I was first introduced to Walt Whitman when I was in my third year of college. Looking for a subject that would complement my growing interest in yoga and all-things-spiritual, I signed up for a course called ‘The American Transcendentalists’. One of the wonderful things about UC Santa Cruz was that it offered a lot of such courses. From memory, we covered Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and I even got to meet the real Johnny Appleseed. It was a fascinating class, but reading Walt Whitman was a revelation, in the true sense of the word.
I was on the verge of dropping out of college at the time. My yoga and meditation was all-consuming and I was rapidly losing all ambition, other than to go to India, which I did the following year. My problem was that I had no one to share the mind-blowing experiences I was having with and didn’t know whether I was going crazy or my “doors of perception” were actually opening. When I read these words from Song of Myself, I felt like Whitman had written them for me, exactly when I needed them most:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not
even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue
to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women
my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
To me, a great poem speaks to the heart, not the intellect, and a truly great poem says something different to every reader. What follows is what these stanzas from Song of Myself said to me:
Immersed in yoga and “self purification” as I was, I was struggling with my “ego.” After my spirit soared during meditation, I would inevitably come back down and be faced with the limitations and faults of my personality. When I read, “the other I am must not abase itself to you,” I felt that Whitman was gently telling me that the ego was not something to be despised or “abased.” I began to accept myself. I also began to realise that I was not just one personality: as Whitman wrote elsewhere, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The second and third stanzas were perfect descriptions of what my experiences in meditation were like. The “hum of your valved voice” was the humming sound I heard in deep meditation. It felt like the humming of a cosmic, living engine. I had read elsewhere that it was the “Om” sound and accepted it as such, but Whitman’s line spoke far more eloquently to me than any of the yoga texts I had read.
The sensual imagery of the third stanza felt just like the experience of deep meditation. Beginning with a delicious feeling of pleasure and relaxation, it deepened into an overwhelming ecstasy, culminating in the revelation that “a kelson of creation is love.”
I’ve reluctantly come back down to “reality” since those early years, but every time I read those lines of Whitman’s, I get a taste of that transcendental bliss again. For that, I am infinitely grateful.
At the time, UC Santa Cruz had a Pass-Fail program: you either passed a course or you failed it. That was lucky for me, because my professor wasn’t overly impressed with the gushing essay I wrote about Song of Myself. After I left the campus, I went to work for a wonderful bookshop. One day while I was cleaning the shelves, I stumbled across a book called Cosmic Consciousness. Written in the late 19th century, it is an extraordinary book. The author, Richard Maurice Bucke, explained in great detail what he believed the hallmarks of cosmic consciousness were and provided a list of individuals he believed possessed it to some degree or other. Of them all, Jesus and Buddha included, Bucke considered Walt Whitman to be the greatest exemplar of cosmic consciousness who ever lived.
It’s a pretty dense book, but is well worth reading. You can read it for free if you like. It is now in the public domain and I am going to attach a link to a PDF and put it on my sidebar. If you want a bound copy for your bookshelf (highly recommended), click the cover image here. Yes, it’s a link to my Amazon affiliate account, so I’ll get a tiny commission, but that’s not the only reason why I urge you to buy it. Here’s an anecdote about Whitman from the book:
The writer has seen Walt Whitman on Long Island, New York, remain on a verandah a whole long summer evening, the air being literally loaded with mosquitoes. These would settle upon him in large numbers, but he did not appear to notice them. From time to time he waved a palm leaf fan which he held in his hand, but did not use it or his other hand to drive away or kill any of the mosquitoes. He did not appear to be bitten or in any way annoyed by the small creatures, who were driving the rest of the party almost wild. It is well known that Walt Whitman came and went freely and with impunity for years, off and on as he pleased, among the most dangerous people of New York. It has never been said that he was at any time molested or even spoken roughly to. As to the life of the possessor of the Tao (if that is Cosmic Consciousness) being indestructible by tigers, or other wild beasts or armed men, that is the simple truth.
What a joy it was for me to discover this book! Walt Whitman was as good as a guru to me, but I hadn’t realised that someone else thought as highly of him as I did – especially someone who had actually known the man. My English professor certainly didn’t: she thought I was way too enthusiastic about Whitman.
It’s been wonderful to write about Walt Whitman again after all these years. I feel like I’ve gotten in touch with an old friend and mentor.