Emersonian Transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s 'Song of Myself': Essay

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“I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging” (Emerson, 307). The first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ in July 1855 was sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson by the young poet, essayist, humanist, and critic Walt Whitman. Emerson in his letter to Whitman admired, praised, and exhilarate this work as a fantastic and important work of American literature. Since then, Whitman used these sentences as an appendix in his preface of various editions of ‘Leaves of Grass’. Ostensibly, the founder of American transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had a remarkable influence on Whitman’s life and literary works. Echoes of Emerson’s ideologies and views are apparent in Whitman’s works of literature, especially the notion of transcendentalism, which Whitman by revising used to write ‘Leaves of Grass’. One of the highly celebrated poems of this collection is ‘Song of Myself’, which briefly displays transcendentalism. This paper aims to study Emersonian transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’.

Transcendentalism as Literary, social, philosophical, and religious movement emerged in Concord and Boston in the mid-19th century in New England. It opposed the Lockean philosophy of empiricism by underscoring the supremacy of insight over logic. The origins of transcendentalism are rooted in Plato’s theory of forms in the Hellenistic period. Also, the foundation of transcendental ideas lies in the German philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The chief founders of American transcendentalism are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott. Like romantics in England, American transcendentalists highly celebrated the beauties of nature, individualism, and self-examination. They also believed that “the essential nature of human beings is good . . . and human beings would seek the good. [But] society is to blame for the corruption that mankind endures” (Yeganeh, 4). Furthermore, transcendental ideas include equality, rejection of institutional religions, independency of mankind, and correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm. Shcherbak and Gerus declared that “American transcendentalism was considered as a full-fledged representative of a harmonious and dynamic cosmic principle” (107).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the AmericEssayist, writer, and poet is liable for the initiation of American transcendentalism. It has been acknowledged that during 1830s-decade Emerson’s manifestos ‘Nature’, ‘The American Scholar’, and ‘The Divinity School Address’ formed a group that became known as transcendentalists. Emerson also wrote a couple of other essays such as ‘The Poet’, ‘Self-Reliance’, and ‘The Over Soul’. As a human being, he was a member anti-slavery movement and a real abolitionist. Emerson was a follower of Plato, as Robert Richardson in ‘Emerson: The Mind on Fire’ stated: “Emerson’s interest in Plato would become a major preoccupation. Plato was the single most important source of Emerson’s lifelong conviction that ideas are real because they are the forms and laws that underlie, precede, and explain appearances” (97). Emersonian transcendentalism has possessed some characteristics such as the use of nature, independent thinking, self-reliance, and self-efficiency. Furthermore, the attitude toward nature of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the prominent German poet and critic, inspired Emerson, especially in his early work ‘Nature’, in which Emerson writes about nature according to Goethe’s declaration “All is in each . . . that every natural form to the smallest, a leaf, a sunbeam, a moment of time, a drop, is related to the whole, and partakes of the beauty of the whole” (Dolan, 64).

One of the most eminent aspects of Emersonian transcendentalism in his essay ‘Nature’ is the lavish consumption of the power of the natural world. He assumes nature as a place where humans can concentrate and think deeply about themselves and regain divine wisdom and knowledge. Emerson in the fifth chapter of 'Nature' asserts: “Nature is a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths” (194). This quotation briefly demonstrates that nature is the only instructor of humans that can teach them the spirit of truth in life. Emerson also considers humans as a part of nature and nature as a part of a human, as he says, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (183). So, Emerson identifies nature and spirit as the parts and parcels of the universe.

The main theme of Emerson in ‘Self-Reliance’ is the responsibility of individuals for their lives. Emerson believed that society takes control of people’s lives and puts them on a particular path in life. One of the most important elements that society elects for people is their religion. In ‘Self-Reliance’, he severely rejects the idea of institutionalized religion that forces a person to accept reprogrammed and strict norms and it seeks to build a systematic way of doing things. By accepting institutional religion, people will be surrounded by a bunch of austere principles that grab the right to choose freely from people.

“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (Emerson, 239). Besides religion, Emerson seriously emphasizes independent thinking. He has an opinion that the life in which people or society are permitted to impose their expectations and ideas and be affected by their thoughts is merely vacuous and absurd. To be great, an individual needs to be free from all sorts of external elements and just rely on his spirit of independence.

Emerson and other transcendentalists consider each individual as equal in the eyes of God and all have sufficient spiritual power to intuit God in their daily lives (Phillips and Andrew, 34). Abducting the freedom of someone and taking control of them, which is known as slavery, for Emerson is not acceptable and he rigorously criticizes slavery throughout his lifetime.

Besides Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman is another influential American transcendental poet and essayist. Whitman’s viewpoint is not as transcendental as Emerson’s, but he bridges the gap between transcendentalism and realism. Unlike transcendentalism, realism deals more with the mundane and physical life of each class in society. Whitman’s transcendentalism differs from Emerson’s one, as Whitman's acquisition of transcendental experience is not dependent on the metaphysical world but on the physical body and nature.

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“I believe in the flesh and the appetites;/ Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle./ Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from;/ The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer;/ This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds” (Whitman, 522-526). In the first line of section 24 of ‘Song of Myself’, Whitman refers to the reader to seven deadly sins in Christian creeds by using the word ‘flesh’, suggesting lust, and the word ‘appetite’, suggesting gluttony and greed. These references show Whitman’s appreciation of the human body and sexuality that has been bolded during the 19th century, in which sexuality was harshly suppressed. In the 19th century in America, most writers and philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau assumed discussing and writing about sex was a disgraceful act, and Michel Foucault in his book ‘The History of Sexuality’ asserted: “On the subject of sex, silence became the rule” (3). This demonstrates Whitman’s iconoclastic style and how he obstinately opposed society’s conventions and Christian creeds. Whitman’s use of sensuous words and concrete language in the second line somehow displays his religious view of one’s body. He considers all parts of the human body, such as vision, hearing, and tactility, as miracles like nature. “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from” (Whitman, 524). He thinks the human body, as well as the soul, is holy, and thinks only those who have the correct attitude can understand it. In the second part, Whitman severely negates Emerson’s view of the human soul and manifests his transcendentalism, which that says for Emerson sense of sight is the main source of realization of transcendental experience, however, for Whitman this experience can be gained through the sense of touch. For Whitman sense of touch is one of the most significant elements that through which the transcendental experience can be gained. Just as opposed to Emerson, who enthusiastically used abstract elements in his writings, Whitman was a passionate devotee of concrete elements. In the fifth section of ‘Song of Myself’, the differences between Whitman and Emerson are apparent.

“I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,/ And you must not be abased to the other:/ Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,/ Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,/ Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice./ I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,/ How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,/ And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,/ And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet./ 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,/ And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,/ And that a kelson of the creation is love,/ And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,/ And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,/ And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed” (Whitman, 82-98). In this section of ‘Song of Myself’, Whitman tries to show the union of his soul and his body and describes his transcendental experience. The first part indicates Whitman’s attitude that both the physical body and soul are equal, and none of them should be abased by the other one. The second part of this section resembles section one, “I loaf and invite my soul” (Whitman, 1), and provides a more complete delineation. The usage of auditory sense in the following lines points out that Whitman is not interested in words, music, rhyme or costumes, and lectures, but what makes him excited is the not formalized ‘hum’ produced by his soul since it’s the spontaneous overflow from the intuition. In the next part, the sense of tactility alongside concrete creatures and elements of nature plays a consequential role in the illustration of Whitman’s own transcendentalism. Even though he tried to show his attitude through concreteness, it totally differs from Emerson’s transcendental ideologies that are concerned with abstract things.

Despite the differences that exist between Walt Whitman’s and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism, they had much in common in some parts. Such similarities are in the use of nature, view of tradition and religion, equality among people, etc. in their works. Both writer’s attitude toward tradition is as the same. As Emerson in ‘Self-Reliance’ rejects the idea of institutionalized religion, Whitman in ‘Song of Myself’ expresses a deep disregard for the teachings of schools and churches: “Creeds and schools in abeyance,/ Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,/ I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,/ Nature without check with original energy” (Whitman, 10-13).

As Emerson in ‘Self-Reliance’ point out that religion and teachings would grab the authority from man to choose freely in life, Whitman in the first section of ‘Song of Myself’ somehow asserts the same thing. In this section, creed signifies religious doctrine, and schools suggest conventional and standard knowledge. But Whitman used the word ‘abeyance’, which means a temporary stop; it somehow indicates that he is wary about traditions, and he denies it not completely but he has a subtler attitude toward it and had the idea that people are not allowed to be affected by this doctrine excessively.

In the following lines of this section, the agency of humans has been discussed by Whitman. “I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard” (Whitman, 12). The subject of this sentence is ‘I’ indicating the poet himself. Whitman expresses his own agency in this section and he also represents the energy of his agency by using the word ‘harbor’ that represents the sea as a symbol of powerful and strong energy. Furthermore, Whitman used the act of speaking to demonstrate independent thinking and the authority of expressing one’s ideas and thoughts. He asserts that he would allow himself to say what he wants, regardless of its underlying meaning and predetermined church doctrine or school teachings. Institutionalized tradition and religion are not as significant as human agency for people, because agency enables an individual to act and speak freely. The idea of independent thinking and the human agency has been discussed by Emerson as well in ‘Self-Reliance’, as he says, “Insist on yourself; never imitate” (251). He asserts that every individual must rely on his own spirit of independency in every stage of life.

In addition to human agency, Whitman and Emerson considered each individual as equal regardless of their color or what their race might be in the eyes of God. Whitman, in section 17 of ‘Song of Myself’, makes a straightforward assertion on the discussion of divinity and equality of man: “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,/ If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,/ If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,/ If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing” (Whitman, 355-358). The first line signifies that all human regardless of their time and geographical place has the inborn knowledge and Whitman’s idea in this poem, and these thoughts are not specific to Whitman himself but to all human beings. So, all individuals are equal since they have possessed the same divine knowledge. This equality was one the central concerns of Emerson in his writings.

Along with the equality of all human beings that have been discussed by Whitman and Emerson, slavery is another significant topic that they both censured it. Like Emerson, Whitman considered slaves not inferior to other people in society. He believed that taking control of people as slaves and grabbing their freedom is a malfeasant act and it must be abolished; the same idea that Emerson had possessed toward this subject. For example, Emerson “in his two addresses on West Indian Emancipation (1844 and 1845)… describes the harsh realities of slavery, whilst supporting the abolitionists by arguing for the recognition of a shared “human nature” which had long been ‘shamefully dined’ to black slaves” (Halliwell, 164). “The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,/ I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,/ Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,/ And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,/ And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,/ And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,/ And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,/ And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;/ He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,/ I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner” (Whitman, 189-198). Whitman, in the last part of section 10 of ‘Song of Myself’, expresses his defiance toward an escaped slave by narrating a first-person story. This runaway slave displays the harsh reality of the world of slaves. He sees a feeble slave behind the door of his house, he tries to give him food and water and provide him a room of his own. He treats him not as a slave but as a human being and tries not to give him to his owner. Whitman, like Emerson, strives to defend slaves and shows his abomination toward slavery.

All in all, Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ is an outstanding example of transcendentalism that, despite Whitman’s transcendental thoughts, portrays Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism and manifests the similarities between these two great writers. Whitman, unlike Emerson, believed in the physical body and nature, he openly wrote about sex in his works and tried to deliver his message in his work through sensuous words, concrete language, and a sense of touch, that totally contradict Emerson’s style. Although Whitman had some ideologies that differentiate him from Emerson, he has been affected severely by Emerson. For instance, under the influence of Emerson, Whitman opposed tradition and institutionalized religion since he believed that these kinds of religious traditions can grab human freedom, or he considered human agency and the ability to think and act independently above all human characteristics. And the most important element of transcendentalism that both Whitman and Emerson discussed is equality that must exist among all people regardless of their nationality, race, color, etc. And finally, they both assumed that slavery must be abrogated. These elements demonstrate that although Whitman had a different attitude, the echoes of Emerson in his poem ‘Song of Myself’ are notably obvious.

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Emersonian Transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/emersonian-transcendentalism-in-walt-whitmans-song-of-myself-essay/
“Emersonian Transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: Essay.” Edubirdie, 15 Nov. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/emersonian-transcendentalism-in-walt-whitmans-song-of-myself-essay/
Emersonian Transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/emersonian-transcendentalism-in-walt-whitmans-song-of-myself-essay/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Emersonian Transcendentalism in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/emersonian-transcendentalism-in-walt-whitmans-song-of-myself-essay/
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