The Orthodoxy of Leaves of Grass: The Imaginative Visions of G.K. Chesterton and Walt Whitman in Dialogue

Walt Whitman is not likely to appear on anyone’s list of great Christian poets. And with reason. From the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, to his death in 1892, the good gray poet had cosied with Emersonian Neoplatonism, drafted plans for ‘The Great Construction of the New Bible’ and even accorded the figure of Satan a place within the Holy Quaternity of God. [1] He is large and contains multitudes, but Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not one of them. The problem is that Whitman’s personal heterodoxies may keep his name from appearing on any list of great poets written by a Christian. However, one Christian who in his own lifetime offered hearty dissent to this rule was none other than renowned essayist G.K. Chesterton.

Courtesy of Drew University

When Chesterton compiled his 1905 essay series Heretics to expose the philosophical inadequacies of the literati of the past half-century, not only did he spare Whitman from his critical scythe, but the American poet received accolade as a type of noble pagan. Indeed, for a pre-conversion Chesterton, Whitman was ’one of the greatest men of the nineteenth century’. [2] And while this is certainly a tendentious claim from England’s Catholic Colossus, it is not one that his later work shows any trace of recanting. In fact, the English apologist and the American bard had imaginative visions that greatly overlap in scope and focus.

Chesterton sensed a kindred spirit in Whitman on at least three key motifs, which may help to illuminate the value of Whitman’s poetry from a specifically Christian perspective. We will now consider those three motifs, introduced by an example of their occurrence in Whitman’s great poem Song of Myself. Finally, we will posit one point of divergence stemming from the third motif to suggest a possible difference in the ethical applications of their respective imaginative visions.

  • The Miracle of BeingA child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;/How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any/more than he. [3] More so than any other corrosive ideology, Chesterton set himself against scientistic fatalism. Edwardian polemicists saw the earth spinning like clockwork in an inexorable pattern; Chesterton rejoiced in the greenness of grass and the curious noses of elephants; after all, these things did not have to exist. [4] Chesterton, like Whitman before him, recognized that the recurrence in nature only enhances the essential mystery of things, and that human beings ought to feel a kind of awe or primal wonder at the mere fact of being itself. And though Whitman himself could yawp, ‘Hurrah for positive science!’ he too felt a deeper humility before the most common wonders of creation. [5] Scripture resounds with the same kind of awe, from Job before proud Leviathan to the psalmist contemplating the wondrous miracle of his own birth. Existence has never been inevitable, or even a right in the largest sense, but a gift, the fundamental miracle that we all get to experience.
  • Joie-de-VivreSwiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge/that pass all the art and argument of the earth;/And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,/And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest 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. [6] In his chapter, ‘Omar and the Sacred Vine,’ from Heretics, Chesterton repudiates the melancholy escapism of Khayyam-Fitzgerald in favor of ‘a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman.’ [7] The idea of joie-de-vivre is not simply a lazy insistence that everything will be okay, but a permanent joy based on the good nature of things. This is the joyful abandon of Wisdom in Proverbs, ‘Delighting in him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere on his earth, delighting to be with the children of men.’ [8] This creaturely joy properly responds to the ‘Miracle of Being’ of the preceding point. The gift of existence is in fact delightful, and Whitman rejoices accordingly.
  • Democratic EmotionI celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you. [9] Throughout his poetry, Whitman invites his readers into direct relationship to himself. In another chapter from Heretics, Chesterton recognizes that Whitman, ‘feels the things in which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant.’ [10] This does not mean that Whitman’s poetry reduces particular human persons to non-descript everymen. Rather, he perceives an innate humanity within each person that enables the relationship extended by his speakers to be received by readers in meaningful dialogue. Chesterton lauds Whitman’s relational vision as ‘the thing which is really required for the proper working of democracy . . . the democratic emotion.’ [11] Again, this emotion is not mere sentimentalism. Christian anthropology acknowledges the image of God in every human being, and so treats the neighbor with love and respect. Though Whitman does not see his ethical duty in expressly these terms, he grounds his oeuvre on the essential dignity of humanity, and responds correctly to this vision with genuine affection for those he sees and for whom he writes.

Chesterton’s affinities for Whitman’s poetry are well-founded. The two writers have imaginative visions that apprehend the wonder and humility that humans should feel at the simple miracle of being, that ground real joy in the ancient meaning and mystery of the universe, and compel a profound respect and charity for one’s fellow human beings.

These visions are both Edenic and eschatological; they look back to the primitive and final harmony of creation and call us to practice wonder, joy and self-giving love, even in this present age.

However, it is precisely in the state of this present age that the two visions differ. Set against Chesterton’s love for both creation and his neighbor is his intuition that ‘in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin . . . or wreck.’ [12] This idea of the wreck (a more vivid image than the traditional ‘Fall’) of humanity in sin implicates both world and self in a brokenness that world and self alone cannot heal, and must be redeemed from the outside. Whitman’s vision is very different. Though Whitman’s poetry directly tackles the subjects of suffering, death and evil, there is no primordial wreck from which the human story starts. Whitman’s vision of the world contains infinite variety and infinite possibility, but it occludes a narrative of human redemption because there is no fundamental sin to be atoned for.

As such, one essential difference between the two imaginative visions exist. While both exhort us to empathize with our neighbor’s situation and lovingly give of ourselves for his or her good, Chesterton’s vision is able to go further in that it is able to locate the self’s own guilt in the suffering of the neighbor. Whitman’s poetry of course demonstrates deep, even kenotic care for the suffering other, but for Chesterton’s, and Christianity’s vision, such care might not be enough for the best human relationships. It may be that an imaginative vision demands a recognition of universal human brokenness, as well as human dignity, to rightly guide us in loving our neighbors as ourselves.

 

 


[1] See Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, (New York: Penguin, 1959), 14, 28. All subsequent quotations from Song of Myself are taken from this edition.
[2] D. Collins, ed., Lunacy and Letters, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 62.
[3] Song of Myself, 6.90-91.
[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, from Collected Works: Volume I: Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Blatchford Controversies, ed. David Dooley, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 262.
[5] Song of Myself, 23.488.
[6] Song of Myself, 5.82-86.
[7] Heretics, 96.
[8] New Jerusalem Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 975.
[9] Song of Myself, 1.1-3.
[10] Heretics, 189.
[11] Heretics., 188.
[12] Orthodoxy, 268.

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