Transcendentalism is a 19th century philosophical and religious movement that emphasized the rediscovery of nature and the interconnectedness of the self. Its adherents focused on the importance of spirit over matter, exchanging the objective world of reason and categories of common sense for the subjective world of ideas and the categories of the imagination. Transcendentalism urged followers to make life better by removing the burdensome constraints of custom and tradition that weigh heavy on the soul, and this call to go forward in developing a new and distinct American culture was answered by American poet and journalist, Walt Whitman. Whitman’s views of poetry, nature, and democracy as interconnected were influenced by transcendentalist ideas, and in 1855, he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems that celebrate his philosophy of life and humanity.
The book is notable for its blatant discussion of sensual pleasures, as it was published during a time period when such straightforward displays of delight were shunned by society and considered immoral. Whitman expands upon the traditional perspectives of transcendentalism in his writings by incorporating the body into the philosophy, arguing that bodily experience and spiritual experience were intertwined. In the poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman blends together the forces of nature with philosophical spiritualism, conceptualizing the self as a fluctuating identity shaped by one’s personal experiences and interactions with the external world. He examines the individual self in relation to the universe, creating a transpersonal self which transcends the conventional boundaries of the soul and becomes one with the cosmic whole.
Although there is no standard definition of the self, it is widely accepted to be defined by unchanging personal values: the internal system of beliefs that dictates how individuals cope with their world and with one another. This sense of self helps satisfy the basic human desire for control, implying that individuals have the experience of controlling their behavior, attention, and mental states. In identifying with non-physical substances such as the mind, rather than the body, humanity is thus deceived by the illusion that no matter the considerable changes to one’s physical being, the same person is present now as was present five years ago. This sense of identity provides the structure for personality, equipping the individual with a notion of their life purpose and a way to maintain their sense of groundedness in the face of fear and anxiety. Although it may seem functional for individuals to experience a sense of control, Whitman argues that such experiences do not reflect the truth of one’s nature, as the self is not a thing identified by virtue of some enduring core substance, but rather a process composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements. Whitman goes on to examine the question of personal identity by displacing his own qualities, discussing all the objects and concerns that characterize the loose cohesion of his personal experience and help shape his personality.
In “Song of Myself,” Whitman records the physicality of being, insisting that identity does not derive from solely the mind, but from the interactions of the soul with the body. He proclaims his love for the undistilled atmosphere, raving about how he is “mad for it to be in contact with [him]” (“Song of Myself,” section 2). This bodily contact helps him feel at one with what had before been separate from him, and his inspiration comes from his respiration, as he breathes in the world only to breathe out the “smoke of [his] own breath,” the atoms of the air back out into the world again as poetry (“Song of Myself,” section 2). Every moment a human is alive, he is confronted by a flood of information, stimuli, and experiences. Each one of these interactions with the world serves to mold his mind in a specific and unique way, such that once he has undergone several experiences, his mind is distinct from the mind of all other men. This goes to show that there are no ideas but in things, since the framework of the human mind, which controls perception, is determined by corporeal interactions with the environment. Whitman writes poetry with his body as much as his mind, urging individuals to open up their senses fully and do the same. A sensual relationship with the embodied things of the world during the moment of existence is the only way to truly find purpose, as it is in the interactions of one’s body with nature that inspiration manifests itself.
From this perspective, Whitman’s opinion of mind and body was one of inseparability, in which the interrelationship between mental states and material structures create a concept of “self.” This sentiment is expressed when Whitman writes “My head evolves on my neck” (“Song of Myself,” section 34), suggesting that his notion of the self is not singular, but rather fluid in that the “head” is an evolving process capable of progression. Moreover, it is due to the neck that the head is able to remain connected to the body, furthering his point on the indivisibility of mentality from corporeality. This democracy of soul and body is vital, as Whitman believes that much of the sorrow in existence has derived from an insistence on the soul’s superiority to the body, on the idea that soul exists or continues to exist in some imagined dimension beyond materiality. This has resulted in humans devaluing this life in the hope that some spiritual afterlife of their soul will be better and relieve them of their suffering.
Whitman provides an escape from this miserable mentality, asserting that the key to discovering peace and joy within this lifetime is to understand that “the soul is not more than the body” and “the body is not more than the soul” (“Song of Myself,” section 41). Once an individual has accepted this equality, that mutual necessity of the body to have soul and the soul to have body, then their very perception of life changes. Whitman paves the way to a remedy for others’ pains and tensions by identifying himself with features of nature and the environment as a means of demonstrating the way in which his soul is intertwined with his bodily experience of the world. It is from his appreciation for and love of the world around him and everything in it that Whitman proclaims himself; the way in which he reaches out to the world, and how world reaches inward toward Whitman in return, allows him to gain self-stability and enlightenment. Whitman uses the equation of body and soul to reshape the human self as part of everything and everybody, thereby making happiness visible in every place one looks and helping humanity find a sense of contentment through the beauty of their world.
Through Whitman’s portrayal of nature, the self is able to transcend conventional boundaries and become part of a vast network of interacting agencies not always restricted to the anthropological. In section 6 of “Song of Myself,” the narrator is asked “what is the grass?” by a child and contemplates this inquiry through a metaphysical perspective, stating that “it seems to [him] the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” From this perspective, the grass is symbolic of the interdependent relationship between humanity and the natural world. Nature is an iterative process, constantly deconstructing itself to reform the whole. Grass, for example, eventually withers, dies, decomposes, and creates the soil from which new grass is grown. This biological process of the earth is governed by the principle that energy and matter are neither created nor destroyed, but instead only transferred from one form to another. In this way, the grass finds continued life in the grass that grows in its place. Whitman insists that humans are not excluded from this perpetual cycle of the natural world, as it is reflected in the origins and parameters that define the self. Each individual self should not be viewed as an entirely unique creation, but rather as a form constructed from the field of endlessly shifting atoms that have been here from the origins of the universe and will be here until its end; the particular form we exist in is a living representation of the generations that came before us, not a distinct self independently produced by the cosmos. The essence of our being is continously redefined and transformed as we ingest and interact with pieces of the world, those atoms becoming parts of the endless array of matter and life that surrounded and constituted those who came before us, will surround and constitute those who come after us, and actively surrounds and constitutes all of us at this very moment. Each of us can then “stand cool and composed before a million universes,” because the soul that animates us now is part of the ongoing soul of the universe, just as the atoms that compose us now are part of the endless vast strange materiality of the universe (“Song of Myself,” section 48).
As the idea of self expands from a localized concept into an infinite and universal entity, one thus finds the experience of his own body and soul to be connected with the vast seamless web encompassing all existing selves. The self is a reflection of the world around it, eventually rejoining the universal essence in a manner similar to the way grass decomposes and ultimately becomes the very matter from which it was created. In this way, the self no longer has a definitive beginning or ending; Instead, the self transcends death and plays a part in a never-ending dance of birth and assimilation, never truly disappearing. Walt Whitman uses this metaphorical comparison to the cyclical quality of nature to express his own individual self in relation to the universal self, predicting that he too will one day “depart as air” and return to the rhythmic pulse of the universe (“Song of Myself,” section 52). Future generations that seek out the wisdom of Whitman will find his essence not only in the words he left behind, but also in the very grass growing beneath their feet, as the atoms from which his soul was created are the very same atoms composing the atmosphere that surrounds them.