"Points of Contact": Blake and Whitman
Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe, University of Pennsylvania
On September 29, 1890 Whitman enclosed a rough sketch of his tomb in a letter to his literary executor, Richard Maurice Bucke. An outline of a house with a door is surrounded by design specifications: "Walt Whitman’s burial vault—on a sloping wooded hill—grey granite—unornamental—surroundings trees, turf, sky, a hill everything crude and natural" (The Correspondence 5: 95; sketch reproduced bet. 212-213). Whitman based the design on William Blake’s engraving "Death’s Door," which he encountered in 1881 when he read Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake.
"Death’s Door," Collection of Robert N. Essick. Copyright © 2005 The William Blake Archive.
In "Death’s Door," an old, bearded man hunched over a crutch steps inside the open doorway of a square, stone structure. The wind blows at the old man’s back, rippling his garment and his beard; just inside the door is a rolled mat on a raised surface. As the dying physical body enters "Death’s Door," a vibrant young man surrounded by rays of light crouches on top of the stone structure, representing the life of the soul.
Whitman’s tomb is a compelling sign of connection between Blake and Whitman—two poets who printed and self-published multiple versions of poems that engage the imagination and grapple with issues of religion, sexuality, and politics. In this essay I attempt to illuminate a material point of contact between Blake and Whitman—Whitman’s tomb—through a close reading of these poets’ rhetorical points of contact. I hope to reopen a transatlantic dialogue between Blake and Whitman through a formalist consideration of similarities in their poetic works. In order to understand the significance of Blake’s presence at Whitman’s tomb, this essay will explore Whitman’s responses to Blake in his letters and notes, their shared status as prophetic poets, and their poetics of revision.
Swinburne’s Idea of Resemblance
Whitman, who was eight years old when Blake died in 1827, was probably introduced to Blake’s works in 1868, the year Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Poetical Sketches and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s book, William Blake: A Critical Essay, were published. It is unclear when, or whether, Whitman read these books, but we do know that Moncure Conway, who reviewed William Blake in the Fortnightly Review (February 1868), made Whitman aware that Swinburne refers to him in his book. Whitman wrote to Conway,
I have not yet seen the February Fortnightly—nor the book William Blake—but shall procure & read both. I feel prepared in advance to render my cordial and admirant respect to Mr. Swinburne—and would be glad to have him know that I thank him heartily for the mention which, I understand, he has made of me in the Blake. (Conway, 1: bet. 218-219)
Swinburne more than mentions Whitman in William Blake: in his estimation, Blake and Whitman are uncannily similar. He writes,
I can remember one poet only whose work seems to me the same or similar in kind; a poet as vast in aim, as daring in detail, as unlike others, as coherent to himself, as strange without and as sane within. The points of contact and sides of likeness between William Blake and Walt Whitman are so many and so grave, as to afford some ground of reason to those who preach the transition of souls or transfusion of spirits. (300)
Despite Swinburne’s enthusiastic and flourishing prose style, he goes on to identify these "sides of likeness" in extremely broad terms. For example, he writes: "The great American is not a more passionate preacher of sexual or political freedom than the English artist"; "The words of either strike deep and run wide and soar high"; and "The divine devotion and selfless love which make men martyrs and prophets are alike visible and palpable in each" (300-1). These proclamations of near identity go on for a few pages, and even though for Swinburne there is almost nothing that could be said of one poet which could not be said of the other, he admits that Whitman’s poetry is more accessible than Blake’s: "Whitman has seldom struck a note of thought and speech so just and so profound as Blake has now and then touched upon; but his work is generally more frank and fresh, smelling of sweeter air, and readier to expound or expose its message, than this of the ‘Prophetic Books’" (303).
Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, agreed with Swinburne and tested his claim: he read Blake’s poems aloud to friends and actually "passed them off" as Whitman’s. In a letter to William and Ellen O’Connor (September 1868), Whitman writes,
Swinton has lately been posting himself about William Blake, his poems—has the new London edition of W.B. in two vols. He, Swinton, gives me rather new information in one respect—says that the formal resemblance between several pieces of Blake, & my pieces, is so marked that he, S, has, with persons that partially know me, passed them off temporarily for mine, & read them aloud as such. He asked me pointedly whether I had not met with Blake’s productions in my youth, &c—said that Swinburne’s idea of resemblance &c was not so wild, after all. Quite funny, isn’t it? (The Correspondence 2: 48-9)
Though Swinton "pointedly" asked whether Whitman had previously "met with Blake’s productions," the absence of an answer here is particularly evasive, but not uncommon—Whitman’s sporadic and cursory comments about Blake typically refer more to himself, and none concerns Blake’s poetry specifically. William O’Connor replied consolingly that Leaves of Grass resembles Blake’s poetry as much as a "complex-melodied Italian opera, sung by voices half-human, half-divine" resembles "the Gregorian chant, bellowed by bull-necked priests with donkey lips" (The Correspondence 2: 49n). Whether we read Whitman’s question, "Quite funny, isn’t it?" ironically or not, it is clear that Whitman’s originality is at stake when people take Swinburne’s "idea of resemblance" seriously. Whitman reveals his uneasiness with attempts to pair him and Blake more openly in a short note written around the same time Swinburne’s WWilliam Blake was published:
Of William Blake & Walt Whitman. Both are mystics, extatics but the difference between them is this—and a vast difference it is: Blake’s visions grow to be the rule, displace the normal condition, fill the field, spurn the visible, objective life, & seat the subjective spirit on an absolute throne, willful & uncontrolled. But Whitman, though he occasionally prances off, takes flight with an abandon & capriciousness of step or wing, and a rapidity & whirling power, which quite dizzy the reader in his first attempts to follow, always holds the mastery over himself, &, even in his most intoxicated lunges or pirouettes, never once loses control, or even equilibrium. To the pe[rfect] sense, it is evident that he goes off because he permits himself to do so, while ever the director, or direct’g principle sits coolly at hand, able to stop the wild teetotum & reduce it to order, at any a moment. In Walt Whitman, escapades of this sort are the exceptions. The main character of his poetry is the normal, the universal, the simple, the eternal platform of the best manly & womanly qualities. (Faint Clews & Indirections 53)
Here, he adopts the thin guise of a reviewer who is not Walt Whitman, and lays out the differences between Blake and Whitman in the assured diction of a literary critic. Though they may appear to be similar kinds of poets—"mystics, extatics"—he can tell the difference: Whitman is in control of his visions while Blake is not. Blake’s visions lose sight of the "normal condition," ignore the "objective life," and turn the "subjective spirit" into a tyrant; Whitman, however, both authorizes and regulates his flights of fancy. Whitman’s "escapades" are a dizzying dance, a performance balanced by a "direct’g principle" that is lacking in Blake’s visions. Whitman-as-reviewer is also in control of Walt Whitman’s poetic reception: this is what he wants the literary world to say about his relation to Blake. But we should not forget that Whitman’s desire to distinguish himself from Blake remained private—a note to, and for, himself.
- Notwithstanding Whitman’s distinctions, the prophetic dimension of Blake’s and Whitman’s poetry is perhaps their most familiar connection. Twentieth-century American poets Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg first drew my attention to Blake and Whitman as prophetic poets: in Crane’s The Bridge, Whitman is prominently featured in the "Cape Hatteras" section, and Blake provides the epigram for "The Tunnel" section; Ginsberg references Whitman formally, and Blake directly, in Howl when he talks about those "who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war" (6). Ginsberg, of course, mentions Blake and Whitman in other poems, including "America," "Sunflower Sutra," and "Poem Rocket," in which he says, "Here I am naked without identity / with no more body than the fine black tracery of pen mark on soft paper / as star talks to star multiple beams of sunlight all the same myriad thought / in one fold of the universe where Whitman was / and Blake" (24-28).
Prophecy means to speak forth, before, or for, and prophetic writing attempts to communicate the divine voice through a textual vision. Blake writes in "All Religions are One" that the "Poetic Genius is the true Man" who is also "every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy," and again in his annotations to the Bishop of Llandaff’s An Apology for the Bible that the prophet "utters his opinions both of private & public matters." Ian Balfour explains that Blake’s view of prophecy is similar to that in Protestant discourse of the seventeenth century, like Jeremy Taylor’s The Liberty of Prophesying (1647), in which prophecy "has more to do with freedom of expression or sheer speaking on behalf of God than with prediction of the future" (131). In a similar vein in his Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman states that "the greatest poet" is "a seer" and "every man shall be his own priest." Biblical prophecy is especially important to both poets’ works: among numerous examples, Isaiah and Ezekiel dine with the poet in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and "All flesh is grass" (Isaiah 40:6) resonates throughout Whitman’s verse. Blake’s mythological system is fundamentally biblical and, working on the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was involved in what he called "The Great Construction of the New Bible" (Notebooks 1:353).
That only a handful of essays on Blake and Whitman have been published (in the early 1980s) attests to the notion that their similarities are considered more a literary intuition than an avenue for critical exploration. However, both Malcolm Cowley and Donald Pease provide us with useful terms of comparison. In his Introduction to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Cowley argues that Whitman’s Song of Myself and Blake’s illuminated works belong to a larger, prophetic canon that includes works ranging from the Bhagavad-Gita to Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Within such a canon, works deeply concerned with cultural politics would fall under the aegis of what Donald Pease calls "epic prophecies," or visions of "what is possible for a nation at a particular time in history" ("Blake, Whitman, Crane" 25). Both Blake’s continental prophecies, especially Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, Europe, and the unengraved The French Revolution can be considered alongside Whitman’s writings on the Civil War, especially Drum-Taps and Specimen Days, the Independence Day publication of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, and the centennial 1876 Leaves of Grass.
The national and religious dimensions of Blake’s poetic prophecy are markedly different from Whitman’s. Several of Blake’s poems tell the story of Orc, who represents "Revolution in the material world" (Damon 309). Blake’s America, A Prophecy records the effect of the American revolution on Europe: Orc breaks free from his chains (Los, his father, bound him to a mountain), war enters the world, and he is revealed as an agent of Urizen, the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempts Man to break free of prohibitions. Here, as well as in the continuation of this tale in Europe, A Prophecy, the spiritual world is reflected in the material world. Revolution in the material world will always lose touch with its original meaning and fail, unless it is led by Jesus, who, for Blake, was the original spiritual revolutionary. Therefore, national liberty can only be achieved through a specifically Christian vision. According to S. Foster Damon, the final three chapters of Jerusalem (which signifies Liberty in Blake’s mythological schema)—addressed to the Jews, the Deists, and the Christians—"analyze man’s progress through Experience until he reaches the Truth": the Jewish religion is that of "Moral Law" and "the childhood of the human race"; the Deist religion is that of "young manhood [which] retains the Moral Law, but substitutes Nature for God"; and the Christian religion is that of "maturity—particularly plagued by the errors of sex—the false ideal of chastity" (210). Jerusalem is a prophetic vision of the true religion, which Man can achieve once he moves through these stages, eliminates all these errors, and embraces God within himself. In the introductory address in Jerusalem, "To the Public," Blake expresses the hope that the reader will "be with" him, "wholly One in Jesus our Lord" (plate 3). To "be with"
Blake, as his reader, is to unite with Jesus, become part of the creative and illuminating process of the imagination, and ultimately recognize the divine and infinite within.
For Blake, an exclusively Christian vision of reunion with God must be adopted in order for humanity to be redeemed: the state of the nation depends on the spiritual state of its citizens and, ultimately, everyone is a citizen of Jerusalem. For Whitman, however, God is equal to, and exists in, everything:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is
(. . . )
I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not
in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. (Song of Myself 1262-64, 1274-75)
Whitman’s spiritual vision does not involve evolutionary stages of religion that lead to Christianity; rather, it includes all religions. In "Salut au Monde!" he hears "the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque," "the Hebrew reading his records and psalms," "the rhythmic myths of the Greeks," "the tale of the divine life and bloody death of the beautiful God the Christ," and "the Hindoo teaching his favorite pupil" (Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman 288). Christ—Whitman does not refer to him as Jesus in Leaves of Grass—represents the ideal of brotherhood, of the love of another as one’s self, or comradeship: "Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself, / Dead and divine and brother of all, here again he lies" ("A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim," Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman 441). Whitman believes, like Blake, that humans are divine, but he also believes that they are equally as divine as God and such knowledge requires no mediation. Whitman’s address to the reader in the Preface to Song of Myself is not expressed as a hope, but rather as a directive that does not include a specific religious reference: he says, "You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me" (13). Within this lateral structure of perception, both author and reader are reflected. Indeed, it is this imperative and necessary relationship between author and reader that Whitman’s poem traces: the trajectory of Song of Myself moves from "I" to "you"—from "I celebrate myself" to "I stop somewhere waiting for you." Whitman’s desire for, and performative declaration of, reciprocity takes place through the text in which we see both I and you. The state of the nation, according to Whitman, depends as much on the spiritual state of its citizens as it does on their
citizenship in the human race.
Both Blake and Whitman engaged in the lifelong practice of revising their previously printed works. The nature of their poetic revision is complex and wide-ranging, and we will glimpse only a narrow view of it here by focusing on tropes of the practice of revision—contraction and expansion—in each poet’s work. Before we look at contraction and expansion, we should note that Blake and Whitman revised their poems in many different ways. Blake rewrote particular stories in several different poems and he also produced multiple copies of his poems. Each copy of one of his poems is unique: variation among them includes plate order, design, and coloration. For example, only two of the eight copies of The Book of Urizen contain all the plates Blake etched for the poem, and in each copy the full-page designs are ordered differently. Each poem is, in effect, all the different copies of that poem; and each copy represents a different way of seeing that necessarily includes other versions in its purview. There is considerable disagreement among critics about whether variations in Blake’s works are intentional changes, or inherent consequences of his method of production (etching, inking, printing, washing in watercolors, etc.). In "The Text, the Poem, and the Problem of Historical Method," Jerome McGann claims that Blake produced unique copies of Jerusalem purposefully, unfettered by artistic limitation: variations are not "merely accidental, and unimportant for the ‘meaning’ of Blake’s work. Certainly to Blake they seemed immensely consequential" (276). Alternatively, Joseph Viscomi argues that variation is a consequence of the way in which Blake produced copies of a poem, but it is not a consequential part of the poem’s meaning: the "assumption that variants were intended or perceived by Blake as meaningful, produced deliberately to destabilize the text and to make every copy of a book a separate version,
is based on a misunderstanding of Blake’s mode of book production and its ruling paradigm . . . variation—in the form of states, proofs, prints before letters, size and type of paper, and so on—was inherent to the aesthetics and economics of conventional print production . . .The differences are in emphasis and detail, not in the nature of phenomenon" (Blake and the Idea of the Book 167, 169). I would argue that McGann’s and Viscomi’s positions are not mutually exclusive: Blake’s method of production probably resulted in unintentional variations, and Blake might have changed, for example, the order of plates in a copy of a poem on purpose. Both kinds of variation have implications for our reading of multiple copies of one of Blake’s poems.
Whitman’s revision of Leaves of Grass spanned over more than thirty-five years, during which he added poems, excised poems, created "clusters," changed titles, and added supplements. For example, the 1855 version contains twelve untitled poems; the 1856 version contains thirty-two poems (all with titles); the 1860 version contains one hundred and forty-six new poems (all grouped into clusters); and the 1881 version contains final cluster titles and sequences of poems within clusters. Unlike Blake, who did not designate one particular copy of a poem for publication, Whitman clearly states his preference for the final edition of Leaves of Grass. At the beginning of the 1891-2 edition he writes, "As there are now several editions of L. of G., different texts and dates, I wish to say that I prefer and recommend this present one, complete for future printing, if there should be any"; moreover, shortly before he died he issued a statement that the 1892 edition should "absolutely supercede all previous ones" (Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman 148, 703).
In this last section, we will look at the appearance of tropes of revision in scenes of crisis in Blake’s and Whitman’s poems. Both Blake’s characters and Whitman’s subject encounter a crisis of perception that threatens their expansion. These subjects in Blake’s poetry are, of course, allegorical or mythic figures enacting a story, while in Whitman’s poetry the subject is, as John Berryman puts it, a voice "for himself [and] for others as himself" (246). In Blake’s story of limited perception in The Book of Urizen, characters become what they behold: contraction is a result of fallen perception, but such a state is actually necessary for imaginative expansion. In Song of Myself, the speaker overcomes the daybreak’s threat to his expansion by becoming what he beholds through his vision and his voice. In both Blake and Whitman, then, subjects overcome (actual or potential) contraction by becoming what they behold in order to expand.
To see how contraction and expansion are figured in Blake, it is necessary to first rehearse the creation myth of Urizen. The Book of Urizen actually describes two creation myths: that of Los (the imagination) and that of Urizen ("your reason," limitation, and law). In seven ages, reminiscent of the seven days of biblical creation, Los forged and limited Urizen into physical form: his spine "writh’d in torment" and ribs "froze / Over all his nerves of joy" in the first Age (9.37, 39-41); a heart shot out veins and arteries in the second Age; his "nervous brain shot branches / Round the branches of his heart" and formed two eyes "fixed in two little caves," or eye-sockets, in the third Age (10.11-12, 14); two ears formed in the fourth Age; two nostrils "bent down to the deep" in the Fifth Age (12.1); a "Tongue / Of thirst & of hunger appeard" in the sixth Age (12.8-9); his arms shot out to the north and south, and his feet "stampd" the "nether Abyss" in the seventh, and final, Age (12.16). At the beginning of Chapter V (Plate 12), Los "shrunk" in "terrors" from his task (12.20),
Then he look’d back with anxious desire
But the space undivided by existence
Struck horror into his soul.
6. Los wept obscur’d with mourning
His bosom earthquak’d with sighs
He saw Urizen deadly black
In his chains bound & Pity began
7. In anguish dividing & dividing
For pity divides the soul
In pangs eternity on eternity (12.45-54)
After lamenting the separation between himself and eternity, "the space undivided by existence," Los perceived Urizen, bound in chains. Los’ division results both from seeing Urizen as divided from himself and from the emotion associated with this realization. Los became the division and separation he beheld. "Pity" began in Los as emotion and became a "round globe of blood / Trembling upon the void" (12.58-59) that "branched out into roots" and fibres, and eventually became a "female form trembling and pale" (16.2, 7).
Los’ initial division does not cease: he continues "dividing & dividing / For pity divides the soul" (13.52-53). In the fallen world of time and space, Pity also redeems, or reunites the soul, but Pity "cannot reunite unless there has been a previous division." (Damon 327). Pity, later called Enitharmon (Los’ emanation, or female counterpart), is Blake’s Eve figure. Leopold Damrosch notes that although she "tantalizes and frustrate[s]" Los later in The Book of Urizen, Enitharmon is "considered a merciful limit to the fall" (183). In theological terms, Eve/Enitharmon secures the eventual embodiment of Jesus Christ; the repetition of generation will produce God incarnate, through whom humanity might be redeemed. Contrary to the denial of resemblance inherent in a contracted perception that sees only the horror of individuation and limitation, the Divine Vision entails an expansive vision through which one sees a similitude between the Divine and the human. Blake’s concept of Christian redemption can be understood in terms of perception: reunion is made possible through the figure of Jesus, in whom Blake’s characters see "the Eternal Vision! the Divine Similitude!" at the end of Jerusalem (34.11). In Jesus, one can see both human and divine, and for Blake, this is the realization that expands our perception to include seeing the divine in ourselves.
While the mythic characters in Blake’s poems contract and expand through perception, Whitman, or a version of Whitman, in Song of Myself, contracts and expands through touch. Whitman’s lexicon of expansion is extensive: for example, in Song of Myself, he "chant[s] a new chant of dilation" (428), he is "Partaker of influx and efflux," (462), and flies as "the fluid and swallowing soul" (799). It is also important to note that Whitman, as the subject of Song of Myself, is multiple: he incorporates "other" voices through and as his own. Ronald Beck explains that "At times the speaker seems to be a persona named Walt Whitman, at other times the voice of all mankind, at other times the voice of the mystical unity at the center of all being. Not only does the point of view shift, but it is often difficult to tell exactly when it shifts, and it is sometimes impossible to tell which voice is speaking" (35). The speaker in SSong of Myself expands into a kosmos: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual" (499-500). "Many long dumb" and "forbidden voices" filter out through his expansive body, and then, in a moment reminiscent of Blake’s "Human Form Divine" and his assertion that "every Minute Particular is Holy: / Embraces are Cominglings: From the Head even to the Feet," Whitman proclaims, "Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from" (Jerusalem 69.42-3, Song of Myself 526). Whitman, as poet of the body and of the soul, figures the relationship between self and other in sacramental and physical terms. He has "instant conductors" all over his body that "seize every object and lead it harmlessly" through him; he need only "press" with his fingers to be happy (614-16). But this touching, in which he "merely stirs," also limits Whitman’s expansion: "To touch my
person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand" (617). He continues, "Is this then a touch? .... quivering me to a new identity," and an intensely visceral and sexual description of forced physical contact follows: "On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs / Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip" (622-23). His "fellow-senses" are personified as "sentries" who were "bribed to swap off with touch, and go and graze at the edges" of him (628-9). "Touch" has turned his other senses into traitors; he loses his wits and admits that he is "the greatest traitor" (637). When Whitman’s senses leave their posts, "villain touch" overwhelms him to the point where he can hardly breathe (639). Whitman acquiesces, "You are too much for me" (640).
In the middle of Whitman’s expansion and contraction, he experiences a crisis of perception. Whitman beholds the daybreak, but before he can see the sun itself, he sees its rays: "Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs, / Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven" (557-8). When he sees the sunrise, it threatens to annihilate him: "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me" (562-3). The speaker circumvents the threat of potentially fatal contraction by becoming like the sun, by becoming what he beholds: "We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun," and the daybreak is suddenly "calm and cool" (564-5). Then, remarkably, the speaker sends the sunrise out of himself through his voice: "My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, / With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds" (566-7). Whitman becomes what he beholds through vision, and then reaches beyond what he beholds through his voice, making expansion possible. Moreover, Whitman becomes what we behold: a sunrise whose rays reach us through his voice.
Death’s Door of Perception
When Whitman read Gilchrist’s Life of Blake in 1881, Blake was no longer a potentially threatening poetic rival. In a January letter to George and Susan Stafford he wrote that Gilchrist’s two volumes "are queer books, the very finest of printing & paper & some odd pictures"; two weeks later he wrote, "though they are very queer in the story of Blake’s life and works, there is a deal that is interesting & good to chew on—then they are such beautiful specimens of paper & printing, it is a pleasure to read them" (The Correspondence 3: 206, 208). Gilchrist’s book succeeded in capturing Whitman’s attention through both the story of Blake and the reproductions of his plates. What finally drew Whitman to Blake was the material beauty of the book about Blake. Whitman beheld Blake’s "Death’s Door" in Gilchrist’s book and decided to use it as a model for his tomb.
Whitman’s tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey. Photograph by Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe.
The inscription on the roof of Whitman’s tomb—simply, "Walt Whitman"—points to the immortality of the soul, represented by the shining young man atop the stone structure in Blake’s design. Whitman’s tomb is not only a version of Blake’s "Death’s Door," it is also a door of perception for us, through which he has already passed.