Walt Whitman: Transcendentalism By the late 19 th century, Walt Whitman had become positioned at the forefront of the American cultural lexicon. His poetry was at once brash, dissonant and resoundingly erotic. His raw, unabashed poetry flew in the face of the prevailing ideals of his time. Whitman’s greatest literary accomplishment, Leaves of Grass, had set the ideas of divinity, the hierarchy of the holy trinity, and the ethereal perfection afforded these things into turmoil. What he did was take the theologian ideas of perfection and divinity and juxtaposed them onto mankind and the world around him. This theology of transcendentalism was the cornerstone theme throughout all of Whitman’s writing.
Throughout Whitman’s poetry, there exists several major themes. First, the idea of the Holy Trinity of father-son-holy spirit is taken from a heavenly, theological realm and brought into the present. Second, there is the idea of the Adamic myth of America, whereupon mankind has found a temporal Garden of Eden in which to recreate himself and the world around him. The final theme is that of the perfect order of the cosmos as the stage for which these things can happen.
Whitman makes the case that each individual, each ‘leaf of grass’ has its own place within nature. Up until the time of Whitman, the prevailing religious dogma of America had been one of strict adherence to traditional values and beliefs. Approaching the turn of the century, however, sentiment for an alternative path had begun to grow. Thus came the age of the Great Awakening. The idea of a spiritual equality amongst all people had begun to spread across the country and Whitman was one of the biggest proponents. What made Whitman controversial was not so much his embrace of an alternative religion, but how he took the Christian ideals of otherworldly reverence and planted himself firmly on the middle.
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The idea of the Holy Trinity in theology is that of the father-son-holy spirit. This idea of each part of the triangle being one and the same is a major ideal throughout Christianity. Whitman took the old ideas of divinity and perfection and placed them upon his own ideas of the universe. Indeed, Whitman often puts himself squarely in the middle of the trinity, ‘Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from’. While he himself is part of the New Trinity, as I shall refer to it, his is just that, a part. Whitman recognized that man is god in and of himself.
Man exists in the natural earth and the earth as part of the cosmos which exists in and of itself. Through his poetry Whitman effectively creates this new trinity of god, mankind and nature. He uses them interchangeably with each other. By taking ethereal ideas of heavenly bodies and pushing it onto mankind, Whitman was defiantly creating a world where man didn’t need to look to the heavens for answers. Whitman felt that that everything around him was for him. The trees, the wind, the sun.
Everything that encompassed the idea of being was a part of that being. No part could be greater than the sum because the parts were constantly working on behalf of the whole. Each ant, each flower, each person had a reason for their existence, ‘They are but parts, any thing is but a part.’ Whitman further extended this idea of the new trinity to that of nature. What had commonly been viewed in a utilitarian manner was now being put on the same level as God. Instead of His creation, nature was an indelible and inseparable part of the reality of existence.
Nature existed alongside man and the heavens, not subservient to it. In fact, Whitman believes that the worthwhile man is the kind who spends his time with nature, exploring nature. Nature is seen in just as a divine a sense as the heavens. ‘The earth never tires, The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d, I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.’ The idea of the divinity of nature avails itself throughout Whitman’s poetry. He often defines the goodness of nature in the same breath as the wonder of the heavens above.
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He brings heaven down to earth. To him, there is nothing more beautiful than the ocean waves crashing or the hummingbird singing. These things are part of nature, a part of the cosmos. The final arm of the new trinity deals directly with the idea of perfection.
Theologically, the idea of perfection is the basis for the belief in God. God is the perfect being and we (mankind) were created in his image. God created man and man then erred in the Garden of Eden so as to be expelled. This expulsion led rise to the idea of original sin.
With this sin, man was no longer perfect. And because man had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he was no longer ignorant of the feelings which they were now exposed to. With Whitman’s philosophy, the idea of perfection was juxtaposed onto man and nature. God was now not the only ‘perfect’ being. As part of the new trinity, mankind had also become perfect. ‘If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred’ Whitman’s belief in the divinity of mankind was itself a revolutionary idea.
original sin had dominated the popular religious beliefs of his time. Suddenly, God was pulled down from the heavens and made to walk alongside mankind. It was this refutation of the idea of original sin which was also instrumental in another theme throughout the work of Whitman. In this brave new world of America, the Adamic myth was perpetuated. Whitman felt that as a society sprouted by the discovery of the ‘new world’, mankind should look at this as his rebirth. In so much as the colonization and settlement was a birth of a nation, it could also be referred to as the rebirth of mankind.
Here on earth was this fantastic new land of endless possibility and opportunity. Whitman saw this country as the perfect playground for the betterment of man. The Garden of Eden was not in some far off mystical place, it was here on earth. For that to be true, then, mankind sat at the beginning of a new history. Without the trappings of original sin which had doomed mankind in the past, here was man beginning anew. There was no predisposition for sin.
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From a philosophical standpoint, the only thing which had separated man from God was the sin committed in the Garden of Eden. Since man had been created in His image, it was only logical that they should be equals. ‘That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.’ Man had achieved the idea of perfection formerly reserved for the likes of the Holy Trinity. What Whitman was saying was that man now had a new beginning in which to walk like a god along the earth.
No longer was man subservient to a higher power, but he was part of that power. The power to control his own destiny with no looking back to the mistakes or transgressions. For the new Adam there was no past, just a bright and glorious future. As such, the Adamic myth of America was created.
The idea that any single person can remake themselves over and start anew with no reference to a past is one unique to the American experience. It was a vision espoused by Whitman and believed by a great majority. What the new America had brought was the idea of openness. It was an idea that there was this great vastness in which mankind was sent into to define and complete. Since man was now god-like, it was his responsibility to take hold of this new space and make it his own. The idea of the ‘wide flat space’ was one which Whitman used to show one final last theme in his writing.
Though I have defined the ‘new trinity’, it must be noted that even the arguments for God and man and nature as perfection, these things do not exist exclusively. There is a central, overriding theme to which all of these things belong. This theme is that of space and time. All things, whether it is nature, whether it is mankind or whether it is God all exist in this space / time continuum. Whitman argues that all things must move through space over the course of time. This continuum defines the universe and it’s ever-changing nature.
Above and beyond this new trinity is the idea that there are certain, undeniable principles which rule the universe, ‘I see that the elementary laws never apologize’. Everything is run by an unknown force of the cosmos. Whitman can’t define it, nor does he try. It almost seems that the idea of space and time is not something that even he, as spokesman for mankind, should even try and quantify. Whitman merely recognizes the force behind the ideas of space and time.
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In one passage, he refers to the concept of time as an absolute truth, ‘I accept Time absolutely. It alone is without flaw, it alone rounds and completes all, That mystic baffling wonder alone completes all.’ . In this idea of an all-encompassing cosmos, Whitman firmly plants mankind, nature and God. It is within this cosmos that the new trinity operate. Whitman sees all of these things as working together in a huge sense of the whole. Man, God and nature all travel within this cosmos on a wonderful and vast journey.
Through much of his writings, Whitman shows us his ideas of a universal procession. Much like the perfect harmony of the earth, the earth exists within the perfect harmony of the universe. Everything within the cosmos is working towards something. Everything moves together in harmonious balance along the course of time.
Whether it’s the souls of mankind traveling the road of spiritual fulfillment or the man traveling the road to his job as dockworker, everything happens in a certain form and balance which cannot be seen, only felt. He speaks of traveling through the cosmos as if it were like walking down a road, ‘Walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle God by my side, Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars… I tread day and night such roads.’ Whitman wanted to show the inherent inclusiveness of the universe. Though there is an overwhelming sense of enormity to the universe, Whitman shows us that even the smallest little thing has its place in this cosmic procession.
Walt Whitman was a writer who defined a generation of American literature. The juxtaposition of the divinity of the Holy Trinity onto the New Trinity was a major theme in the Transcendentalist movement. Whitman took these and brought them to the level of the common man. Man being one with nature as well as one with God was a major reversal in popular ideology within America. No longer was mankind to aspire to the perfection of God, he must merely choose to be such. Whitman had abolished the idea of original sin as casting a pall on the spirit of every man, woman, and child born into the Christian religion.
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They should not repent and seek redemption, he argued, they should look into this new beginning as a way to create a new self. Whitman thought that man could choose to make his own decisions without an inherent guilt bestowed upon man at the behest of Adam in the Garden of Eden. America was the New Eden. It was up to man to create his own destiny. Above all, these things existed within the grand cosmic structure of the universe and all moved in harmonious conjunction. Nature, man and God all traveled through the great cosmos of space and time as one.
Whitman attempted to show that the things which he wrote were not exclusive of one and other, but were intertwined to the very core of each one’s existence. It was that idea which stated the true ideals of transcendentalism.