Now Whitman returns to the concerns he raised in Section 41, where he embraced all the varieties and types of religion. Here he catalogs, in remarkably physical detail, the ritual actions of thousands of years of religious devotion, from the earliest sun-worshippers to the itinerant ministers of his own time (known as “circuit riders” because they rode a circuit of different congregations, just as Whitman here winds a “circuit of circuits,” riding from one religious practice to another). He moves from Asia to Greece to the United States, “enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern.” The poet’s actions here take us back to the opening lines of “Song of Myself”: “And what I assume you shall assume.” Religious beliefs have been one of the major divisive forces in human history: countless wars have been fought and continue to be fought over the intricacies and differences of beliefs. And the battles, of course, have not just been between the world’s major religions, but between sects and denominations within each of those religions. What would happen, Whitman asks here, if one identity accepted them all, even the “atheistical” non-belief of “down-hearted doubters”? How could a single identity be so encompassing as to accept the conflicting beliefs and doubts of everyone on earth?
Whitman’s answer is as simple as it is sublime. No matter how religious we have been, we have all faced “torment, doubt, despair and unbelief”; we have all, at some point, been afflicted by the “bloody flukes of doubters and sullen mopers.” A “fluke” is the powerful tailfin of a whale that the whale can use to destroy its pursuers, but the word “flukes” can also refer to the barbs of the harpoon used to kill the whale: we try to harpoon our doubts, but our doubts can also rise up to destroy us. Whitman thus offers a faith beyond doubt, “the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,” a faith in the full materiality of the present moment in which he lives. That faith—a faith in his own physical body and in the physical things he encounters around him—gives him faith in an “afterlife,” a faith that there will be future moments in which as-yet-unborn life will have its own materiality, long after this present moment has plunged into the past.
Whitman’s faith thus allows him to know that the entire past has conflated and mixed and reorganized in order to produce this particular moment that we call the present. Multitudes of ideas and beliefs and doubts and physicalities have composted and melded into this moment. Everything—every idea, no matter how crazy; every child and man and woman, no matter how young they died, no matter how purposeless or diseased they were; every tiny “sac” that floats through the water and is nothing but microscopic voracious desire; every “wisp that is known”—contributes its part to what is here in the physical present (that ongoing flash of time that is the only time in which life exists). This present, material moment literally contains all of the past and all of the future: “every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me.” To have the “least of faiths,” then, a simple faith in the world around us that we touch and see and hear and smell and taste, is to have the “greatest of faiths,” a knowledge that there have been other present moments just as real and physically present as the one that we are experiencing at this moment, and a knowledge that there will be other very real present moments, embodied by other very real breathing bodies, like our own as we read this poem written by a poet who once was embodied and now is not. We are his afterlife.
A summer festival on the waterfront of a New England town. Sunlight and blue skies and salt air. Tourists and townspeople, some pushing strollers, some eating ice cream or sipping coffee, drift past white tents in which vendors offer seascapes, stained glass, baked goods. Many stop to look at Plymouth Rock, where the pilgrims from Mayflower supposedly disembarked in 1620. At the wharf, a replica of the merchant ship that brought them to the New World lies in her berth, with actors playing the roles of shipmates and passengers, reciting a version of the history taught to American schoolchildren. The Mayflower Compact looms large in any telling: how all the adult males, saints and strangers alike (the terms, respectively, for the faithful and those who made the perilous journey for the sake of trade or adventure), pledged while still aboard ship to “covenant and combine [them]selves together into a civil body politic.” Here was the cornerstone of democracy, the origin of the new faith that Whitman extols in this section.
What strikes the reader is the range of reference that the poet employs in his catalogue of ancient and modern belief systems, each of which contributes to his revelation that the individual is the measure of the cosmos. He yokes together every religion to prepare the ground for “what is yet untried and afterward,” what will suffice for us all, now “Helping the llama or brahmin as he trims the lamps of the idols,” now “Drinking mead from the skull-cap,” now “sitting patiently in a pew.” And more: in “the sea of torment, doubt, despair and unbelief” there is a force that crests in us at every moment: the here and now. His surging lines will teach us how to ride it.
William Bradford, a signatory of the Mayflower Compact and governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote: “as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.” Whitman turned that candle into song.
Whitman was very aware that he was writing his poem for readers who did not exist when he wrote the poem. In a very real way, then, we are, for Whitman, the “afterlife.” We had no bodies, no identities, when he lived, but he had faith we would emerge out of the identities and bodies that he and all those who lived 150 years ago left behind. What physical ways do you see your own body and the bodies of those alive now living off of the material remains of bodies that were once alive, and what signs do you see that you are living off of the ideas, beliefs, doubts, successes, and errors of those now dead? Can religious faith be built on such a materialistic basis—that the physical world just keeps transforming and transmuting into an endless ongoing present (which is the only place that “afterlife” can occur)?