The “help” that the poet promises to give is not just for the infirm and the weak, but for the “strong” and “upright” as well, and part of the “help” he offers his fellow beings is an understanding of the role of religions over the “several thousand years” of human history. In this section, Whitman offers his most extended overview of world religions, embracing them all even as he rejects each of them as the definitive or final answer to the human spiritual quest. Each of these religions—from the Jewish worship of Jehovah to the Muslim worship of Allah, from the Greek worship of Zeus to the Egyptian worship of Osiris, from Brahma to Buddha and from the Assyrian Belus to the Algonquian Manito to the Aztec Mexitli—falls short of revealing the power and the mystery of the life that is in front of us every moment of every day. Those old religions are still sold to humans today as divine revelations; some of the religions persist into the present, while others seem to have died away. But the poet here claims to offer something greater than any of “the old cautious hucksters” of organized religions can ever offer: this poet promises to “outbid” them all. In the original 1855 version of “Song of Myself,” Whitman included a line that, in a rare nod to decorum, he deleted after the Civil War: that original line dismissed all the religions of the earth by evoking the generative power of his own semen: “The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet.” Only a living body generates the future, Whitman insists: all the promises of all religions to offer life after death are dwarfed by the semen and eggs in living human bodies that are the only actual guarantee of ongoing life after we die, the only promise of “eternity.”
So Whitman measures and fits himself for divinity, lithographing and “buying drafts” of all the gods of history, recognizing them for the work they did in their various historical periods, seeing them as the necessary food that over the centuries allowed human curiosity about the great mysteries of life and the universe to grow. But now the poet is looking to frame a deity worthy of a new age of democracy, a deity we can all discover and recognize in ourselves and in everyone we encounter. The living, creating, laboring self is revealed as the new god, and Whitman turns to a brief catalog of labor and the commonplace, basking in the mystery of it all: the fire fighters putting out a fire are the equals of any mythical heroes; the “hair on the back of my hand” is itself a revelation; the harvesters at work are “lusty angels” turning the earth’s products into nourishment for the living; even the “snag-toothed hostler,” doing the lowly task of caring for the hotel guests’ horses, is a kind of Christ-figure, “redeeming sins past and to come” in the simple act of living his life and doing his job. We do not inherit sin, Whitman affirms; we all start life anew, and every day is a potential redemption for every one of us.
Many religions counsel us to care for the poor and enfeebled, and to find meaning in things that may appear insignificant, but Whitman carries it further by finding in the “bug” and the “dung” and the “dirt” things “more admirable than was dream’d.” He rejects the “supernatural” that most religions turn our attention toward and focuses us instead on the material world surrounding us (and becoming us just as we become it): all is natural in Whitman’s world, and whatever there is of heaven and hell is what we create on this earth. The poet concludes, then, by swearing on his “life-lumps” (all that he has learned over the years by trial and error—“life’s lumps”—or, perhaps, a slangy coinage meaning sperm, coyly recalling his deleted “spirt of seminal wet”) to become a “creator,” to lie in wait for the “womb of the shadows,” for that dark and fertile future that we human gods are continually creating, day by glorious day.
But is that all? Whitman’s question in this section triggers a catalogue of divine revelations that in his view cannot answer every question about the universe, not to mention the questions that lead us to our dark nights of the soul. “Magnifying and applying come I,” he says. And what he magnifies, what he applies himself to, is the quotidian, framers and firemen and the mechanic’s wife nursing her baby. He is a vessel for revelations that for the alert are always on offer—in “a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand,” in bulls and bugs and dung. For our sake he puts himself “to the ambush’d womb of the shadows,” which keeps giving birth to a larger vision of the cosmos—a vision that he invites us to make our own.
Venus and a new moon rising over the mountains above the Yellow River, which runs green in Qinghai Province, in western China, past a Buddhist temple, to which I have come with a heavy heart. At one end of the complex a gold prayer wheel, six stories tall, spins on turbines powered by the river; at the other, poets from around the world take their seats for a performance of works in Chinese and Spanish. There is no telling why or when the world will begin to glow in our imagination, but this is one of those moments. I am thinking that Ezra Pound would have appreciated the international flavor of this gathering. He described himself as “a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both),” and for all his foolishness, which was considerable, he left behind a handful of poems that have enriched my life, beginning with his translations of Li Po, the Tang Dynasty poet whose lines are running through my mind, along with Pound’s epitaph for him: “And Li Po also died drunk./ He tried to embrace a moon/ in the yellow river.” I drink in this landscape—the river, the rock formations, the sky—as I drink in the works of Li Po, Pound, and Whitman, believing that the poets waiting off stage will reveal this truth: “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Robert G. Ingersoll, an agnostic who was a well-known American commentator on religion in the late nineteenth century, always admired Whitman’s work because of its refusal to accept any religious creed. “Whitman keeps open house,” Ingersoll said: “He is intellectually hospitable. He extends his hand to a new idea. He does not accept a creed because it is wrinkled and old and has a long white beard. He knows that hypocrisy has a venerable look, and that it relies on looks and masks—on stupidity—and fear.” But Whitman, in his final years, had a long white beard and a venerable look, and a number of his followers thought that an actual new religion, perhaps to be called “Whitmanism,” would grow out of his writings and use Leaves of Grass as its holy book. What is it in Whitman’s simultaneous embrace and rejection of all religions that makes his spiritual quest different from that of organized religions? Would you say Whitman is a “religious” poet? A “spiritual” one?