With our current events, it’s good to be reminded why Walt Whitman was considered the greatest democrat the world had ever seen by his contemporary Henry David Thoreau.
Whitman was the most influential American poet of the 19th century. We see his mystical feelings for humanity in his signature poem, “Song of Myself.”
To illustrate this, here is an excerpt from Whitman’s Self: Mysticism in the Life and Writings of Walt Whitman by Paul Hourihan:
He sympathizes, empathizes with all—because he is one with them, he sees the truth in them. He experiences everything therefore from the inside.
Martyrs … the mother of old … the hounded slave …
All these I feel or am….
Agonies are one of my changes of garments. (33)
We too sympathize with the suffering, we inquire how they feel. But Whitman:
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person. (33)
He is particularly drawn to outcasts for the reason that no one else is. We tend to make distinctions among people, of the kind that the mystic does not make:
[I] embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man.
[Beggars] embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg…. (37)
To the cotton-field drudge … I lean,
On his right cheek I put the family kiss…. (40)
All are integrally a part of the family of man. But this is not a mere idea to Whitman—it has become a reality. Always there is the return to the theme of identification with every form of life, experienced from within—not only sympathized with from without. To such extent, he says:
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. (24)
(This recalls Christ’s “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”)
Read more about Whitman’s Self by Paul Hourihan here.
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