On Eastern Philosophy in “Song of Myself”
Malcolm Cowley, editor of the 1986 publication of Leaves of Grass: The First, states that Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” has many Eastern characteristics, which it does, though Whitman uses them unknowingly. Three of the main points Cowley makes about the mysticism and Eastern influence are Whitman’s thoughts of reincarnation, his identification with his Creator, and his achievement of true knowledge. These ideas can be and are seen throughout the fifty-two chants of “Song of Myself.”
Reincarnation, also known as metempsychosis, is the rebirth of one’s soul into a different body after one’s previous body dies. The body one’s soul enters in a subsequent incarnation depends on “the actions performed during one incarnation” (Cowley xxi). This idea is known as karma and means that if a person is good and just in his first life, he or she will be reborn in “a higher form” (Cowley xxi). The ability to identify with one’s Creator is another Eastern idea Whitman uses in which one at a certain “point in his spiritual progress…becomes identified with the personal creator of the world illusion” (Cowley xxvii). This means that a person is granted the omnipotence and the omniscience that were once only reserved for the Supreme Being that created the world. This achievement is classified as a person reaching “Brahman” (Cowley xxvii). One of the final Eastern points Cowley identifies in his introduction to “Song of Myself” is the acquisition of true knowledge. True knowledge, according to Eastern philosophy, is the understanding of the divinity of all things through a union with one’s “Self” (xxi). It is allegedly “available to every man and woman, since each contains a divine Self” (xxi).
Walt Whitman, the speaker of the poem (Walter Whitman is identified as the author and Walt Whitman as the speaker, according to the original copyright page of Leaves of Grass.), identifies himself as going through many deaths and being reborn multiple times. Whitman asserts his reincarnations when he writes that there is “No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before” (84, line 1289). He further compares death to sleep and his awakening is actually his rebirth as a new being. He then proceeds “to fill [his] next fold of the future” (85, line 1310). Earlier in the poem Whitman writes that “All [life] goes onward and outward” regardless of death (30, line 120). The speaker recognizes the circle of life, perhaps most prominently in chant six, in which he states on how the grass on which he is loafing is made from “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” (30, line 101). Whitman suggests that the grass could be “from the breasts of young wen” or “from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps” (30, line 105). The speaker is aware of how, when a person is buried, he or she will eventually decompose and become part of the dirt, from which the grass springs. Therefore, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” (30, line 117).
Though the bodies of these people return to the earth and become the earth, their souls are incarnated and reincarnated time and again. Cowley states that Whitman appears to be, at times, a “Mahayana Buddhist, promising nirvana for all after countless reincarnations,” which Whitman does assert. In one passage from chant forty-one, Whitman states that he is “waiting my time to be one of the supremes,” and this is his nirvana, or heaven (72, line 1045).
Whitman, in the spirit of Eastern philosophy, is able to “identify himself with every object and with every person living or dead” and with the Supreme Being that has created him (Cowley xix). Whitman identifies with and knows “the hand of God” and “the spirit of God” (29, lines 83-4) through an ethereal encounter and appoints himself a prophet when he says that the people “do not know how immortal, but I know” (31, line 129). Whitman sees God in every single thing, “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” (83, lines 1277-8). He recognizes that each person, object, and organism is sacred in its own way because God made it. “I hear and behold God in every object,” he wrote (83, line 1274). Whitman is able to relate to each of these people and items as well because of his otherworldly encounter in which he, “with the beautiful gentle god by [his] side,” has sped “through heaven and the stars” (60, lines 789-90).
The ecstasy Whitman reached when he was able to commune with and be granted insight to the Supreme Being’s mind is achieved “through union with the Self” (Cowley xxi). It is through this union that Whitman also achieves true knowledge, which is derived from the Self-union. It has been theorized that Whitman had indeed achieved this level of heightened knowledge and awareness in real life and he transposes it into “Song of Myself.” True knowledge allows a person to understand the divinity of all things, which Whitman is able to do.
Whitman has risen to a mystical sense of omniscience in the sixth sequence (chants thirty to thirty-eight) of the poem and has found truths, whether simple or complex, in virtually everything from steamships to slaves. The speaker is able to relate to each object or being he describes and catalogs these emotions and observations. “I become any presence or truth of humanity here” (67, line 941) the speaker state to describe his transcendence from the normal realm of consciousness to a higher one.
True knowledge, however, is available not only to Whitman but to every person. The idea that “true knowledge is available to every man and woman” is derived from the perception that each person contains a part of divinity (Cowley xxi). This is why Whitman states that “All truths wait in all things” (54, line 647), meaning that the divinity in each can be found if one looks hard enough. Because “everything emanates from the universal soul, and since [Whitman’s] own soul is of the same essence,” he is able to identify with each (Cowley xix). The universal or divine soul is the enabler in this case. “Moreover, the divinity of all implies the perfect equality of all, the immortality of all, and the universal duty of loving one another” states Cowley of the Eastern tradition (xxi). In chant twenty, Whitman writes, “In all people I see myself…/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (43, lines 401-2). It is in this passage, among others, that Whitman recognizes the interconnected divinity and “perfect equality” among people. Whitman catalogs many different types of people and states that he is part of them. This happens on several occasions in “Song of Myself,” such as in chant fifteen, chant sixteen, and part of chant thirty-three.
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains many concepts of Eastern philosophy such as the ideas of metempsychosis, the ability to identify with the Supreme Being, and the achievement of true knowledge. Whitman, however, had very little or no knowledge of these concepts upon writing “Song of Myself,” but discovered them for himself, according to Cowley. Eastern philosophy can be seen throughout the entirety of “Song of Myself” in one only looks hard enough. Like true knowledge, these ideas are available to all, but only through close reading and an understanding of Walt Whitman and his great genius.
Cowley, Malcolm. "Editor's Introduction." Introduction. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855 Edition. By
Walt Whitman. New York: Penguin, 1986. Vii-Xxxvii. Print.
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. New York: Penguin, 1986.
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