E Pluribus Unum

Walt-Whitman

Last week, we began looking at the poetry of Walt Whitman, and, in particular, his Song of Myself. There are several things that need to be said about Whitman as initial observations, all of which covered in class but which are worth repeating here.

The first is to recall that Whitman is traditionally seen as a sort of bridge that connects Transcendentalism on the one hand and Realism on the other, not simply chronologically but—far more importantly—formally. That is, his writing often palpably reflects a number of concerns that pertain to Transcendentalism, but also creates the sort of images and ideas that we associate with the literary realism of the later C19.

As far as Leaves of Grass is concerned or, more specifically, Song of Myself, what has frequently been suggested about Whitman’s writing is that it is the poetry of the emerging America, the poetics of democracy, a vital celebration of multiplex freedom. The critic Harold Bloom calls Whitman “the imaginative voice of the nation”.

Well, perhaps. But we also saw that Whitman’s writing is complex, opaque and seemingly chaotic, ranging across a vast area of subject matter without any apparent purpose.

How can we balance these views and come to a better understanding, however initial, of what Whitman may be proposing? Let’s begin by recognising that, whilst his writing clearly eschews the formal constraints of traditional poetry, most obviously as regards rhythm, rhyme and stanzaic organisation, there are nevertheless very ‘poetic’ dimensions to his writing. In Song of Myself, we observed that the text is:

  • Aphoristic
  • Prophetic
  • Multi-signifying

Very particularly, despite what would appear grammatically to be an immense obsession with his own self, it soon becomes clear that the “I, me, my, mine” of the poem in fact has a transcendental significance, pointing at the multiple, collective individualities of the nation. These are as disperse and differentiated as the content of the poem, but they relentlessly reinforce the underlying message of unity from diversity. That is, they are a poetic expression of E Pluribus Unum (“From the Many, One”), a phrase on the Seal of the United States and often used as the unofficial motto of the nation.

This points to an implicit political objective underlying the whole poem, which is that it is a celebration (a “song”) of national unity, a unity that is powerful and forceful precisely because of its undeniably vital individualism. Indeed, this is even a way of looking, textually, at the poem itself: an apparently disconnected series of poetic utterances that actually work together to create a united effect.

Once again, we see that a writer reflecting on the social currents that were driving the United States towards the destructiveness of the Civil War produces a work that has a transparently political message: inclusion, acceptance and understanding are the means by which the nation will be strengthened; the alternative is incomprehension.

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