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Walt Whitman's "Passage to India"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Walt Whitman

Portrait of Walt Whitman

Introduction and Excerpt from "Passage to India"

The speaker in Walt Whitman's "Passage to India" offers a marvelous drama, elucidating the many human achievements that have moved the citizens of the world from earliest times to contemporaneous civilization. The speaker unveils the panorama of an ever-evolving world of individuals, who despite their flaws, have demonstrated their capabilities for bringing about a true "city on the hill," where peace can reign and true joy can be established for every soul.

Walt Whitman’s classic poem is displayed in his wide-ranging, dramatic style, which includes his famous catalogues of people, places, events, and traditions. Into this poem, Whitman’s speaker packs the essence of world history, literature, and religion, as he sings his song of love for all peoples and all cultures that exist upon the Earth.

Excerpt: Part 1 of "Passage to India"

1

Singing my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World the east the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann'd,
The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires;
Yet first to sound, and ever sound, the cry with thee O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!

The Past—the dark unfathom'd retrospect!
The teeming gulf—the sleepers and the shadows!
The past—the infinite greatness of the past!
For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?

(As a projectile form'd, impell'd, passing a certain line, still keeps on,
So the present, utterly form'd, impell'd by the past.) . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Passage to India."

Reading: Excerpt from "Passage to India"

Commentary

Walt Whitman's "Passage to India" undertakes the mammoth task of presenting a wide-ranging historical account of world civilization through the accomplishments of a humanity for which the poet holds deep affection and admiration. As this poet’s speaker has elsewhere deemed everything a miracle, he also deems all humanity capable of miraculous achievements.

Part 1: Present Achievements

In the opening segment of the poem, the speaker celebrates the great achievements of the present: the building of the Suez Canal, the completion of which the speaker suggests heralds the completion the mission of the world-exploring Genoese, who was seeking a water route to the Far East. The speaker then celebrates the laying of the Atlantic cable, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The speaker also pays tribute to the past, averring the present is what it is because of what happened in the past. He emphasizes dependence of past experience by his repetition: "The Past! the Past! the Past!"

Part 2: Elucidating Myths and Fables

The first versagraph of Part 2 exclaims and commands his passage to India to elucidate the Asian myths and fables. He then suggests that it is not merely modern science that informs and delights the soul, but it is also myths and fables from around the entire world. He is deeply enthralled by the world religions, "The deep diving bibles and legends."

Next, he then asserts through a rhetorical question the ancient rôle that India has played in the founding of the ways of knowing God and God’s purpose for humankind: "Passage to India! / Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first?"

Then the speaker praises the adventurous spirit that spans the earth and connects the peoples. He especially pays homage to all those adventurers for making their journeys not merely for material purposes but also for spiritual enlightenment.

Part 3: The Great Explorer

After having merely mentioned the opening of the Suez Canal in Part 1, the speaker celebrates in detail that opening of the Suez Canal and then turns to the Pacific railroad, for which he marvels at its ability to tie the two coasts together.

The speaker muses on the connections being made possible inside of the United States by the Transcontinental Railroad as well as the connections being made possible with the world through the construction of the Suez Canal. He pays homage to the discoveries of the Italian explorer, the "Genoese," who dreamed of reaching the Far East over a less dangerous route that earlier explorers had experienced. The speaker affirms that the idea of connecting East and West has now been accomplished after having been introduced in the great past by those of great vision.

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Parts 4: Many Voyages

The musing speaker can be seen following the movements of the many sea captains and sailors who appear to him like "clouds" in a storm of historical theatre. These thoughts bring scenes of the voyages, the plans, the tempest-torn struggles that ultimately resulted in the discovery of new lands where new nations would be formed.

The speaker, whose soul seems to be flooding his vision with allusions filled with scenes of all those many voyages, including that of Vasco de Gama, to the New World which resulted in his native land's opulence. The speaker holds the belief that all those struggling explorers were fulfilling the promise that life on Earth holds for the children of a miraculous existence. Humankind, he suggests, continues to seek out ways to keep heavenly promises.

Part 5: Earth's Vastness

Addressing the vast planet Earth as "O vast Rondure, swimming in space," the speaker becomes especially emotional as he considers the grand processes of people and events that have taken place on the cosmic stage. Throughout the historical play, the first pair of human beings—Adam and Eve—appeared followed by "their myriad progeny." And with them the many states of human longings and craving have continued to appear, as they motivate each generation to wander, to yearn, to remain curious as they restlessly explore their surroundings.

The speaker muses on the "never-happy hearts" that continue to question as they remain baffled in a formless feverishness. These souls continue to sally forth with a "sad incessant refrain" containing the queries, "Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life?" The speaker continues to wax cosmically as he marvels at the vastness of the earth and predicts that a poet will be instrumental in linking all the cultures.

Parts 6: Melding of Cultures

The speaker reveals that he sees the passage to India as the event to aid in the melding of "land, geographies," and that passage continues to move rhythmically grasping metaphorically a "festival garland" as a couple at their wedding might do.

The speaker avers that his own soul will take a voyage to India: "Caroling free, singing our song of God, / Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration." He remains in a celebratory mood as he brings into his catalogue activities that reveal the varied cultures and long-standing traditions of the world.

Part 7: Transcending Earth

But the speaker is transcending the physical earth and insists that the destination of his journey is not merely to a geographical place called India; his journey is a mystical one. He insists that humanity is on a journey "where mariner has not yet dared to go." He suggests that the journey is so fundamental that humanity will take up that travel even at great risk.

The speaker is metaphorically imagining that he will "farther, farther, farther sail!" And he will, of course, be doing that "sailing" through the instrumentality of imagination and intuitive understanding. He is suggesting that he has, in fact, transcended the very idea of "passage" or travel from one earthly location to another. He is now revealing the efficacy of soul experience, which even transcends mental experience.

Part 8: Mystical Journeying

Such spiritual journeying was brilliantly depicted in the quotation by Swami Sri Yukteswar in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi: "What one does not trouble to find within will not be discovered by transporting the body hither and yon."

The speaker in Walt Whitman’s wide-ranging song of journey dramatizes the heart of that great swami's message. The Whitman speaker understands that as great as material, physical achievement are, the more important aspect of unity between the East and the West will be achieved through soul awareness, and not merely those physical and material exchange of ideas, material goods, or political diplomacy.

Part 9: Homage to All Travelers: Geographic and Soul

While honoring those travelers who have adventurously opened up the world to others, the speaker in Whitman's poem also pays homage to those spiritual travelers who have opened up the spiritual level of being beyond this world.

This Whitman speaker is dramatizing his ideas, his musings, and his knowledge of history to bring his insights to the citizens of the world. He likely believes that if the members of his audience can engage their own imagination in understanding the miraculous and even divine nature of the earthly experience, they will be able to range farther and further also, not only over the earth but also far beyond it.

Sources

  • King James Bible Online. Matthew 5:14.
  • J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. (New York: Garland Publishing. 1998. Print.
  • Robin Ekiss. "Walt Whitman: 'A Passage to India'." Poetry Foundation. October 7, 2009.
  • Swami Sri Yukteswar in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. Self-Realization Fellowship. Original publication date: 1946. This printing 2007. Print.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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