Back in Section 23, Whitman exulted over the scientific achievements of his time: “Hurrah for positive science!” In that section, he told us he would “accept Reality and dare not question it, / Materialism first and last imbuing.” In these later sections, we see more clearly the implications of those earlier pronouncements. We have seen how he has developed a faith out of a particular understanding of “materialism”—that the soul or the animating force we call “life” is present only in materials and that life exists only in the present moment in which we alone live. The physically embodied entities of the world quite literally carry the past and the future, which exist only as former or yet-to-come manifestations of the present. So, in Section 44, a key canto in the poem, the poet explains all of this in more detail, beginning with his wonderful invitation: “It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.” Only by all of us rising can the poet explain himself: his identity is thoroughly and intimately entwined with ours.
Sentient creatures always and only know the present moment, what the clock indicates. But if we “strip away” “what is known,” we can get an indication of “eternity,” a glimpse at the vast, endless journeys the materials that compose us have taken, and the vast, endless journeys they have yet to take. Whitman here embraces the advances in geology, astronomy, evolution, chemistry, and other sciences in order to portray the previously unthinkably immense amounts of time and space that the new conceptions of the universe demanded and revealed. As a result, mathematical and scientific terms, like “trillions,” permeate the borders of poetry here, and Whitman begins to trill the “trillions of winters and summers” that have passed and will pass. Imagining the materials that compose him as an “embryo” that has passed through eons of time, he realizes that he (like all of us) is the very being that universal time has been moving toward, because all those vast transformations of matter have yielded us in this present moment: we are the utmost attainment, the “acme,” of the work of trillions of years, and we are the “encloser of things to be.” Who knows what we—what the animate and inanimate things of this world, this galaxy, this universe, as they exist at this moment—will come to be in presents not yet reached.
So Whitman peers “afar down” into “the huge first Nothing,” what we might today call the “Big Bang,” and knows that everything that he is was already there. He portrays a caring and nurturing universe ferrying his atoms across huge distances, forming a solid earth out of a hazy “nebula,” planting his carbon atoms deep into “long slow strata” for safe-keeping, as the “vast vegetables” and the dinosaurs were pressed into fossil fuels that we still extract to turn back into energy and movement. He even introduces dinosaurs into poetry for the first time (dinosaurs had only been discovered a few decades before Whitman wrote his poem, and the word was still a new one; only advances in archaeology and evolution opened the time necessary to allow for a rational explanation of what dinosaur fossils were), and he imagines some earlier form of himself as an egg nurtured in the warm mouth of “monstrous sauroids” (scientists believed for awhile that the cold-blooded reptiles kept their eggs warm by holding them in the pockets of their jaws). The poet has climbed the steps of evolution, knowing that every step is equally important to every other step, and now, in his present moment, he embodies the past and he embodies the future: but, most importantly, he embodies here and now his “robust soul”—his powerful force of living, pulsating existence—which he knows will pass to other materials just as it has been passed by other materials to him.
“What is known I strip away,” Whitman explains in this section, “I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown.” Now it becomes clear that the self he sings and celebrates, which contains the whole, the individual and the cosmos, past, present, and future, is in fact the force that governs the universe, propelling matter in every direction throughout history (“trillions of winters and summers”), from the origin unto eternity—which is exactly in this moment: the eternal now. Preparations for his vision began with “the huge first Nothing,” which furnished the materials for everything that was and is to come, including the maker of this poem, connecting one and all; its reverberations will echo until the end of time. And this poem is a map to the new land that the poet, “the encloser of things to be,” is surveying from ever greater heights.
Open water and bright sun. On Narragansett Bay, in a replica of a 17th-century dory, my friends and I are “rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen” from Providence to Newport, riding the current of the outgoing tide past container ships and yachts and skiffs, carried by a steady north wind which will not turn until the sun has almost set. The coxswain tells a story about two fishermen lost in fog off the coast: how they rowed with their hands frozen to the oars until one died of exposure; how his companion placed his corpse in the stern for ballast and continued on to Newfoundland, where the tips of his gangrenous fingers had to be amputated; how in later life the survivor rowed across the Atlantic, with special oars carved for his deformed hands…
“How did he keep going?” I ask between strokes, then draw in my oars to rest, gauging in my mind the distance to the bridge beyond which lies the harbor. Two hours? Three?
The dory glides past a lobster pot, then a buoy on which perches a cormorant, and then an eddy of foam produced by the turning tide. The coxswain smiles.
“Oars ready,” he says. “And pull.”
Try tracking, in just one day, all the materials of the world that have literally become part of you. Then try to expand, through increasing spans of time, that sense of how you are connected to the materials of this world. Can you get back to the dinosaurs? To that “huge first nothing”?