The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 22, 2002

Critique of Whitman
Darshan Singh Maini

I Stand Apart: Alienated Center in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself
by Arun Gaur, Writers Workshop, Calcutta. Pages 170. Rs 300.

THIS volume, a doctoral dissertation on Whitman’s egocentric personality and its complete alienation in his most famous long poem, Song of Myself, poses many a prickly problem in so far as Gaur, like other Whitman detractors and demolition critics, elects to adopt a most disparaging tone. What he has done has, in fact, not a new thing, for despite such diatribes and jibes, the Whitmanian caravan keeps its wagons rolling and flags flying almost all over the world, thanks to the translations in various tongues. In America itself, Allan Ginsberg is a direct descendant, and he celebrates his poetic paternity in poem after poem. Of course, some modernists have failed to realise the nature of Whitman’s aesthetics and dynamics, finding his catalogued—cluttered, extravagant verses "distasteful." His democratic and egalitarian credentials too have, thus, been challenged, and his alleged "sources" and borrowings needlessly stretched. All this critical confusion, as I hope to show later, is misplaced.

Whitman’s Dionsysian dance of life, his orgiastic revelling in the ecstasies of the "the body electric" are, indeed, an integral part of his unstoppered poetry. Its "mystic" aspects may strike, at the first look, rather dubious, but a careful consideration would show that Whitman’s muses had, at bottom, transcendent roots. His narcissism was a constitutive element, and constituted the fuel of his prodigious energies.


No wonder, then, as Gaur proceeds section by section to dissect Song of Myself, even Whitmanian profundities turn into platitudes, flights of the imagination into a futile exercise in kite-flying. And the great poet emerges as a huge poseur, a braggart who in aggrandising his self becomes a vendor of vanities. Gaur does refer to the Freudian—Jungian studies which help throw a lot of light on his shaggy undergrowth and his dark impulses, but these critiques only enlarge our understanding of Whitman’s contradictions and ambiguities. Whitman, as Gaur avers, was not unaware of such slidings in his poetry, and he quotes the famous lines: "Do I contradict myself?" "Very well then...I contradict myself"..."I am large...I contain multitudes, but Gaur and his kind remain unconvinced. They tend to put such pronouncements down as crude rationalisations.

Several critics have, accordingly, failed to realise that the Whitmanian dichotomy is structured into the very fabric of his nativity and being. The betrayal of the Great American Dream, a legacy of the Mayflower "pilgrim fathers," and the retreat from a religious and righteous pursuit into a rapacious capitalism were bound to cause distress to all American creative writers in one way or another. The thesis of the German philosopher, Martin Buber, which linked the doctrinal Protestantism to Capitalism umbilically, brings out in a profound manner the deep divisions within the American corporate psyche.

Before I turn to the personal "connection" with Walt Whitman, I must acknowledge Gaur’s endowments which are considerable. He vigorously and relentlessly pursues his line of thought, and within those self-confined parameters, he moves with ease, even elegance. His prose is expressive, and his idiom felicitous. But, as I’ve maintained in the ongoing argument, an adversary position does not warrant sweeping generalisations in which Gaur indulges rather too frequently. To say that the poet "is merely a champion of imbecile loneliness" is to disregard the true critical canon.

My own initial response during my younger days to Whitman’s poetry was negative, for being under the influence of poets like Y.W. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, I could not react sympathetically to the type of poetry Whitman had pioneered with so much power. And there’s a moral in that story. All great writers, it appears to me, strike the true note in you only when your mind is equipped to receive such grand symphonies. And my "discovery" of Whitman materialised via Prof Puran Singh whose poetry and critical essays first brought me "to the boil". He himself had been completely bowled over when in 1901 during his Tokyo stay, he chanced upon a copy of Leaves of Grass. He was never the same man or poet again. And he went on the pronounce Whitman "Guru’s Sikh born in America". He saw in his muses the same light, the same energies which, in his view, were embedded in gurbani. My own new readings finally resulted in a couple of critical essays on the remarkable affinities between the two poets — "the Master" and the "Chela." And this finally, resulted in an invitation from the Whitman Society in Humtington to address the poet’s birth anniversary celebrations. I was in the company of America’s National Poet for the Year, Stanley Kunitz, and my address later appeared in full in The Tribune when I returned home from a Visiting Professorship at New York University (1988-90).

One most striking thing that I wish to record here is the change in the attitude of two great American writers, Henry James and T.S. Eliot, towards Whitman in their later years. Both recognised the immense power of Whitman’s sonorous verses, and this is best reflected in Eliot’s Swan Song, Four Quartels, which has some distinct Whitmanian echoes.