Whitman: a scientist?
"Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction” (Einstein).
According to Einstein, it is easier to make things seem more complicated, but simplicity only lies on the hands of genius, such as Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass, by Whitman represents and embraces simplicity at its best. He uses simple words in order to let his readers feel, understand, explore, discover, and live his reality. Whitman’s poetry is paradoxical, a plea for equality, a celebration of life, an embracement of the world, a revolutionary piece of art, simplicity, and most importantly a scientific discovery of life itself.
Whitman opens his readers’ minds by making them see, feel, and celebrate what he witnesses in his world. He states, “I celebrate myself...And what I assume you shall assume...For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman, 21). It is with these first lines that Whitman introduces his poem to the reader with words of “celebration” and “belonging” to create emotions of embracement of his world. It is clear that he immediately introduces his audience to what is most important to him and what will his entire work be based on; the celebration of others. He announces that he will celebrate himself and right after this, he states that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”. Here, Whitman is saying that his own atoms are also his readers’ atoms. He is claiming that he is embodying his readers, so that by celebrating himself, he is also celebrating his viewers, and therefore, the entire world itself. I believe that Whitman is trying to make his readers be more tolerant, he is teaching the world about the simple aspects of life and he is trying to make people realize that they can be happy simply with what they have, and whom they are surrounded with. In order to make his audience believe this, he merges into the world itself, by making his readers feel a new way of love. Indeed, Whitman merges into his viewers, he makes them feel like they are one with the author and he celebrates them. Whitman might feel like he is a bit invasive but it is to introduce his audience to a different sensation that they are not yet conscious of.
Whitman’s writing technique lies on simplicity to illustrate his sceneries through poetry. For instance, Whitman describes in Leaves of Grass, “the big doors of the country-barn stand open and ready,…The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,…The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,…The armfuls are packed to the sagging mow” (Whitman, 26). In this quote, we can see that he describes simple objects “doors”, “country-barn”, “grass”, “wagon”, etc. He also employs easy adjectives to describe these objects “big”, “open and ready”, “dried”, “clear”, “brown gray and green”, etc. His simplicity gives his poetry originality. Whitman is revolutionary by using a style he feels comfortable with. This style allows the reader to feel at ease, to read the simplicity of the poem, and embrace it along with him. Whitman creates avenues of connectivity, through the simplicity of his work, between the reader and the writer. In other words, he has no structure in his writing and yet, the poems have a meaning, they make sense. This is due to the fact that Whitman treats reality and translates it into simple words to make the reader conscious of his reality as well. Whitman is simple in two ways: first, he is simple in his choice of words, and second, he is simple in his ideas. Whitman describes in basic terms what he sees and does not try to make it complicated. His simplicity and denial of originality make his poetry even more original and also revolutionary.
It is relevant to mention the paradoxical ways in which Whitman’s writing is an embracement and a celebration of the world. Whitman lets his reader know in advance what literary process he is going to employ before he uses it in order to help his reader analyze his poetry, Whitman states
The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal overthrow of things is great ... and there is another paradox…Great is life … and real and mystical ... wherever and whoever…Great is death ... Sure as life holds all parts together, death holds all parts together…Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life. (Whitman, 113)
In this passage, we clearly witness that Whitman announces that he will be using a paradox; “And there is another paradox.” He gives his public a definition of the process he is using all along in his poetry “paradox” and then he gives an example of what a paradox is. In one sentence, he uses a word and its opposite meaning. Because the poet is paradoxical, he creates new emotions in his readers. Whitman is making his writing clear to his audience, which makes his work extremely simple to understand. I believe the purpose of the author is not to create beautiful words with so many metaphors that only the well educated people can decrypt, but to employ simple words in order to let the entire world know and comprehend what message he has to notify.
By merging into his audience, Whitman is trying to make everyone believe that they are one. This new feeling generates also the idea that everybody is at the same level. Whitman seeks this common sensation in his readers which is to feel equal. He claims, “the wife—and she is not one jot less than the husband...The daughter—and she is just as good as the son...The mother—and she is every bit as much as the father” (Whitman, 71). It is clear that Whitman is looking for a sense of equality. In this quote, he states that “the wife” has the same status as “the husband,” that “the daughter” is on the same level as “the son” and more importantly, “the mother” has as much authority as “the father” can have. It is relevant to mention that Whitman’s poems were first published in 1855, in a period where women did not have the right to vote and when they were considered inferior to men. Whitman is one of the first poets of his time to actually declare out loud that women are just as good as men, that they are human beings and that the society should consider equality between women and men. Whitman was pro equality, fraternity and liberty. Indeed, he wants everything and everyone to be at the same level, and he wants an idea of commonness. He is his readers, he celebrates them, he merges into them and he wants them to merge into him: “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (Whitman, 20). Through poetry, Whitman makes his readers conscious of the American culture and daily surroundings. He embraces the world as it is in order to generate the feeling of tolerance, love and more importantly, of equality.
Science performs experiments and discovers new things. Literature, on the other hand, allows people to understand through words the discoveries that science has made. In other words, literature puts the discoveries into simple words, in order to let the population be aware of scientific findings. In his poems, Whitman uses literature to put down into words his own discovery. He has his own perception of the world itself and he sets into words his experience and his analysis of his world. The scientific language is composed of universal symbols that not all can comprehend. Whitman’s revolutionary discovery is successful, due to the fact that he translates complexity into simplicity. He, as Einstein claims, is a genius that understands the challenge of making things for others simple. By Whitman writing in such style, he embraces all kinds of people and allows a community to build out of words. Literature has also its own dialect. Instead of using symbols, literature employs words, a sign that can be universally understood. Whitman writes in the universal language of simplicity to invite any one who might be interested in becoming aware of his surroundings.
Whitman is a scientist of words. Through his poetry, he makes his readers discover American culture, and makes them aware of his world. Like Charles Darwin, Whitman is an amazing observer. Throughout his life, he has done some very interesting observations of the world surrounding him and he discovered a new way to perceive it. We can see in his writing that he analyses life on earth, he states “in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less...And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them. And I know I am solid and sound...To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow...All written to me, and I must get what the writing means” (Whitman, 35). Here Whitman is explaining that he always needs to understand what the things around him mean. He needs to do a full analysis of his surroundings.
In a restricted meaning, a scientist is someone who uses a scientific method. In other words, scientists are people that use a specific technique to acquire certain knowledge, they constantly try to prove theories wrong, and they investigate on mysterious facts in order to get a better understanding of the world around them. Therefore, Whitman might not be accepted as such by “real scientists”. In his work, Whitman writes only about basic things in which he only describes and explains his surroundings rather than trying to find a new purpose or a new meaning to them. In terms of scientific discoveries, he has done none. He does his own analysis on a subject but he does not try to follow a scientific method, which might cost him the title of scientist. In addition, scientists in general do not appreciate the idea of the divine. Indeed, scientists are usually down to Earth and they do not have beliefs other than their own discoveries. However, Whitman is seeing himself as someone superior; he states: “I am the poet of the body…I am the poet of the soul” (Whitman, 36). The fact that Whitman links the concrete life on earth represented by “the body” to the abstract celestial life represented by “the soul”, underlines the idea that he cannot be a regular scientist.
Nevertheless, in a broader sense, a scientist is someone who tries to acquire knowledge using any method. A scientist is not only someone who discovers new things but also someone who makes observations of his surroundings and who learns to bring awareness to people. Whitman is indeed following this type of science in his poetry. He even claims: “Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support” (Whitman, 11). Here, Whitman states that a poet uses science as his base for his poetry. This is for this reason that Whitman is a scientist of his own, because not only he uses sciences as his foundation for his work of art, but he also does his own observations on the world to acquire his personal knowledge and then he tries to pass it along to his reader.
Whitman characterizes himself as a scientific poet. In Leaves of Grass, he says “I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality” (Whitman, 37). In this line, Whitman employs a scientific word to describe himself; he says he is “the poet of the demonstrable”. In the field of mathematics, mathematicians use a lot of demonstrations in order to prove theorems. Here, Whitman proves to the reader his reality by telling him who he truly is. Whitman uses his own technical words in order to make himself a great scientist of his own. He states,
Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!...Fetch stonecrop and mix it with cedar and branches of lilac...This is the lexicographer or chemist...this made a grammar of the old cartouches...These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas...This is the geologist, and this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician. (Whitman, 38)
Walt Whitman utilizes many different scientific words; “positive science”, “exact demonstration”, “chemist”, “unknown”, “geologist”, “scalpel”, and “mathematician”. With these, he celebrates science in its whole and he also proves to his reader that he is a scientist. Indeed, Whitman is his own physician; he creates his sciences. With his “scalpel” he operates on the nature around him. He is a “geologist”, he is a “mathematician”, and he is a “chemist” and does “mixes” of his favorite plants in order to prepare a medication for his viewer, the medication of poetry. It is through poetry itself that Whitman puts into words his experiences as a scientist, who has discovered a world of his own. His reader can find a remedy in his writing because Whitman makes his audience generate a whole new feeling and discover a new world, the mystic world of the poet himself.
Whitman not only analyzes the world around him, but also analyzes himself personally. He claims, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise...Regardless of others, ever regardful of others...Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man...Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine” (Whitman, 32). Whitman here is using paradoxes; he is “old” and “young” at the same time, “foolish” but also “wise”, a mother and a father, a “child” and a “man”. In his own scientific analysis, he is embodying each and every one of his reader, therefore it is not only through words, but also through science that he celebrates the world. By seeing himself as a “father” and as a “mother” he also is embracing a genderless state. He refuses to identify with one and chooses to be both, because he feels he has the capacity to be both. He is “young” and “old” because he has wrinkles in his face, but he is “young” because inside he feels fresh and new. His paradoxical examples allow big windows of interpretation so the reader can embrace and celebrate whatever feels more comfortable and simple. Whitman is a scientist through his words. As he discovers his surroundings and puts into words his observations and own analysis in order to let his reader discover a new way of seeing the world, and of experiencing life on earth.
According to Maximilian Beck in the article “Walt Whitman’s Intuition of Reality” Whitman recognizes life in objects that humans do not consider alive. Beck claims that poetry for Whitman is the discovery of life even in the most remote things surrounding him. That is to say that a table could be a living organism. Assigning life to an inanimate object and acknowledging that once it had life means to Whitman that it is alive. This acknowledgement leads to one of various discoveries Whitman produces in his poetry. Beck claims that “For Whitman the value of reality in itself is in the plenitude taken not in the sense of a total of all beings but as the abundant material of everything. This means the material which provides every real individual thing with its substantiality” (Beck, 17). In fact, Whitman is giving life to an inanimate object, because it has a sense for each human. For instance, a wooden chair is something that people use to sit on. Humans interact with it every day and therefore to Whitman, it has a meaning. In addition, a chair made out of wood might be even more alive than a plastic object since it was made from a tree which is a living organism. So Whitman is giving life to objects. He embraces not only humans and nature but also handmade objects. Since they were created by the hands of men, the objects were given a meaning, a sense and therefore, they should be celebrated too. It is this original analysis that makes Whitman a scientist since through his precise analysis of objects, he discovers new ways of looking at the world and he opens his reader’s mind by making him aware that objects are also alive as long as they have a meaning or a connection to a human being.
Through his writing, Whitman is trying to educate the world about his personal view that he has of it. He is indubitably trying to educate his audience, to make them open their eyes on the world and therefore lead them through an evolution of culture. The author makes his reader discover American culture through poetry because like a scientist, he is constantly leading towards progress. Beck states “Whitman is the legitimate prophet of progress” (Beck, 18). Beck claims that Whitman is undeniably always heading towards an amelioration of his analysis of his world. Throughout his life, Whitman has kept on editing his poems, since he was looking for perfection and leading to a progression of his own work, letting his reader evolve culturally. Whitman wants to convince his audience that people should appreciate things not for what they seem to be, but for what meaning they bring.
It is by employing simple words and paradoxes that Whitman’s work seems complete and understandable to the reader. His revolutionary poetry is a celebration of life not only in living species but also in inanimate objects. Whitman is close to the nature and to the world itself and by embracing everyone and everything on earth he generates a feeling of tolerance and of peace within the reader. Whitman uses scientific words in his poems to analyze and let his reader discover his world that ultimately makes him a scientist of words. In his own simple words, he lets the world population understand about his own scientific discovery based on his observations. Whitman seems to be full of joy; however his attempt to explain everything fulfils a thirst of happiness that perhaps he did not possess. I believe that he tried all his life to explain, and to justify to his reader his own point of view. Whitman was constantly leading towards progress because he wanted his work to be understood universally and he wanted to lead humans toward a cultural evolution of awareness and consciousness of one’s surroundings.