leaves of Grass”, Whitman once wrote, "What name? Religiow Canticles" (Asselineau 221). Many contemporary readers seemed to agree with Whitman, hailing him as a prophet inaugurating a new religion. Whitman scholars David Kuebrich and David Reynolds both describe how some early readers of Whitman went so far as to find religious groups and, in at least one case in England, a church devoted to following his writings.

But the spiritual aspect of Whitman's project is complex, and it changes over time and in the nine editions ?? “Leaves of Grass”. The goal of this essay is not to define spirituality in Whitman specifically or to unravel components of his spiritual vision, but to argue instead that any acknowledgment of the power of Whitman's spiritual message needs to account for the way in which that message evolves through the expanded editions of Leaves, and how the poetry ultimately emphasizes the soul's embrace of the unknown over the known. For Whitman, the very process of questioning, searching, and existing in uncertainty is the vital element of spiritual health, as opposed to certainty of the soul's destination. In gauging his spiritual message, a reader should resist examining any period of Whitman's work, or any edition of Leaves, in isolation from other periods or poems. Tracing the progression of his voice and subjects, so useful to stylistic and historically oriented studies of Whitman, is less effective when considering a central theme such as spirituality, a theme that develops organically and deepens as the book grows in size and scope. Hence, the approach here would claim that the confident, sexually vibrant, ecstatic poet of body and soul in 1855 be read alongside the doubtful Drum-Taps poet who struggles to comprehend and console in 1865, and in turn beside the meditative, at times faltering mode of the death poems spanning 1871-1882. Central to this rationale is the fact that Whitman's treatment of spirituality rejects the temporal and that reading his treatment of the theme as one of phases in a poet's development diminishes the complexity, fluidity, and evolving nature of the theme. The levels of exuberance, reflection, anguish, doubt, and certitude in individual poems modulate as Leaves grows, with new poems speaking to preexisting ones, often demanding that readers reexamine their response to an earlier poem or the poet's overall treatment of the theme. Such a methodology agrees with Kuebrich's assertion that "Whitman did arrive at a unified religious vision during the process of writing the first edition of the Leaves, and he continued to elaborate that vision throughout the rest of his life. The individual poems and sections of the Leaves are informed by this new religion and they cannot be considered in isolation" (4).

A further complexity exists in the fact that the appeal of Whitman's personal spirituality cannot easily be separated from the spiritual component of his political vision. At numerous crucial periods of his writing career, his poems strive to cultivate the individual for the sake of growing and strengthening the democracy, and oftentimes his visionary call is at the service of his political aims. Whitman scholars such as Allen Grossman and Betsy Erkkila have noted how "The 'inner light' of religious spiritualism and the 'outer light' of the revolutionary enlightenment - the doctrines of the soul and the doctrines of the republic - became the early and potentially self-contradictory poles of Whitman's thought" (Erkkila and Grossman 16) . Others such as William Pannapacker see the promise of "spiritual democracy" as a result of Whitman's engagement with Emersonian transcendentalism, and accountfor the seeming inclusiveness of Leaves as the poet's success at "camouflag[ing] a political text in the trappings of a sacred scripture" (31 ) . These contradictory poles of private and public, religious and political, result in the unstable, often uncertain nature of Whitman's spiritualism, and it is precisely this fluid instability of vision that lends the theme such resonance and hold in every edition of Leaves. In an uncollected manuscript fragment, Whitman terms spirituality "the unknown" (Leaves 612), and despite various pronouncements of certitude, especially in the 1855 and 1856 editions, as the poet more deeply engages his personal contradictions and his envisioned democracy's various failures and compromises, his poetry comes to challenge its readers to conceive of spirituality more broadly, but less conclusively.

The personal pull of Whitman's early poetry is undeniably powerful, a proclamation of the agency of the individual that at the same time invites us to "follow" the poet toward enlightenment, claiming deep insight into the nature of the soul. The largeness of Whitman's voice and personality within the poems has always evoked a disproportionate attention to his supposed confidence at the expense of a sense of self and purpose that becomes more questioning, more ambiguous, and more engaging as his project grows. While the major works of Whitman's final productive decade demonstrate what Erkkila terms "a more traditional religious faith," by the final arrangement of poems for the 1881 edition, the reader of Leaves will move through poems supremely confident of immortality and a mystical oneness of humanity, other poems where the spiritual core of the text seems more based in phenomenology, Civil War poems that recognize the ability of death's sheer physical carnage to at least momentarily eclipse spiritual hope, and the later meditative mode of poems such as those in the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster. Ultimately, Whitman's collective claims across these editions are less for himself as spiritual guide and more for the power of poetry, language, intellectual search, and imaginative empathy as fluid, dynamic, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable components that anchor the spiritual life.

Among the most compelling spiritual efforts in Whitman's poetry are his paradoxical attempts to obliterate temporal, spatial, and personal confines by focusing intently on the present moment and to forge a communal oneness among all people across time by addressing the reader as a specific "you," a private auditor. Both of these endeavors are at the heart of the major new poem of the 1856 edition of Leaves, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (originally titled "Sun-Down Poem") . Whitman begins the poem with one of his evocations of the eternally possible present, an apostrophe to the immediate: "Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! / Clouds of the west - sun there half an hour high - I see you also face to face" (CP 1-2) . This exclamatory opening instantly creates a sense of intimacy between speaker and surroundings while also, in its gaze toward the west and awareness of the sun's movement, hinting at the flux of time that will play such a key role later in the poem. In his recent ecocritical study of Whitman, M. Jimmie Killingsworth discusses the poem in the context of four "shorelines" associated with either mourning or renewal, and makes the useful observation of how often in Whitman "tides become associated with the availability of certain spiritual forces and states of mind. The change of the tides provides a needed analog to the ebb and flow of the human soul and its susceptibility to different influences" (130) . It is just this "susceptibility" and vulnerability of the soul that is so unique to Whitman's spiritualism and the ease with which uncertainty is accepted. In some poems, like 1860's "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the tide might suggest the beleaguered, empty soul, but in the opening of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" it carries a sense of abundance, a rush of fullness. The ecstatic celebration of the quotidian then turns to include the "hundreds and hundreds" of fellow commuters, the poet's keen interest in them described as "curious," an important word that will return later in the poem (4) . Here directed toward the immediate present, the word establishes preference for the process of knowing over possessing the known that is so crucial to the poet's spiritual concept. This curiosity, intense in the moment, is also the catalyst for connecting with the future, leading to the poem's first move to link humanity across generational and temporal boundaries. Whitman boldly declares that those who will also ride the ferry in "years hence" are equally in his meditations, using the familiar "you" to address both his fellow commuters and those who will cross the river far in the future (5) .

In the first edition of “Leaves of Grass”, published just a year before the edition including "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman had intimately connected himself with his readers in several poems, most notably "Song of Myself," where he asserted that whosoever touched his book also touched a man. In one of the poem's most memorable moments, he closes the final section by "bequeathing" himself to the ground beneath him, telling his reader that he can be found "under your bootsoles" (section 52; lines 9-10). But these are isolated moments in the grand proclamations of selfhood, sexual vigor, and the role of the poet that dominate "Song of Myself," whereas "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is a shorter, sustained meditation aimed at connecting humankind across time and space. In its focus on human connectedness, the poem becomes more reader-focused than does "Song of Myself." The merger with nature in "Song of Myself ' is paradoxical in terms of the poet's relationship with his readers in that while at the end of the poem Whitman posi- tions himself as eternally available to any reader, the largeness of his presence threatens to obliterate the personal invitation. Tenney Nathanson has discussed how Whitman's strong repetition establishes "the poet's apparent power to reproduce himself [. . . which] makes him seem like the magical incarnation of an ideal form, a self-sustaining being immune to interference; unaffected by extrinsic forces or contingent events" (254) . In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," however, Whitman's focus on communal unity remains consistently evident and is never subsumed by his huge personality. One of the poem's achievements is the means by which it balances its public element, the celebration of the city, commerce, and democracy in the present and in the envisioned future, alongside the forging of a personal, spiritual bond between generations across time. Whitman uses the tangible, physical present as a means to provoke questions on the ineffable: "What is it then between us?" (5.1). Because the connection transcends the temporal, the physical, and even the confines of the personal, it can be named only as a process of "curious abrupt questionings" (5.6) . Hence, what binds people across time attains power by being unnamable. In returning to the word "curious" in this fifth section, the poem recalls the initial link between present and future evoked in the opening section, and in describing the process of questioning as "abrupt" it casts the activity as spontaneous and ongoing.

By the time the fifth section poses the question "What is it then between us?" the poem has built the connection between present and eternal through reconciling the union of extrinsic entities such as the city's buildings rising from the land, the man-made ferry connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the ceaseless river beneath it. Standing still on the ferry, the poet can observe and record the almost overwhelming array of phenomena surrounding him, the "tall masts" of ships with their "freight," the "granite storehouses" and "foundry chimneys" of the city (3.26-28) . At the same time, he is ever moving with the "hasting current" of "the river of old" (3.8). The "bright flow" of the "flood-tide" and "ebb-tide" seems to move him simultaneously through time and suspend him within it, allowing him to observe the fellow passengers of the present and speak to past and future ferry riders, the "others that are to follow me" (2.6, 14). So by midway through the poem, he may address them in the familiar tone fliat to readers of his day must have seemed shockingly intimate.

The use of the interrogatory is a crucial aspect of Whitman's method of connecting with his readers. By asking what exists between "us," he binds poet-speaker and reader together in an intellectual and spiritual quest for large answers. All would-be answers are both speculative and affirmative: "Whatever it is, it avails not - distance avails not, and place avails not" (5.3). The "it," it turns out, is the shared experience of the common, the immediate, as well as the abstract, the ineffable, orwhatKillingsworth terms "the openness to all things" (129). Crowds, hills, streets, water exist for Whitman as they have for prior riders and as they will exist for riders in the future. At the same time, past and future readers and riders will be struck by "curious abrupt questions," and will "receiv[e] identity by [the] body" (5.6, 10). This key section of the poem, where Whitman most overtly questions the powerful, mysterious connection the poem seeks, contains one of his most abstract images, the "float forever held in solution" from which he, and presumably all fellow beings, are "struck" (5.9) The "float," perhaps suggesting amniotic fluid, evokes an eternal present, a ceaseless possibility of creation binding all humans. Roger Asselineau emphasizes water as possibly the key element running through all of Whitman's poetry: "Though Whitman did not ignore the other elements, he made water triumph over them, because it was both material and fluid. It enabled him to keep his promise to write 'the most spiritual poems' by making 'the poems of materials' [ ----- ] “Leaves of Grass” celebrates the apotheosis of water" (224-25). "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" surely achieves one of Whitman's most successful unions of the material and the spiritual, with the materiality of the city and the ceaseless flow of the river serving as vehicles for the soul's questioning. The image of the "float" underscores the idea that the water over which the passengers move is indeed their life-source, whether the communal amniotic fluid sustaining all or the flux pushing human life through time and history. Whitman's interest in the possibility of reincarnation also invites reading the suspended position of the "float" as a sort of reservoir of souls awaiting rebirth or reunification. In working to encompass the unknown within his spiritual vision, Whitman creates a key image purposefully indeterminate yet highly suggestive.

By section 8, the poem's penultimate section, Whitman is confident that a catalogue of questions can affirm the connection he is unable to know or name definitively: "We understand then do we not? / What I promis 'd without mentioning it, have you not accepted? / What the study could not teach-what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish'd, is it not?" (8.7-9). The resistance to resolution, the affirmation through the interrogative, and the engagement with uncertainties sure to remain uncertainties are characteristic strategies in the poet's attempt to connect mystically with all humanity and, by extension, his readers across the formidable barriers of space and time. A parochial vision is less fluid and dynamic than a shared one, and in seeking what an earlier section of the poem calls the "impalpable," Whitman calls on the self to become "disintegrated" in order to become "part of the scheme" (2.2). By the end of the poem, when he implores, 'You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul," he has returned to the material, the here and now, as his mystical transport to "eternity" (9.21). What is most sustaining and binding is that which cannot be fully understood ("We fathom you not"), yet can be felt, absorbed, intuited, questioned (9.30) .

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," alternating between public exhortation and private introspection, is one of Whitman's great affirmative, prophetic proclamations of humanity's connection with the city, its future destiny, and with one another. In a nearly contemporary poem, published just one year earlier as one of the un ti tied thirteen in the original 1855 edition of Leaves, and in 1871 given its final title of "The Sleepers," Whitman undertakes a more unsettling psychological exploration of spiritual estrangement and unification. In its dreamlike movement of passages focusing on suffering, eroticism, loss, and, in the end, universal unity, the poem is one of Whitman's key texts where the spiritual search moves through registers of pain and uncertainty, arriving at a place of restoration whose source or location is never named. The poem demonstrates the contradictory elements of human engagement, examining sorrows, pleasures, and mysteries in a dynamic vision of process rather than resolution, fluidity rather than assurance.

As opposed to the bright sun that gilds the daytime commuters in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "The Sleepers" begins in the realm of night and dream. A "wandering and confused" speaker, "lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory," undertakes a troubled and at times almost surreal journey that begins by floating over an array of sleepers, including many who would be marginalized in mainstream society-criminals, murderers, exiles, drunkards, onanists, the insane, "a gay gang of blackguards" (1. 4, 41). The poem begins, "I wander all night in my vision," then proceeds to recount episodes of violence (both imagined and actual, both natural and man-made), loss, loneliness, and general ennui as primal aspects of life, and ends in the final two sections with a unifying vision (1.1) . A central issue in the poem is how one reads the relationship between the speaker and the array of other people in the poem. In "The Sleepers" Whitman reads history, both personal and public history, and attempts to account for or compensate for past losses and sufferings via a mysterious and unexpected unification of past and present, the dead and the living, the sleeping and the waking, in the end of the poem. Harold Aspiz has observed that the poet-speaker "resembles a clairvoyant" who merges with other dreamers, "heals them, and makes them aware of their potential greatness and their eligibility for immortality" (So Long 88). George Hutchinson compares the opening of the poem to "a shamanic séance," with the speaker "at the threshold of descent" and inviting the reader to accompany him (60).

But the language and movement of the poem also emphasize thatif the speaker is on ajourney, his destination is quite unknown. In the context of Whitman's spiritual vision, the speaker seems engaged in the process of seeking and discovering, unsure of his motive, destination, and even direction. His encounters with the literal past as well as the world of dreamscapes are by chance, rather than plan. When he meets the frightening scenes of violence and death, however, he must account for them and "tally" these events in his effort at unification in the poem's final sections. The initial feeling of "The Sleepers" is a sense of estrangement and wonder, not the confident, swelling opening of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." While the speaker desires physical contact with the sleeping, his hands can only pass "soothingly to and fro a few inches from them" in the dream world, even as he attempts to imaginatively join each of them (1.24). Entering deeper into the unconscious world of the dream, and as if in response to the intense need for contact, he first inhabits the body of a woman whose "truant lover" is in turn replaced by the darkness. As the darkness merges with and becomes the lover, accompanying him "up the shadowy shore," the poem is liberated to explore the erotic as its initial site of spiritual insight (1.47, 56).

The poem's most highly-charged erotic passage appeared in the original 1855 version of the poem, falling just after the episode involving the woman, her truant lover, the darkness, and the poet-speaker. Excised by Whitman from all subsequent printings after 1855, probably due to its explicitness, the passage is central to the poem's urge to encompass a broad realm of primal experience. Standing naked and exposed, the speaker must admit to and confront his erotic urges, including the auto-erotic, the movement from childhood to manhood. Filled with "hun- ger" yet "ashamed to go naked about the world," the passage's speaker engages in a primal struggle with the need to satisfy erotic desire (line 65, untitìed and unsectioned 1855 version of the poem) . Again describing his feelings as "curious," the speaker ultimately gives himself over to Dionysian revelry and orgasmic release. This is a characteristic moment in Whitman, akin to section 5 of "Song of Myself," where physical release leads to a moment of spiritual tranquility and reflection. Aspiz, in reading the final third of "The Sleepers," discusses Whitman's marriage of the flesh and the soul, the "ongoing process of physical and spiritual perfectibility" pervading the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves. While Whitman is not always consistent in explaining how "physical development nurtures spiritual development," he clearly believed that a healthy body was beneficial to spiritual well being (So Long 94-95). It seems equally clear that, particularly in the editions of Leaves preceding the Civil War (1855; 1856; 1860), sexual expression and fulfillment were part of the recipe for health. The excised erotic passage in "The Sleepers" finds Whitman exploring his ecstatic connection to other human beings, in this case the array of sleepers, and confessing that the attraction includes a strong erotic element, a desire to ravish and to be ravished. His relationship to the sequence of characters soon to be presented in the poem will become increasingly spiritual as the poem progresses, but he is unable and unwilling to divorce physicality from that union, and indeed without the confession of carnal urges, the spiritual connection is impossible . Reynolds points out that in mid-nineteenth-century American culture there "were various religious and philosophical currents that brought together the earthly and the divine in sometimes stardingways" and that Whitman's intense interest in these movements such as spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, and Harmonialism "help[s] explain the sometimes bizarre yoking of the erotic and mystical in his poems" (236) .

Following this passage, the poem returns to the poet-speaker's descent, finding him inhabiting the body and psyche of several characters, including a corpse. But as Whitman becomes a shroud and enters the coffin, he describes the state of death as "blank," suggesting the unknown element of death evoked in many of his other poems. Lacking "evil" and "pain" (2.8), the death state remains to be explored and inscribed. Death is never feared in Whitman but acknowledged as a powerful, unknown mystery, one that highlights the need to see life as "enough." Perhaps prompted by his momentary glimpse of the "blank" state of death, Whitman proceeds to his sequence of episodes of death, loss, and violence that in turn leads to his grand unification of all in the poem's final sections. The first episode of loss involves a "beautiful gigantic swimmer" battling a violent ocean that batters him despite his heroic efforts to navigate the waves and currents. The poem describes the sea as "red-trickled" and "spotted with his blood" before it carries away "the brave corpse" (3.1, 5, 9, 11). Immediately following this scene the poet's gaze turns to a violent shipwreck. He joins a crowd rushing to help those on board, but all are killed, and the poet can only "help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn" (4.9).

Four more episodes follow, the first being a scene from early American history, with George Washington suffering his bloodiest defeat of the Revolutionary War in the battle at Brooklyn. Whitman describes a startled and pained Washington looking on "blanch'd" as he watches the deaths of young men "confided to him by their parents" (5.5) . Then Washington is shown at the end of the war bidding farewell to his officers and army. What all these scenes share is a sense of helplessness amidst would-be heroism. In the Washington episodes, in accounting the costs of the formation of the country, Whitman anticipates the perspective of the Drum-Taps sequence.

In the third of the four scenes, Whitman offers an autobiographical moment as he recounts a visit to his parents' home by a "red squaw" (6.3) who delighted his mother with her presence for a full afternoon. The focus of the passage is on his mother's warm reception and then grieving response when the squaw leaves and never returns. After inviting the traveler into the home and cooking for her, Whitman's mother never saw the visitor again, although she hoped for her return for years thereafter. Emphasizing communal bonding across cultures and color, the passage presents the ability of humans to connect without shared spoken language through acts of kindness and generosity.

Then, as if to highlight the danger of ignoring and failing to honor racial and cultural difference, the final specific episode before the poem's turn toward affirmation and unification, and the second passage Whitman chose to excise from all subsequent published versions of "The Sleepers," presents a slave whose wife has been sold down the river. Whitman speaks in the voice of the slave who terms himself the "sorrowful terrible heir" of Lucifer, full of hate for "him that oppresses me" (line 127, 1855 un ti tied and unsectioned version) . Just as brief and just as powerful as the preceding excised passage, these eight lines contest man's propensity for cruelty to his fellow man and invoke human dignity and pride in the potent voice of resistance to racial oppression. Whitman's attitude toward slavery in his varied writings is a complex and at times contradictory one, but this key passage both highlights the poet's overall attitude toward equality and social justice for all humans and serves as the turning point in "The Sleepers," for in the two long sections that follow this episode and close the poem Whitman brings together all the suffering and violated figures from earlier in the poem, and unites them in a vision of transcendent unity.

As abruptly as the poem began, with the speaker plunging into a dark vision and journey, the poem now turns toward "a show of the summer softness [. . .] an amour of the light and air" (7.1). The language of this section's opening makes it unclear whether or not the emergence into summer and love is a dream, but as the entire poem is akin to a dream-vision or some form of deep self-analysis, the question of reality versus vision is largely inconsequential. What is significant is that all of the individual figures from the preceding episodic sections-the swimmer, the squaw, the onanist, and numerous others suffering or oppressed - now are brought together in a grand consort of humanity. The language emphasizes and repeats that all these figures are returning home or voyaging home, made equal in the end: "I swear they are averaged now-one is no better than the other, / The night and sleep have liken 'd them and restored them" (7.26-27) . As in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," boundaries of time and space seem irrelevant. The universe is brought into a profound "order," and the soul now seems to take precedence over the body Within the context of his study of Whitman 's poetry concerning death, Aspiz addresses the end of "The Sleepers":

[I]f the poem's sleepers have become "invigorated" by the dream they shared with the persona, the dream itself may have enabled them to confront their own lives-and their deaths-with greater courage and nobler aspirations. Likewise "The Sleepers" -the-poem-itself-may continue to inspire readers with a stronger sense of their own physical and spiritual journey. (So Long 96)

Without suggesting that this is the realm of death or of heaven, Whitman twice mentions "the myth of heaven" as the force that brings the power of the soul into play, an element that restores order and a sense of place to the diseased and disenfranchised (7.32-33) . Significantly, Whitman emphasizes that unity, order, the "myth" of heaven, and the "averaging" of these dramatis personae does not dilute the powerful diversity of humankind. The catalogue of people "shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite" (7.44).

But why does Whitman use the term "the myth of heaven"? One possibility is that Whitman wishes to position "heaven" as a human construct, a possibility and a mystery, a guiding principle that can help shape a worldview and ethical human behavior. Whitman's poetry rarely mentions heaven as a goal for the ever-lasting soul, choosing instead to suggest that the peaceful and eternal realm of heaven can be sought and achieved in earthly life. This belief also reiterates Whitman's vision of the spiritual life as an organic, ongoing process of exploration rather than a journey toward a defined goal, such as the conventional Protestant belief in a heavenly afterlife. In summarizing Whitman's religious upbringing, Reynolds notes "the amazing variety of his youthful religious experiences" leading to a poetry that "would be ecumenical, naming and embracing many different religions without lending absolute credence to any single one" (36). Perhaps the "averaging" of the broad spectrum of characters who achieve a sort of ethical redemption at the end of "The Sleepers" is paralleled in Whitman's interest in deism, and the idea of the relative parity of all religious faiths. Whitman was familiar with a number of well-known deists of his day, and revered many early American political figures who were also deists (Reynolds 36) . Whitman's family was also interested in Quakerism, and Whitman was fond of Elias Hicks, the rhetorically powerful and controversial Quaker figure. As a boy, Whitman was taken to hear Hicks speak in 1829, and Reynolds traces aspects of Hicks's oratorical style in Whitman's verse and general emphasis on voice: "Hicks's extreme emphasis on the sanctity of the inner light resonated within the poet who would place total reliance on the voice of the self (38). The "inner light" that Whitman locates within his own soul and by extension within every human soul is the idea or "myth" that brings about the unification of the wandering and divergent souls in "The Sleepers" and in other poems. Aspiz notes that the poet's concept of eternity owes something to Emerson 's essay tided "Immortality," with its emphasis on human capability in the manifest world, "immortality as an extension of the life of the mind and the power of the imagination" (So Long'28). The privileging of the religious imagination or soul, which Emerson termed "Reason," is manifest in Whitman's awareness of emerging studies of world religions. This context helped him conceive his notion of the evolution of religions and his idea that it was time for a new religion to evolve for his contemporary democracy. In his "Preface" to the 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass”, he contended that this task would fall to American poets.

These strains of influence remain visible through the various editions of Leaves, without Whitman ever choosing one over the other. Instead, they are synthesized into what might best be considered an ongoing process, fluid enough to allow individual poems to be read in evolving contexts based on their placement within Leaves. For example, "The Sleepers," originally one of the thirteen untitled poems published in 1855, was ultimately placed in a cluster of six poems following the Civil War poems and just preceding the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster, largely composed in the early 1870s. As a meditation on suffering and loss, one ending with a transcendent vision, the placement of "The Sleepers" between poems of battlefield carnage and the late, shorter poems confronting the actuality of death allows the 1855 poem to deepen the reader's overall sense of an evolving response to death, an unsettled attitude able to accommodate loss and hope. Along with other key poems in this cluster of six, such as "Passage to India" and "To Think of Time" (like "The Sleepers" one of the original thirteen) , it works toward recuperation and hope more potently by following the Drum-Taps sequence.

Whitman's notion of death as an unknown yet unthreatening continuation of life is forcefully present in many of his major poems from 1855-1860, often proposing a reincarnation of the spirit that retains or recovers a physical presence by being available to successive generations. But after the carnage of the Civil War battlefields Whitman witnessed first-hand as a nurse in the tents and hospitals during the early to mid 1860s, his poetry of Drum-Taps and his great Lincoln elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" turn away from the idea of death as part of a grand cycle and instead explore the process of mourning left to the living, what "Lilacs" terms the necessity of reconciling "the thought of death" with "the knowledge of death" (14; 13-14). Then, in his late work written in ill health, particularly in the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster and in the major poem "Passage to India," Whitman moves into a more speculative mode where he contemplates death as a mysterious "unknown region" and seeks "analogies" for life and death. Whitman's attitude toward death is complex and evolving, hinted at or forcefully articulated in dozens of poems from the nine editions of “Leaves of Grass” that span over thirty-five years of his life. Significant scholarly work on Whitman and death can be found in V.K. Chari, Tenney Nathanson, and Harold Aspiz, with Aspiz's So Long!: Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death being the most comprehensive treatment to date. Clearly, Whitman's treatment of death in his poetry is vital to any investigation of the spiritual dimension of his work and, as Aspiz notes, "is basic to the understanding of “Leaves of Grass”" ("Death" 168).

The poem that would come to bear the title "Song of Myself," the major poem of the original 1855 edition, contains several key passages relating to death, including sections 5 and 6, which offer another example of a scene where ecstatic sexual engagement leads to and is linked with a visionary spiritual transcendence of death. Section 5 begins with an invitation to the soul to "loafe with me on the grass" and quickly moves into a highly charged erotic exchange between soul and body, climaxing in a release that brings spiritual peace and awareness (5.3) . Echoing Ecclesiastes, the speaker proclaims, "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" (5.10-12). In "Song of Myself," divinity clearly is inherent in the gift of human love and bodily contact. In section 22, the speaker engages in "amorous" (22.6) contact with the sea; section 24 declares "I believe in the flesh and the appetites" (24.26); section 28 presents an auto-erotic frenzy with the sensation of touch "quivering me to a new identity" (28.1).

The sacredness of the physical so palpable in the early editions of “Leaves of Grass” remains a core element in all subsequent editions. John Irwin, in characterizing “Leaves of Grass” as a "hieroglyphic Bible," asserts that Whitman's is not a religion of the triune God but rather a religion of the human body and the body of nature conjoined in a cosmic unity. In Whitman's poetry, the physical is the pathway to the metaphysical precisely because in his poetic vision the physical is transformed into the metaphysical-man's body becomes his soul. (870)

This is certainly prevalent in poems of the first two editions, 1855 and 1856, with death seen as "no stoppage" (section 45), some form of the continuation of life, but also in later poems where physical loss must be met with the physicality of language and the mourning process, a bodily effort to lift the sagging spirit.

The powerful, sustained contemplation on the relation of life to death in section 6 is prompted by a question on the materiality of this earth: "A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands. / How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he" (6.1-2). The poet muses on the nature and source of the grass, his great metaphor for human existence and community, and is led, among other possibilities, to speculate that "now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves" (6.12). The grass thereby serves to connect the living with the dead, obliterating time boundaries much like the flowing river in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and allowing an emotional connection between "young men," "old people," and "offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps," all now dead but simultaneously "alive and well somewhere" (6.14-16). Still seeking his answer to the child's simple question, in contemplating the realm of death Whitman returns to his most frequently employed emblem of the life-force, the voice, as he hears the "uttering tongues" of the dead. But he can only wish to be able to "translate" what they are saying. Although unable to grasp their location or the nature of their expression, the "hints" of the dead persuade him to conclude that "there is really no death" but rather a new stage of life's cycle where "nothing collapses" (6.28-31). In the end, death remains an unknown, "different from what any one supposed" and perhaps a privileged state (6.32). Chari connects Whitman's notion of life and death bound in a cyclical continuum to his interest in eastern thought and belief systems, while others have seen his emphasis on the eternal consolation of nature as a form of pantheism (17-20). Both views are consistently manifest in Whitman's treatment of death in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves. In section 6 of "Song of Myself," he concludes that death is "different" and "luckier" than any might suppose (6.32), an unknown he insists is some sort of threshold to a new birth.

At the same time, in other lesser noticed sections of "Song of Myself," Whitman presents scenes of death that are accompanied by little if any consolation, such as the "murder in cold blood" of the army of 371 Texas rangers by the Mexican army in 1836 (section 34) and the story of an "old-time sea-fight" (sections 35 and 36). These passages anticipate the starkness of Drum-Taps, with the dying bravely confronting death, but with the poet's focus more on recounting the event, the actual representation of the physical end, than on identifying the fate of the soul. But "Song of Myself" mirrors Whitman's poetry as a whole by engaging in a dialectic with the theme of death, what Aspiz terms "the tense interplay between his fears of perishing and his convictions of eternal life" that lend his poems "dramatic excitement" ("Death" 166). By section 43, the poem has left behind scenes of specific physical death and offers a synthesis of all religions ancient and modern in its vision of reincarnation: "My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths, / Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern, / Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years" (43.2-4). The subsequent lines continue to embrace sacred figures, texts, and sites of various world religions, all available to the seeking spirit, "the winders of the circuit of circuits" (43.15). This section propels Whitman back into his motif of "perpetual journey" as the poem moves toward its memorable conclusion. Within these journeys, in particular the psychological explorations of self, the relation of self to others, as well as to the external, natural world, the insights gained by the poet are never closed or definitive but instead part of ongoing spiritual growth, with Whitman emerging as better equipped to lead the readers into their own emotional and intellectual quests. This is perhaps part of what Hutchinson means, in his comparison of "The Sleepers" and "Song of Myself," by "an assumption of prophetic power." "Both [poems] represent experiences of religious inspiration of a very similar, sensual sort, precipitated by existential riddles that lead to trance-like absorption, symbolic death, spiritual "vision," achievement of equilibrium, and an assumption of prophetic power" (58).

In the closing sections of "Song of Myself," Whitman returns to the trope of death as a new birth, part of a scheme, with section 49 presenting death as "the accoucheur" or midwife, and in section 50, "form, union, plan-it is eternal life-it is Happiness" (50.10). In the final section of the poem, Whitman is able to "bequeath" himself to the earth and air and to his future readers. He ends the poem not by conquering death but by continuing to engage it as possibility, alternately feared and welcomed, but part of a process and not a final event. By handing his "book" to the reader he transfers his spiritual guidance to that reader, placing the responsibility for further discovery and enlightenment into the hands of his "eleves," urging them to "continue your annotations, continue your questionings" (38.17). The task of the reader is no longer to listen to the poet, but to "destroy the teacher" and begin to "accrue" one's own visions and insights, as the poet has throughout his long poem (47.3) .

In many of the new poems of the 1860 edition, such as "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman continues to challenge readers to conceive of spirituality in abroad, open sense, connecting the spiritual with the physical, the possibility of afterlife with earthly life: "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems, / And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality, / For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of Immortality" (6.3-5) . By this third edition, he is still eager to explore death as offering clues to life and thought while balancing his optimistic explorations with moments of self-doubt, as in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life." The 1860 edition is an important one, with major poems such as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (earlier titled "A Child's Reminiscence," and "A Word Out of the Sea"), "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "Starting from Paumanok," and the frank love sequences "Children of Adam" and "Calamus," the latter now recognized as a watershed gay text.

Whitman had already announced in "Song of Myself that he is the poet of the body and the soul, insisting that the two must not be separated, and "Paumanok" reiterates this major theme. John F. Gardner's analysis is pertinent to Whitman's enduring coupling of the spiritual with the physical: "Perhaps we may say that Whitman was Eastern in his recognition that all of material existence derives from high spiritual beginnings, but he was Western in emphasizing that the opposite is also true: that spirituality continues to evolve in, through, and by means of the physical-earthly" (123). Later in "Song of Myself," in assessing his own body, Whitman declares, "divine am I inside and out" (24.28). But the lines from "Paumanok" on the poems of materials also being the poems of the soul do something that "Song of Myself" does not. They position language and the poem itself as the meeting place for the physical and spiritual, the reconciliation site for life and death.

The key poems from 1855, with their focus on the poet and his feelings toward his fellow beings, never quite pause to dwell on language and the poem as sacred object, even though they foreground voice and expressiveness. By 1860, in poems like "Paumanok" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the poet's attention is more often fixed on the word, the poem, the catalytic moment of understanding or keen loneliness than on the transcendent experience of connectedness with others. Whether through moments of insight or despair, he is invariably brought back to the soul. Described earlier in the poem as his "mistress," at the end of "Starting from Paumanok" the soul is his "camerado," "the loud echo of my songs" (18.13) . As for his readers, Whitman instructs them to examine both themselves and nature for "spiritual joys," having made clear that these are also the materials for the poem. Eventually Whitman would come to place "Paumanok" just ahead of "Song of Myself ' in his final arrangement of “Leaves of Grass”, a pair of extended examinations of the source and sustenance of spiritual life, a guided searching of the soul.

The key poem among the 1860 additions is "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," where Whitman brings together the themes of passage from childhood to adulthood, the discovery of Eros and Thanatos, and being called to the role of poet. Beginning with sheer propulsion of language, the poem's first twenty-two lines give us a whirlwind autobiography of the speaker's sensibility. He is a man recalling through his tears a boyhood and how he came to be a "chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter" (20) . The poem then proceeds into a dramatic narrative of a rite of passage, including a conversation between boy and mourning bird, an observation of loss that leads to an awareness of death and subsequently to nothing less than a discovery of identity and purpose. The poem contains several of the characteristic routes by which Whitman treats spirituality: psychological exploration of the uncertain; nature in conversation with both human intellect and human emotion; the positioning of poetry as source of both inspiration and solace.

The boy in the poem, the young poet-to-be, performs primarily as observer and auditor until his entry into adulthood and poetry in the final section. The experience of loss takes place as a form of psychological transference, the boy spying on two birds, "feather 'd guests from Alabama" nesting along the shore of his Long Island home (26). When the female bird disappears the boy listens to her mate's song of mourning, sensing a kinship and terming the bird "brother" (61) , increasingly feeling called to "absorb" and then "translate" his notes (69). Of all Whitman's poems, "Cradle" more than any other fore- grounds the poet's belief in the essential process of being open to engaging the natural world as a route to spiritual awareness, discovery of language, and sense of self. Killingsworth reads this message as central in "Lilacs," noting "the willingness and capacity of the sensitive person to be transformed in the face of undeniable otherness, both human and natural" (119). But the openness to transformation is more profound in "Cradle" dian "Lilacs" because of the great emotional risk to the young boy in this process. The poem emphasizes the boy's vulnerability in his own solitude, every bit as intense and felt as that of the sorrowful bird. He is acutely aware of the sharp emotions at hand, both his and the bird's, but he chooses to remain on the shore as a witness to these dual dramas, the bird's keening and his own psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth. As with so many of Whitman's speakers, the boy seems poised on a threshold, figured by the uneven boundary of land and sea, and at points in the poem seems threatened by a powerful ocean that might literally subsume him. His relationship with the sea, which the boy-poet describes as "the fierce old mother" and "some old crone rocking the cradle," is overdy Oedipal (133, 182). The sea is simultaneously and variously lover, mother, teacher, "hissing" threat, and deliveress. While the sea serves as catalyst for knowledge and maturation, once the boy realizes his calling as poet, singer of loss and sorrow, he must strike out and move beyond sheer emotional response to become the voice of healing and solace.

A significant section of the poem is constituted by the solitary and bereaved bird's emotional song of loss, which the metamorphosing boy "translates." Whitman demarcates the two voices, that of the bird's voice and the boy's reflections and responses, in differing typeface. But die act of "absorbing" involves receiving-voice from nature, from both bird and sea, so that birdsong ultimately becomes the poet's voice. The bird enacts the loss of mate and sings a dirge that transforms into a poetic exertion and affirmation of vocal self; die boy identifies and formulates his translation, entering an "ecstatic" state as he awaits the "word final, superior to all" from the sea (161). The "low and delicious word" from the sea is "death," repeated five times. But the bird has prepared the boy in not only sheer expression of panged loss but, more significantly, the art of vocal modulation in singing of loss. In its very singing, the bird has described its own voice and function of song, whether "loud, " "murmur, " or "throbbing, " whether to "sooth, "to "sink low, "or to sound "sick and sorrowful, " and whether to sing of past joys, present sorrow, or fluctuate between both simultaneously. The voice lesson of the bird is of equal importance to the sea's deliverance of the word "death," an aspect of the poem yet to be afforded a thorough critical treatment. The "fitful risings and fallings" and "beginning notes of yearning" will prove vital to Whitman's elegiac songs published five years later, the poetic responses to the Civil War dead and the assassinated president (9, 11). The subtle modulations of grief and spiritual seeking will also play prominently in his 1872 self-elegies clustered under the title "Whispers of Heavenly Death" as he anticipates his own bodily decline.

Of interest to any argument for Whitman's advocacy of spiritual awareness as an ongoing process that embraces the unknown is Harold Aspiz's discussion of the poem in his So Long!: Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death. Examining primarily the 1859-1860 version that Whitman continued to revise until the 1881 Leaves, Aspiz demonstrates how key lines surrounding the sea's pronouncement of "death" "clearly articulating the persona's inability to construe the sea's 'message'" were later deleted by Whitman. The lines ask the question "O what is my destination?" and fear that it may be "chaos," leaving the ending of the poem more open and ambiguous, as "the sea's answer remains shrouded in vagueness, since it can be understood as either terrifying or comforting" (1 36-38) . But Whitman's revisions also serve to foreground the entry into language, which does not so much provide closure to the final 1881 version as shift the location of ambiguity from youthful openness to the poetic process and the creative response to loss. MarkBauerlein usefully notes that one way of reading the end of the poem emphasizes the poet's need "to transform formative experiences and dim memories into songs that transcend their own experiences" (496) . In embracing language as his vehicle for continuing the search for connection and discovery, Whitman does not close off the possibility of confronting the terror of death. He does affirm, however, the responsibility for finding a register of both response and regeneration when that confrontation occurs.

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" affirms Whitman's recognition that the mature poet is necessarily an elegiac poet, and as part of this recognition, his decision to quickly include Drum-Taps, originally published separately in 1865, in the new 1867 edition ?? “Leaves of Grass” as an appendix, and then to incorporate the sequence into the 1871 Leaves, signifies his belief that the poet's response to suffering and death is a vital part of his spiritual vision. The Civil War and Lincoln's assassination gave Whitman the material for elegiac verse, and by placing Drum-Tapsand "When Lilacs Last in the DooryardBloom'd" into Leaves, Whitman attempts to move past the liminal state in the transformation of poetic self-narrated by "Cradle" and assumes the mantle of chanter of loss. The essential sequence of Drum Taps poems is based primarily upon Whitman's unofficial service as a nurse in field and city hospitals in and around Washington B.C. during the years 1863-64. Whitman had previously visited sick and wounded war soldiers in a New York City hospital in 1861-62 but went to the war front in Virginia in December 1862 after learning that his brother George had been wounded. His brother's wound was not serious, but Whitman settled in Washington for the next year and a half. M. Wynn Thomas comments on how going to the front enabled Whitman to recognize the profound gap of awareness about the war between soldiers and civilians, so that "his war poems became, in turn, his letters to the world" as he set about attempting to connect his readers with the experiences of those in the camps and fields (31).

In Whitman's final arrangement, Drum-Taps begins as a call to arms, a celebration of democracy as cause for the war. Democracy is personified as a brave soldier moving forward: "Thunder on! stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke!" ("Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps" 3.1). But the cluster of poems becomes more interesting and powerful when Whitman begins to focus on the daily activities of the soldiers. Three sequential poems where Whitman writes as observer, creating scene and atmosphere with intricate, almost painterly detail, begin to trace possible spiritual components to be extracted from the carnage of war. "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," "Bivouac on a Mountain Side," and "An Army Corps on the March" all subtly highlight the grace of human endurance by establishing a strong connection between the soldiers and their surroundings and an unspoken fraternal unity with one another. In "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" Whitman contemplates the "serpentine course" of the soldiers, taking note of how individuals comprise the group: "Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture" (4) . In his insightful, book-length contextualization and analysis of Whitman's service during the Civil War, Roy Morris Jr. remarks on how in this brief poem Whitman shifts perspective from "long shot" to "close-up view," emphasizing "both the democratic nature of the army and the way it has molded into a monolithic whole" (67) . Consolation is not the primary spiritual element in Drum-Taps. Rather, the poems suggest that witnessing the daily reality of war, reflecting on its meaning, and drawing one's own conclusions is the means by which the war can deepen the soul of the non-combative citizen.

"Bivouac on a Mountain Side" and "An Army Corps on the March" similarly adopt the perspective of keen onlooker and historical witness, and Whitman also continues to develop the relationship between the soldiers and the very earth they fight over. "Cavalry" shows the men crossing a "silvery river" and ends with the images of their "guidon flags" in the wind (3, 7), while "Bivouac" focuses on the backdrop of mountains and cedars where the army has camped for the night. The poem ends with an exclamation over the outbreak of "eternal stars" in the sky, an image that throws the mortal lives of the soldiers into sharp relief while emphasizing that not even the unnatural ravages of war can destroy the earth's cycle (7). "An Army Corps on the March" turns to the heat of day, with "dust cover'd" soldiers "toiling under the sun" (4), but even here Whitman seems interested in how the soldiers integrate into the landscape, suggesting his vision of oneness for all the states and for the warring armies, Union and Confederate alike. The poet's keen response to these scenes is another key instance of how Whitman binds deep empathy, reflective response, and language as components of his spiritual vision. By the time the Drum-Taps sequence reaches the central poem "The Wound Dresser," Whitman's role has shifted dramatically from recorder to participant. Now he is the old man-nurse, "thread [ing] my way through the hospitals," dressing wounds, comforting, or in the worst cases, asking death to "In mercy come quickly" (4.2, 3.6) . As Gardner has noted, when Whitman presents himself as healer, his mood is "avowedly religious" (25). His focus is on providing support and spiritual comfort by whatever means possible. In "Come Up from the Fields Father" Whitman focuses on the mother's response to the letter bearing news of her son's war injury, her anguished grieving and desire to join her son in death. But just as Whitman has the reader attending to the mother's response, we are more attuned to his response to the mother, the scene, and death as subject. Similarly, in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" the reader feels deeply for the wounded "brave boy" whose eyes arrest Whitman before the poet has to move on amidst a battle (16) . Returning to find the boy at the end of day, the poet discovers him dead on the field and keeps an all night vigil of silence before carefully wrapping and burying the body. Again it is the remarkable response of the poet to death, in both language and action, that compels and involves the reader.

At the same time Whitman succeeds in connecting civilian readers with the reality of war, Drum-Taps never fully transcends the liminal state of questioning the meaning of suffering and loss. Again and again the poems present a speaker who pauses "in silence" to open himself to possible enlightenment on the entire process of life and death. A few lines from different poems in the sequence will demonstrate the recurrence of this posture: "O tender and wondrous thoughts, / Of life and death"; "Vigil of silence, love and death"; "Curious I halt and silent stand"; "Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering"; "Thus in silence in dreams' projections" ("By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame" 7-8; "Vigil Strange I Kept of the Field One Night" 14; "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim" 7; "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods" 8, "The Wound-Dresser" 4.1). On the whole, what Drum-Taps presents is a sensibility learning to process and respond to loss while remaining open to ongoing uncertainties about that process. As he emphatically asserts in "To a Certain Civilian," any reader eager for facile representations of war or pat closure in his songs "will never understand me" (10) . He closes the sequence by focusing on the nature of representation, poetic response itself, and by reiterating that his response to the war is far from finished: "The Northern ice and rain that began me nourish me to the end, / But the hot sun of the South is to fully ripen my songs" (13-14). For Whitman, there are no limits to the possible future relationship between his nation and his poetry. Drum-Taps is anything but a closed text, or a "lesson" of war. It is a poetic sequence best read alongside other key Whitman texts dealing with public and personal loss and possible regeneration. The spiritual dimension of these poems is consistent with other moments in Whitman where the reader is invited to adopt the stance of the poet - seeking, questioning, and continuing.

Whitman's increased interest in the process of representing loss is the focus of his major work in elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Aspiz offers a useful summation of Whitman's attitude in the poem: "No other poetic commemoration of the war so exaltedly embraces the mystery of death, both in terms of national tragedy and as a record of one man's progression through despair, mourning, and a resolution of his own and his nation's anguish" (So Long 189). While the poem pays homage to the assassinated Lincoln and contains many of the conventional emblems and elements of elegy, within the context of Whitman's treatment of death and its aftermath, the poem's principal focus is on the process of mourning and the impact of death on those left behind, particularly the poet who would respond to the death of a national figure. We see this in the sections detailing the slow, steadyjourney of Lincoln's coffin across the states, the outpouring of response from "the mournful voices" of the populous, and the personal response of the poet (6.9). From the outset of the poem, Whitman clearly sees his purpose as one of mourning more thatjust the deceased Lincoln. In the poem's opening section, he establishes that his major emblems of mourning - the lilac, the star, and the bird - are all recurring entities of nature, not finite emblems of loss alone. The cyclical appearance of the spring lilacs and the evening star are not just reminders of the dead, but figures of renewal and hope. Similarly, the song of the bird, increasingly twined with the song of the poet, as in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," is "death's outlet song of life" (4.7), the work of mourning necessary for any possible consolation and rejuvenation.

In sections 8 and 9, Whitman positions himself as a student of nature, absorbing instructions from the star and bird. The child poet-to-be of "Out of the Cradle" is now more certain of his voice and role, but he continues to seek guidance from the natural world. Lincoln, never mentioned by name in the poem, has now ceased to be the poem's object of focus, if he ever was. After the poet bestows his "sprig of lilac" on the coffin at the end of section 6, the central concern becomes the acts of mourning and recuperation, the nature of the song of loss and the "tally" of both the individual soul of the poet and the collective soul of the nation. After communing with the star and bird, the poet-speaker shifts attention to his own search for terms of expression: "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I love?" (10.1). Whereas at the end of Out of the Cradle" the young boy stands poised to begin poetic utterance, in "Lilacs," after the series of questions on how to acknowledge loss, "the breath of my chant" explodes into a catalogue of affirmation, a sweeping panorama of "body and soul - this land" (10.6, 12.1). Hence, by mid-way through the poem, the poet's voice has found emotional balance and rhetorical power and command. Only after appropriately honoring the dead and affirming the power of song to stabilize both poet-speaker and reader, does the deeper probing of death in relation to life take place.

At the core of the poem comes the visit of the poet-speaker and his "comrades," the thought of death and knowledge of death, to the bird in the swamp. The result of the visit is a paean to death, a song of "praise! praise! praise!" intimate and reverential in tone. "Come lovely and soothing death," the prayer begins, and proceeds to celebrate death as the great equalizer and unifier, a " [d] ark mother" and "strong deliveress" who, like the star, lilac, and bird in their recurring appearances, will affirm life rather than interrupt or terminate it (14.28-9). It is also worth noting that Whitman places the poet's hymn to death in the same italicized typescript as the bird's lesson-song in "Out of the Cradle." The second centerpiece of emotion directly follows the hymn and culminates in a reflection on the aftermath of the Civil War. The poet's evocation of the war dead is stark and harrowing: "battle-corpses, myriads of them, / And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them, / I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war" (15.15-17). But the lines that follow are even more striking, as Whitman confronts the impact of death on the bereaved and strikes a profound note of mature empathy. It is not the dead now "fully at rest" who need attending, but those left behind: "The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd, / And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd, / And the armies that remain'd suffer'd" (15.20-22) . Although a new way of thinking about life in relation to death, this focus on the response to death is in keeping with Whitman's earlier emphasis on how life and death are mysteriously connected in a cycle that can be better intuited than understood. Death's "outletsong" spans arange of registers and, like the notes of the bird in both "Cradle" and "Lilacs," is a "varying ever-altering song" (16.4).

The poems comprising the eigh teen-poem cluster Whitman grouped under the tide "Whispers of Heavenly Death" were composed primarily in the late 186Os following the Civil War. In many of the poems one gets the sense of the poet regaining his balance after the experience of the war, expressing an attitude toward death more speculative and hopeful, more philosophical but less "ecstatic" than the boy dancing on the shore in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." The sequence begins with "Darest Thou Now O Soul," where Whitman asks his soul to accompany him to a "blank" and "unknown region," an "inaccessible land" (2, 9) Part of what seems an initial hesitancy in the poem stems from the poet's assertion that this unknown realm is sure to be devoid of human "voice," "touch," and "flesh" (5-6). When a reader pauses to consider the significance of these human elements on both Whitman the man and his poetic endeavor, as both are represented in “Leaves of Grass”, any surprise at a slightly tentative tone diminishes, for delight in fleshly contact and what "Song of Myself" terms the "hum" of the "valved voice" is one of die major strands binding this poet's project (5.5). Even in his late work, for Whitman to move toward any dimension lacking the press of fellow humanity, to ask his soul to leave its steadfast companion, the body, is to explore truly foreign terrain. But as with his earlier epics of psychological struggle and breakthrough, "The Sleepers" and "Cradle," Whitman offers a sudden, almost spontaneous breakthrough into a dimension of freedom and possibility, not a specific locality or even destination, only a state without "ties" or "bounds" where "we burst forth, we float" (13) . Again, as in the earlier "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the liquid element represents both freedom and acceptance of the unknown, an ability to feel part of the vastness of time and space without fear of being absorbed or obliterated. Here, and in the poem that follows, the title poem of the cluster, Whitman begins to lay the groundwork for movement into the realm of death by celebrating the possibilities of the unknown.

In the third poem, "Chanting the Square Deific," Whitman addresses what William James termed "the varieties of religious experience" (158) through an acknowledgment of the vastness of concepts of God. Whitman had made several earlier attempts at this poem, suggesting both the difficulty of the subject and the poet's determination to fully engage it. It first appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66) , and Gregory Eiselein has suggested that in initially placing the poem in this collection Whitman sought "a postwar message of reconciliation and religious consolation" (113). The poem begins by asserting that concepts of the divine are both iconic and multiple, old and new, evolving: "Chanting the square deific, out of the One advancing, out of the sides, / Out of the old and new, out of the square entirely divine, / Solid, four-sided, (all the sides needed,)" (1.3). In four relatively concise sections, Whitman evokes versions of four types of divinity: the traditional, all-judging God; the compassionate, healing God; the defiant, exiled angel; and the universal, timeless spirit of God. Each God pronounces his identity and names himself in his own voice, insisting on the various manifestations of his type through the history of religious beliefs. Hence, the God who speaks in section 1 identifies himself as "Jehovah," "Old Brahm," "Saturnius," "the Father," and "brown old Kronos," old and modern at the same time, "executing righteous judgments" (3-7). This elder, judging God is both beyond time and of time itself, unforgiving. In section 2 Whitman turns to "the cheerbringing God," "Lord Christ," "Hermes," and, in his evocation of the healing and compassionate God of love, suggests images of himself running throughout “Leaves of Grass”, most notably in the "Drum-Taps" sequence (2.4-9). While there are certainly aspects of Whitman the nonconformist in the revolter-Satan of section 3, readers will most likely feel that the God of section 2 is the deity most identified with by the "Walt Whitman" presented by the poet in “Leaves of Grass”. The most rhythmic of the four sections, the lines of section 2 are consistently long, swelling in movement, a catalogue of generosity following the actions of a God who, like the persona "Walt Whitman," absorbs and celebrates the world.

But in section 3 Whitman strikes his most original concept of faith by including Satan as a necessary fourth "side" in his refashioning of a conventional trinity. Whitman's language in this part of the poem presents an aspect of the spiritual life that is proud and resolute, refusing to be "rule[d]" (3.5), a "comrade of criminals, brother of slaves" (3. 2), a role again recalling the empathetic position of the poet in so many earlier poems in “Leaves of Grass”. Within the context of Whitman's evolving spiritual vision, the notion of an "aloof," "defiant" deity is less revolutionary than it seems. This is the nonconforming, ever-questing spirit that has always been a necessary part of the poet's conception of faith, American democracy, and American character. Whitman's Satan is the vital, energetic, crafty, and creative God inherent in the most complete human soul, as well as the prideful and nonconforming spirit that he envisions as the new American spirit, the dynamic world citizens he posits in "Democratic Vistas" and in poems that celebrate the independent, free-thinking America.

Whitman brings the different sides of human concepts of the divine together in section 4 with "Santa Spirita" or the Holy Spirit, merging the previous Gods into a harmonious entity "beyond" both heaven and hell, "lighter than light" (4.2). Whitman deviates from the traditional masculine phrasing of the Italian (Spirito Santo) and Latin (Spiritus Sanctus) in his naming of the unifying spirit, thereby emphasizing the universality of his vision of deity. In closing the poem, Whitman again returns the focus to the connection between the divine and his own poetic endeavor, having Santa Spirita declare that it is her breath that gives life to "these songs" (4.10) . All along, language and poetry have been closely tied to the spiritual quest, and even in an attempt at an all-encompassing summation of spiritual conceptions, the poet is unable to disassociate divinity from his own enterprise.

The "Whispers" cluster reaches its culmination in one of Whitman's greatest achievements in the short form, "A Noiseless Patient Spider." Ten lines in length, the poem compares the quest of the soul to that of an "isolated" spider seeking to "explore the vacant vast surrounding" (3). In the first five lines Whitman offers an observation of the spider's efforts as it launches "filament" after filament into the void, and then in the second half of the poem he turns to directly address his soul, similarly "detached" yet seeking connection. Again, as with most of the poems in the "Whispers" sequence, it is striking that the poet who found so many connections - with other human beings, physical phenomena, and himself - in the poems of the 185Os and early 186Os should at this late stage present himself as solitary and still optimistically seeking connections amidst an unknown and mysterious universe. But the willingness to exist "in measureless oceans of space, / Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing" remains as much a part of Whitman's essential being as in the early poems of more intense, ecstatic psychological exploration (7-8) . What has changed is the poet's stance, his attitude toward his endeavor. More patient, more musing, he is in his late phase less urgent and more persistent in his questing and questioning than in his longer poems of the 185Os such as "The Sleepers" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

In what is widely considered one of his last major poems, Whitman in "Passage to India" (1871) returns to the endeavor undertaken in 1856 with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the attempt to transcend spiritually the boundaries of time and space. Ostensibly celebrating the scientific and technological achievements of the day, particularly the completion of the North American transcontinental railroad, opening of the Suez Canal, and laying of Atlantic cable, the poem's true concern is akin to that of the earlier poems, how to face confidently the omnipotence of the external universe. The answer lies in turning to "thee O soul, thou actual Me," allowing the poet-speaker to not "shrivel at the thought of God, / At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death" (8.32-34). Whitman personifies the soul as a questing, journeying entity, carrying on the "questionings" and "feverish explorations" of Adam and Eve and "their myriad progeny after them" (5.9). Consistent with his earlier emphasis on the role of the poet as amalgamator and uniter, Whitman in "Passage to India" presents the poet as "the true son of God" whose songs can "soothe," "justify," "speak," and "bind" the disparate elements of the material world and the searching spirit (5.25-31 ) . The poem exemplifies Kuebrich's claim that in Whitman, "spiritual experience comes not from avoiding this world but rather through engaging it more fully" (4) .

But Whitman's reconciliation of the material and the spiritual is a more difficult task nearly twenty years after he penned the initial poems of the 1855 “Leaves of Grass”. David Reynolds has discussed Whitman's ambivalence toward the Gilded Age, his simultaneous wariness of the growth of capitalism and propensity to celebrate technological advance as "allied in its roaring freedom, he thought, to his own poetry" (496). Perhaps this ambivalence is what accounts for the rhetorical and emotional unevenness of the poem. Early in the poem, Whitman's catalogues of the new commerce of east and west, both in North America and "between Europe and Asia" seems rather forced, lacking the authenticity of the catalogues of workers in the 1855, 1856, and 1860 editions of Leaves (3.24). But when Whitman turns his attention to the journey and achievements of the soul, the poem picks up in intensity and feeling. Both unifying and transcending time and history, the soul leads man back to "primal thought" and "innocent intuitions" (7.1, 9). In the poem's seventh section, one of its briefest, Whitman's language suggests circularity, return, and completion, an "early paradise" of regenerative, imaginative fulfillment (7.8). As in "The Sleepers," it is the imaginative spirit and vision of the poet that brings exploration and seeking to its point of unification and overall well-being. Yet for all his naming of particulars in the poem, both of place and of human achievement, the end-point of the spiritual journey is once again a state afloat, a threshold of not just illumination but further, even "reckless," exploration. The poem ends with the poet and his soul setting out for "the deep waters" where "mariner has notyet dared to go" (9.25) . Amidstall the profound discoveries and pronouncements running through the major poems of the past two decades, the poet near the end of his life's work refuses to rest in certainty and assurance. His position remains what it has essentially been from the outset, a lifelong exploration and embrace of uncertainty as the central component of spirituality.


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_______ . So Long!: Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004.

Asselineau, Roger. "Grass and Liquid Trees: The Cosmic Vision of Walt Whitman." Whitman East & West: New Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2002. 221-27.

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Eiselein, Gregory. "Chanting the Square Déifie." LeMaster and Kummings 112-13.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Erkkila, Betsy, and Jay Grossman, eds. Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Gardner, John F. American Heralds of the Spirit: Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne P, 1992.

Hutchinson, George. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Irwin, John. "Whitman: Hieroglyphic Bibles and Phallic Songs." “Leaves of Grass” and Other Writings: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002. 863-72.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James: Writings 1902-1910. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2004.

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Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

LeMaster, J. R., and Donald D. Kummings, eds. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

Morris, Roy, Jr. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Natiianson, Tenney. Whitman 's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in “Leaves of Grass”. New York: New York UP, 1992.

Pannapacker,William. Revised Lives: Whitman, Religion, and Constructions of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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Thomas, M. Wynn. "Fratricide and Brotherly Love: Whitman and the Civil War." The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. 27-44.

Whitman, Walt. Collect, and Other Prose. Vol. 2 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New ed. New York: New York UP, 2007.

_______ . Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982. [All quotations from the poetry are taken from this text.]

_______ . “Leaves of Grass” and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.

Credits: Ernest Smith. Papers on Language and Literature. Edwardsville: Summer 2007. Vol. 43, Iss. 3; pg. 227, 37 pgs.

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