Whitman: epic beyond epic

October 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the 1855 “Preface,” Whitman argues for an American poetry that will be “transcendent and new”: “It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality is to go through these to much more” (619).

So, Whitman has in mind something epic but also that is more than epic, transcends the epic. In the beginning of “Song of Myself” Whitman invokes the tradition of the epic. And at the same time, he seems to rewrite it into something more commonly associated with the lyric. Perhaps this is what he means by “through these to much more.”

One traditional version of the epic is Paradise Lost–or more accurately, a version that rewrites the classical tradition and applies it to an unconventional arena; here are the opening lines:

1: Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
2: Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
3: Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
4: With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
5: Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
6: Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
7: Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
8: That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
9: In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
10: Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
11: Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
12: Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
13: Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
14: That with no middle flight intends to soar

15: Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
16: Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
17: And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
18: Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
19: Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
20: Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
21: Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
22: And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
23: Illumine, what is low raise and support;
24: That to the highth of this great Argument
25: I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
26: And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Whitman’s version turns epic into lyric; but he also suggests that the lyrical–the individual, the story of the I and what I experiences, assumes–is also epic in America: what you assume; remember that “you” (the second person pronoun in English) can be both singular and plural, as well as formal and intimate. There is another interesting implication to consider by way of Milton’s argument, his rewriting of the Bible. Whitman, too, is interested in a Bible rewritten for America. Take a look at his notes to his edition of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, where he clearly wants to create in his book a text that will rival the heft of the Bible.

Which returns me to my original question about our sense of this beginning of Leaves of Grass: what’s the project? what’s the “argument”? what is being introduced to us in July of 1855–and then expanded upon in the 1856 edition, and again in 1860? Once introduced, whatever that poetry is (epic, lyrical, biblical), why does it need to be revised?

For some thoughts on the emergence of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s experience in the city, listen to this 2008 Whitman documentary; at 19.30 you will hear a discussion by the Whitman scholar, Ed Folsom, that illuminates Whitman’s growing interest in the relation between I and you.

A final note on three rhetorical terms that are associated with Biblical syntax and apply to Whitman’s poetic grammar:


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