Many of Walt Whitman's poems seem to feature a kind of tension between the place of language and intuition in poetry. And unlike the persona-shifting poems of contemporary Emily Dickinson, with views that can never be totally attributed to the author, Whitman's poems seem to be completely honest with the fact that the views they express, no matter how shocking in their day, are of no other heart than the one who set them on paper. Thus, when so many of Whitman's poems, from "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" to "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," express such a tension, there is good reason to believe that such tension exists because the author himself feels it. Is it possible for poetry to exist outside of language? If so, can only poets detect it? These seem to be the questions Walt Whitman was prone to ask over and over.
Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is a good example. A short, allegorical tale that is Aesopian in its interpretability, its narrator tells of a time he attended the lecture of an astronomer, with whom he instinctively disagreed. It is a brief poem, yet by its end, a number of inferences are already apparent. One may see the poem as being a literary commentary, with Whitman trying to explain why he writes the way he does, with insight into his view on language. There is a philosophical element to this poem as well, suggested by his reaction to the astronomer.
The literary commentary in this poem involves the fact that, in it, two distinct, clashing opinions exist regarding the stars. On one hand, there is the astronomer. He sees the stars as mere objects to be scrutinized, with characteristics to be recorded and behavior to be defined. Astronomy to him is a challenge, a discipline to be methodically mastered. Literary technique, in poetry particularly, is approached in much the same way by many writers who focus on flawless formal execution. The astronomer's columns of proofs, charts, and diagrams are the formal poet's rhymes, rules, and meters. The disagreement the narrator feels with the astronomer's treatment of the stars also seems to embody Whitman's disagreement with the methods of traditional poets of his time. He sees how both the scientist and the formal poet, by becoming preoccupied with the challenge, run the risk of dehumanizing their subjects, eroding the emotional connection, their sheer amazement and reverence, which drew them to "the stars" in the first place. On the other hand, Whitman's style of free verse, conversational poetry seems to make expression of that emotional connection the priority, with form and other technical aspects following as needed.
A second idea in this poem is more philosophical, having to do with the mathematical way in which the stars are "explained" by the astronomer. Feeling sickened by such attempts to "add, divide, and measure (2168)" the universe, the speaker feels unable to remain in the lecture hall. He escapes outside, into a night that is "mystical (2168)" still to him. Using such a word as "mystical" in his poem reminds the reader that, despite the astronomer's apparent knowledge, the most essential questions remain unanswered. Add, divide, and measure all one can, but all the research in the world still will not reveal how or why the stars—or anything—are there in the first place. Nothing can, Whitman seems to believe. At any rate, he finds more happiness in the silent appreciation such a reality brings him than in wasting words trying to explain it.
There are many poems where Whitman seems to prefer silence, ironically, to speech. "A Glimpse" is another shorter poem which depicts a similar preference. The reader is presented with a scene in a tavern on a winter's evening. While a group of workmen carouse around a stove, making noises of "drinking and oath and smutty jest (721)," the narrator of the poem sits apart, silently, off in the shadows of the room. With the contrast already established, the narrator notes the silent approach of "a youth who loves me and whom I love" who seats himself next to the speaker. The pair sits, "happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word." In contrast to the bragging and taunting of the men in the middle of the room, these two find more meaning in silence. This poem, like "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," stresses the importance of intuition and silent appreciation, and exposes the potential inadequacy of language.
A third poem, "Front Pent-up Aching Rivers," helps to further explain Whitman's aim with these sentiments. Line 48 of the poem mentions "the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips, and bosoms (2151)"—poetry in acts, not language—in the poem's celebration of sex. Is it possible for poetry to exist without language? More than the shortsightedness of the astronomer and the banality of the tavern workmen, it seems that an attempt by even the most elegant language can degrade that which could be left unsaid.
Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is a good poem to consider at this point to attempt an understanding of Whitman's view of intuition as opposed to verbalization. The poem consists of a number of meditations by a passenger while commuting on a morning Brooklyn ferry boat. The point of these meditations: to express the poet's feeling of essential unity between all people. The fact that Whitman chooses the dwellers of New York City—a diverse population in a contentious urban environment—to symbolize the existence of such unity emphasizes the extent of his feeling. Each section of the poem is a development of a passionate appeal to his fellow passengers in an attempt to prove this connection. He does this by asserting two themes, which make powerful points in their own right.
In the first of these themes, Whitman asserts that city dwellers are not as disconnected from nature as it might be assumed. "It avails not," he assures his audience, "time nor place - distance avails not, / I am with you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence (2157)." He goes on to describe a panorama of city imagery, from ships' sails to the flight of seagulls, to even the smoke of chimney stacks which is "contrasted with the wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets (2158)." Through the glorification of the city's aspects, he is professing its genuineness as well as its beauty. He sees it as nature, not a corruption of such. These sentiments show his determination to oppose the belief that city-dwellers are estranged from nature. That being said, he equally opposes the belief that city-dwellers are estranged from each other. This idea becomes clear after considering the second theme of this poem: the ability for the city (as nature), like the stars of the astronomer's sky, to cause speechless wonder.
In the previous poems, the ability to experience intuitive "poetry" has appeared to be an exclusive office, a power only Whitman and other "true" poets possess. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" can be seen to make up for that discrepancy. Whitman begins the poem explaining the personal thrill of poetic feeling ["The impalpable sustenance of me, from all things at all hours of the day" (2157)] only to assert that all people can experience this. To prove it, this poem describes the feelings which the city's gives to him. Like a great gambler, Whitman bears his poetic "hand," confident that his poetic experiences are common ones, recognizable to all. And so, to Whitman, city-dwellers are a people in nature, united with all other people in nature by the universal ability to see it with intuitive, poetic appreciation. His closing lines shout with enthusiasm these themes and the unity they entail:
We use you [the city], and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not [i.e. intuitive appreciation]—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. (2161)
Given Whitman's praise of a poetry independent of language, one might wonder why he writes at all. Indeed, he may have wondered the same thing. There is great evidence which points to the fact that his poetry seems almost like a compromise—a compromise in order to express to the world the democratic, universal nature of poetry, a poetry that does not need such words, is above words. A conversational style of poetry would be the most effective way to communicate with the common man who is ignorant of, or unconfident in, his or her poetic abilities. Whitman's style of poetry—conversational, inspirational, glorifying common experience—is best suited to express that everyone is a potential poet because poetry ultimately does not need words.
This is simply a theory, of course. Whitman in poems like "A Noiseless Patient Spider" seems to express the beauty of poetry as an incarnation of language. "A Noiseless Patient Spider" does this by expressing his soul's need to find connections in the "vacant vast surrounding (2198)" of the universe by using the image of a spider who unreels thread after thread in the hopes that one will finally catch somewhere in the infinite spaces around it. In the poem, Whitman seems to affirm that poetry is beautiful for the extent it is able to capture and express subjects and the emotions caused by their subjects—but one must not lose sight, like the astronomer, of the fact that there is an extent. At its best, language's relationship to the universe is as delicate as the spider's filaments.
Humans' columns, charts, and diagrams, in whatever form they take, no matter how flexible one tries to make them, will never be able to fully subdue that which inspires them, which makes them possible. Those that believe them to be imperial have lost sight of that fact. Walt Whitman definitely did not, and his poetry deals with this reality well and often.
Whitman, Walt. "A Glimpse."Discovering Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays. Ed. Hans P. Guth et al. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Blair Press, 1997. 721.
Whitman, Walt. "A Noiseless Patient Spider." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton and Company, 1998. 3 vols. 2198.
Whitman, Walt. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton and Company, 1998. 3 vols. 2156.
Whitman, Walt. "From Pent-up Aching Rivers" The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton and Company, 1998. 3 vols. 2150.
Whitman, Walt. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton and Company, 1998. 3 vols. 2168.