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Philosopher Whitman, Hello Again.

In doing the readings for Tuesday I was looking at the table of contents for poems first published after the 1867 version. One of the poems I found was “Roaming in Thought” published in 1881. I flipped to the page to read the poem and I was surprised to find a subtitle to the poem (something I hadn’t found Whitman doing much of). I was even more surprised to find that the subheading was “(After Reading Hegel).” I was immediately interested since I started this semester trying to combine philosophy with Whitmania and here Whitman was doing it for me. The poem is only two lines long so I’ll go ahead and put here so you don’t have to pick up your book if it’s on the other side of the room.

Roaming in Thought (After reading HEGEL)

Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good steadily hastening towards immortality
And the vast all that is call’d Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become lost and dead.

When I first read this poem I was very confused. I couldn’t figure out what the point of it was or why he had added it. My solution to this was to go back and read the entire section. “Roaming” was placed almost directly in the middle of the section entitled By the Roadside in the 1891 version.

This section begins rather morbidly with a poem about the dead from the Civil War rising from their graves and wandering through town (which would be an excellent opening scene for our Whitman Zombie movie). As the section goes on the poems are filled with scenes of death, depression, and longing for something else. Then we arrive at “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” which is a poem about some mid-air eagle loving, to be scholarly about it. The next poem is “Roaming,” and from then on the poems begin to become more uplifting and hopeful. There also becomes a theme of moving on, moving forward, continuing on to other things.This made me think of “Roaming” as the pivot point of the Roadside section. in order to put in context I’ll talk a little bit about Hegel’s philosophy.

Hegel was, like most Philosophers, kind of crazy and full of himself, but I can see how his ideas would be enticing to Whitman. Hegel was a strong believer in predestination but not in the religious sense we usually think of. He did believe that there was a higher power guiding things, but it was not individuals that were guided but society. Hegel claimed that society was in constant state of growth. He argued that every time a great empire rose, Greece, Rome, etc. it was the pinnacle of society and culture for its time. However, each of these great empires were flawed in some way. They failed to meet the criteria to be The Society. This lead to their downfall, guided by the Spirit which lead societal growth. Hegel also argued that each time a new society rose to the top it fixed one of the flaws from the previous great society. Therefore, Hegel argued, eventually we would reach the perfect society which would stand until the end of time. It would fix all the flaws of the previous great societies and all would be peace, love, and prosperity. Now, according to Hegel this society was the German monarchy of the 1800’s. Woops. However, modern scholars of Hegel have claimed that his ideas are not wrong he just got too excited about his own society. Now we get to why Whitman would love him. Many scholars claim that the perfect society will still come, but it will be in America.

Now, during Whitman’s time no one had made this philosophical claim yet, but we can see how Whitman would read Hegel and make this leap himself. So rereading “Roaming” with this in mind gives it a new meaning. Whitman is seeing America as the place where Evil will be eradicated in place of The Great Society which Hegel predicted. Now looking at the larger context of Roadside one can see how “Roaming” could be a pivot point. The entire section seems to be a discussion of how to get over the horrors of the Civil War (which is a little odd since the section was placed before Drum Taps). The beginning of the poem dwells on the pain, death, and sense of desperation that America must have felt after the war. Whitman seems to be recommending that America moves on by saying things like “To your graves – back – back to the hills old limpers!/I do not think you belong here anyhow.” However, Whitman seems to be dwelling on the war as well, particularly in “A Hand-Mirror” in which he sees himself (or possibly the country) speeding towards a rather gruesome end (seriously, it’s gross, and we thought “Compost” was bad).

Then we get to the poems I mentioned, “Dalliance” and “Roaming.” “Dalliance” seems rather out of place in the section. He’s been talking about people, the country, himself, his thoughts, etc. and has not mentioned nature in the way he once did. Then all of the sudden we get a rather flowery description of two copulating eagles, I’m guessing this is not meant to be literal. “Dalliance” is a poem about renewal, specifically the renewal of America. I mean, they’re eagles, the national bird of America, not exactly subtle Walt. Then we get “Roaming” which is a poem written after reading about the movement towards a great society. Here is where Whitman seems to be letting go.

After this Whitman seems to take us through a sort of rebirth. We begin looking out a barn door onto the peaceful countryside (Womb? Christ imagery? You decide). Then we move on to a poem about a child. Then we hear about runner running towards some unknown destination. However, even with the hopeful tone of the second half of Roadside Whitman acknowledges that there is still work to be done. He ends the whole section with a poem “To the States” in which his last lines read:

Then I will sleep for a while yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons;
(With gathering murk, with muttering thunder and lambent shoots we all duly awake,
South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard, we will surely awake.)

~ by bcbottle on November 8, 2009.


4 Responses to “Philosopher Whitman, Hello Again.”

  1. Here’s a line from “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads that I know you’ll love: “(I think I have at least enough philosophy not to be too absolutely certain of any thing, or any results.)”

    This was a really helpful post, Brendon, for its info about Hegel, whom I haven’t had the distinct pleasure of reading in a long time. The connection to W’s philosophy seems clear.

    “(Womb? Christ imagery? You decide)” Are you calling for a Natalie-Chelsea wrestling match?

    That midair eagle-loving poem had the censorious public beside itself, btw.

  2. Relating Whitman to Hegel really helped me capture the hopeful Whitman that longs for a better American society. Thank you for the insight into Hegel’s beliefs! After learning more about Hegel, I agree that Whitman followed Hegel’s ideas about a society learning from the previous society. When I was looking at By The Roadside, I stumbled upon I Sit And Look Out and thinking about Whitman’s desire to spread his message with future generations and create a better society I wonder why he would end the poem with “See, hear, and am silent” because, as we all know Whitman was anything but silent…

  3. I don’t know anything about philosophy, but I love this connection. Thanks for taking the time to explain it! It doesn’t seem like Whitman often interacts with other writers/writing in his work, so this is an interesting case.
    You mention having to go back and read the surrounding poems to really get a sense of what this particular poem was about. This is something that I think is really interesting and cool about Whitman. It’s almost like he’s writing more of a novel than a book of poetry sometimes. There are short little snips of poems that couldn’t possibly stand on their own, but put in a larger context of a cluster, have so much meaning.

  4. This was a great post, Brendon! I really hope you plan on making similar philosophical links to Whitman for your final project.

    I, too, in my limited knowledge of philosophy have seen connections to Whitman. What is Song of Myself if not poetic philosophy? In the deathbed edition, especially the shorter poems, I noticed an influx of philosophical thought. For instance, “Portals” on page 608:

    “What are those of the known but to ascend and enter the Unknown?
    And what are those of life but for Death?”

    Whitman, in his older and wiser years, makes a jump from the physical to the metaphysical. The poems of 1855, though certainly including thoughts on life and death, do not do so in such a broad and profound way as in 1891 and 1892. I would be interested to know how much Whitman studied philosophy between 1855 and 1891…?

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