Whitman Centenary

This short unpublished essay was prompted by discovering, amidst the early stages of research for Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre (KWNS), that the 100th anniversary of Whitman's death was approaching. The Whitman section of KWNS is a detailed account of him as mystic. In the event, I heard little concerning the centenary: if anyone has any material relating to it please email me.

(770 words)

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Walt Whitman died on the 26th March 1892. His centenary will revolve around his contribution to the world of poetry, as a major American poet of the last century, who elevated and lauded the simple American way of life at that time. To remember him as a poet is to belittle him however: his work is not decorative; neither was he a philosopher; his work is not speculative. I would suggest instead that we honour him for one of the greatest contributions to faith ever to come from the United States. At a time when we question the value of some of the American influences in our culture, this might seem far-fetched; but why should we be content to receive from the surface of this great nation, in the form of Madonna, Levis, and MacDonalds, when we can imbibe from its depths, as so powerfully expressed by this man? Why stop at Walt Disney when we can also have Walt Whitman?

The religious quality of the man was recognised at the time, in particular by Richard Maurice Bucke, his first biographer. In his lovely little book 'Cosmic Consciousness', Bucke cites Whitman as the most perfectly developed example of this rare type of man, of whom Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed are given as examples. Bucke describes the experience of a friend who met him, who was gripped by a sense of peace and radiance that subsided only after a week, and never totally left him thereafter. Throughout history people have been transformed by their contact with such individuals, and in each case their religious love and faith have taken a certain dimension: from the Buddha a silent coolness, from Jesus a gentleness, with Mohammed a sense of justice and might, with Krishna his music, with George Fox his robust faith, with Ramakrishna his ecstasy, with Rajneesh his laughter. With Walt Whitman one is touched and expanded in many ways, but one can easily detect in his writings a single outstanding quality: celebration. His religiousness was not visible through the observation of ritual or creed, or an outward devotion or ecstasy, but shown by mystical song welling up and finding expression in sheer wonder: wonder at the simplest and the commonplace (it is no coincidence that he named his major work 'Leaves of Grass').

The capacity of Whitman to celebrate the ordinary is quite extraordinary, and if one allows, his poetry can infuse one with it, as great scriptures can infuse one with other dimensions or facets of the religious experience. Of course, to have the luck to meet such a man, and have the fortune to be still enough and receptive enough for God to work on one through such a man is something many of us pray for. I have had the good fortune to be in the company of Krishnamurti, Rajneesh and Bapak Subu, all men of this calibre, but they had great followings, and person-to-person contact was difficult. In the case of one man however, Douglas Harding, this has been possible. He is alive today, in his eighties, but is no less or more than these others: to spend a few hours with him can leave you with that feeling that Bucke's friend had with Walt Whitman. Oddly enough the descriptions of Whitman remind me of Douglas: well-formed, ruddy, simple of speech, and the capacity to touch your heart with a surgical delicacy that leaves you reeling as though hit with an iron bar. In one aspect Walt Whitman will never be eclipsed however: his completely immense celebration of life; from the labourer to the judge, from the onanist to the Emperor, from the suicide to the soldier, for all growing things, for the sky, even for death.

Friends may find my religious enthusiasms out of keeping with modern city life; they react with the same surprise with which one imagines Nietzsche to say: 'Haven't you heard? God is dead.' Nietzsche is mistaken of course: just the word 'God' is dead, or maybe just tired, along with the whole religious language inappropriate to our modern Western culture. Whitman is so wonderful because he doesn't bother with it: he invents his own language, which is untainted, fresh, deeply mystical, and still authentically Western.

On his centenary do yourself a favour: walk with him through his 'Leaves of Grass' and translate the celebration for his time and place into a celebration for your time and place; sing the Body Electric! You could also seek out Douglas Harding and discover his contribution to modern Western mysticism: Douglas's writings are just as unique as Whitman's, though quite different. To meet him is quite the same.