Transcendentalism As a Providing Theme in Walt Whitman's Poetry
During the 17th century, Walt Whitman wrote his most well-known work, Leaves of Grass, which is a collection of his poems. These poems conveyed an idea of transcendentalism. Walt Whitman, along with two other transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, questioned the way that American people thought and these men also presented an opposition to conformity, which was uncommon for Americans during this time period (Emerson and the Transcendentalists 60). Whitman seemed to focus on each individuals’ journey through life, and the fact that the only person who is able to complete a life journey is the person them self. This idea of a personal journey along with transcendentalism allows for readers to feel a sense of individualism. Walt Whitman expressed his views on individualism and religion through his poems and portrayed individualism as a way of beauty.
With a transcendentalist mindset, Walt Whitman did not believe in conformity. It may be assumed that Whitman believed that all people needed to be individual as well as true to their own thoughts. “You shall no longer take things at second hand or third hand… You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself” (Whitman 22). According to this statement, people should not base their conclusions off of what other people say and think, and that they should come to their own conclusions based off of the things that they know. Conformity was considered a norm during these times, and for a poet to speak against this idea was unusual and not looked upon highly (Emerson and the Transcendentalists 60). Whitman did not believe that other the way in which others viewed you was important. “I exist as I am, that is enough” (Whitman 35). When a person changes their views to please another person, their individuality greatly decreases which is a shame. Each person who walks this Earth deserves to be individual in their own way since that is a significant part of beauty in life.
Animals are not influenced by other animals, therefore why should the standard for humans be any different? Whitman claimed that he would not mind living amongst the animals due to the fact that they are not easily disturbed or influenced by others (Whitman 44). This was the preferred way of life for the transcendentalists. These people strived to help discredit the idea that people are required to please others. According to Whitman, everyone deserved to be accepted for what they were, meanwhile he would claim that he would welcome and accept every part of every person (Genoways 2). Americans were not open minded to accepting this type of dramatic change.
Throughout a person’s life time, they will travel down a different path than every other living person, but to Walt Whitman, this was a beautiful thing. Whitman talks about how he is on a never ending journey throughout life (Whitman 63). Every person will have their own “perpetual journey” as he would say. A key point that Whitman made was that on a journey everyone is given a choice to choose to take a journey, but what happens on that journey is between you and yourself only. Whitman states that “you are also asking me questions, and I hear you; I answer that I cannot answer… you must find out for yourself” (Whitman 64). It is possible that the meaning behind this quote is related to the bible or a biblical passage. For example, humans may pray to God but he doesn’t answer verbally but he lets them take the journey and lets them learn and gain or lose through experiencing their own journey.
In relation to the biblical idea of things, Whitman talks about how he can see God in men and women, and he even sees God in himself when he looks into the mirror. One thing that stands out is the fact that Whitman is talking about how everyone is created in God’s image and how they are trying to find value in everything nature has to offer, such as death (Whitman 66). He begins to talk about roses and how he sees death as a relief and escape from the trials that life my throw at you (Whitman 66). He also continues saying things about life. He talks about life as if nature is talking to him and goes on as if the moon, stars, day and night time talks to him and gives him signs when things are approaching such as death and new life (Whitman 66).
A large number of Whitman’s poems are motivating people to take the journey of life, regardless of the fact that eventually the path will lead to death. He shows curiosity as to who will follow his suggestions and who will continue doing what they always have (Whitman 67). “I stop somewhere waiting for you” (Whitman 68). He is willing to wait for people to join him, no matter how long he has to pause and wait.
As a journalist, Whitman struggled to try and express his feelings toward America as a democratic nation (Bora 34). When he became a poet, he was able to find a way to express his feelings freely and he believed that he had found the key to success in America, non-conformity (Bora 34). His poems were able to reach out to people and help them grasp the idea that conforming to other people’s ideals is not always the best option. “I am the poet of the body, and I am the poet of the soul” (Whitman 36). He believed that what he had to say was the answer to all of the problems of life in America. To an extent his ideas were correct, but everyone has their own ideas on how to live life. His idea of life was just one of many.
Through the use of poetry, Whitman taught people more about transcendentalism. Whitman, along with other transcendentalists, would begin the transcendental movement in America which helped lead to how our nation works today. Some of his ideals have been disregarded by today’s society but a majority of his claims still stand. People to this day travel their journeys on their own, and Whitman would be proud.
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