A number of influences operated upon Walt Whitman (1819-1892) from childhood which inspired him to become a poet. His father’s democratic ideas went a long way towards making him a poet of democratic ideals. He expressed his ideas about democracy, love, sex, mysticism and science in his poems. While expressing his ideas he used symbols from nature, such as grass, plants, birds and heavenly bodies, enabling readers to understand his ideas clearly. “Indirection is an important aspect of the technique of communication of a mystic” (Briggs). In his poems he has made use of indirection and symbolism, as well as sensuous and concrete imagery in a highly sophisticated manner, to convey his perceptions.
Purpose of symbols in his poems Symbolism is essentially an oblique or indirect mode of expression, which suggests much more than is actually described or asserted. It increases the expressive power and range of a writer, and enables him/her to communicate to his/her readers’ highly abstract and metaphysical truths, which cannot be conveyed directly by the use of ordinary language. Whiteman’s poetry is highly, symbolic for he believed that true art is suggestive, and that it requires much painstaking labour. Moreover, he wanted to communicate to his readers his own perceptions of nature, man, and the world. 1. The essential “oneness”. 2. The spiritual reality. 3. The fluidity or liquidity. The “I” as symbol Language in India www.languageinindia.com 12: 6 June 2012 Premalatha, M. A., M. Phil., Ph.D. Candidate Symbolism in Whitman’s Poems
For example “I” in Whiteman’s poetry does not stand for the poet alone. It symbolises the modern American, the modern man, or even everyman. It symbolises the natural propensities in man, and thus it stands for all. As the poet has an overwhelming feeling of the oneness of all, the “I” may even symbolise a soldier on the battlefield, or a comet rushing through the heavens. I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun. I effuse my flesh in eddies, drift in lacy jags.
At other times, the “I” becomes the traveller and explorer, whose object is to know the Universe itself as road, as many roads, as roads for travelling souls. The road and the journey The road in Whiteman’s poetry is not merely the physical path on which the poet travels. It also symbolises the path which leads to spirituality, and the journey itself symbolises the process by which the soul achieves its identity with the divine. His journeys are voyages in “the metaphysical sense”. Whitman’s “Perpetual journey” is not analogous to a sight-seeing trip; though his catalogues might give that impression, the mind and the material world into which it ventures, are not ultimately different in kind. Instead what seems at first penetration of nature by the mind, is actually a process through which the known world comes into being. “The child who went forth every day and who now goes and will always go forth everyday” is distinguishable from the world of his experience. “The first object he looked upon, that object he became and that object became part of him”. The true voyage is the endless becoming of reality. Language in India www.languageinindia.com 12: 6 June 2012 Premalatha, M. A., M. Phil., Ph.D. Candidate Symbolism in Whitman’s Poems
Allons! To that which is endless as it was beginningless, To undergo much, tramp of days, rest of nights To merge all in the travel they tend to and the days and nights they tend to again to merge them in the start of superior journeys… Here there is no clear distinction between the traveller, the road and the journey, for the journey is nothing but the progressive unity of the voyager, and the lands he enters; perceptions which unite the seer and the seen. Though it claims to express the self of the poet, the famous “Song of Myself” makes sense only when it is taken to symbolise “the procreant urge” of the natural world. Indeed, The...