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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 Text of "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.

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.)

2

Passage O soul to India!
Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.

Not you alone proud truths of the world,
Nor you alone ye facts of modern science,
But myths and fables of eld, Asia's, Africa's fables,
The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos'd dreams,
The deep diving bibles and legends,
The daring plots of the poets, the elder religions;
O you temples fairer than lilies pour'd over by the rising sun!
O you fables spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!
You lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as roses, burnish'd with gold!
Towers of fables immortal fashion'd from mortal dreams!
You too I welcome and fully the same as the rest!
You too with joy I sing.

Passage to India!
Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann'd, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

A worship new I sing,
You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours,
You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours,
You, not for trade or transportation only,
But in God's name, and for thy sake O soul.

3

Passage to India!
Lo soul for thee of tableaus twain,
I see in one the Suez canal initiated, open'd,
I see the procession of steamships, the Empress Eugenie's leading the van,
I mark from on deck the strange landscape, the pure sky, the level sand in the distance,
I pass swiftly the picturesque groups, the workmen gather'd,
The gigantic dredging machines.

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In one again, different, (yet thine, all thine, O soul, the same,)
I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier,
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam- whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,
I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rocks in grotesque shapes, the buttes,
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions, the barren, colorless, sage-deserts,
I see in glimpses afar or towering immediately above me the great mountains,
I see the Wind river and the Wahsatch mountains,
I see the Monument mountain and the Eagle's Nest, I pass the Promontory,
I ascend the Nevadas,
I scan the noble Elk mountain and wind around its base,
I see the Humboldt range, I thread the valley and cross the river,
I see the clear waters of lake Tahoe, I see forests of majestic pines,
Or crossing the great desert, the alkaline plains, I behold enchanting mirages of waters and meadows,
Marking through these and after all, in duplicate slender lines,
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,
The road between Europe and Asia.

(Ah Genoese thy dream! thy dream!
Centuries after thou art laid in thy grave,
The shore thou foundest verifies thy dream.)

4

Passage to India!
Struggles of many a captain, tales of many a sailor dead,
Over my mood stealing and spreading they come,
Like clouds and cloudlets in the unreach'd sky.

Along all history, down the slopes,
As a rivulet running, sinking now, and now again to the surface rising,
A ceaseless thought, a varied train—lo, soul, to thee, thy sight, they rise,
The plans, the voyages again, the expeditions;

Again Vasco de Gama sails forth,
Again the knowledge gain'd, the mariner's compass,
Lands found and nations born, thou born America,
For purpose vast, man's long probation fill'd,
Thou rondure of the world at last accomplish'd.

5

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Cover'd all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts,
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life?

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours,
Cold earth, the place of graves.)

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.

After the seas are all cross'd, (as they seem already cross'd,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish'd their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Then not your deeds only O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, shall be justified,

All these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth'd,
All affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told,
All these separations and gaps shall be taken up and hook'd and link'd together,
The whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth, shall be completely justified,
Trinitas divine shall be gloriously accomplish'd and compacted by the true son of God, the poet,
(He shall indeed pass the straits and conquer the mountains,
He shall double the cape of Good Hope to some purpose,)
Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more,
The true son of God shall absolutely fuse them.

6

Year at whose wide-flung door I sing!
Year of the purpose accomplish'd!
Year of the marriage of continents, climates and oceans!
(No mere doge of Venice now wedding the Adriatic,)
I see O year in you the vast terraqueous globe given and giving all,
Europe to Asia, Africa join'd, and they to the New World,
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland,
As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand.

Passage to India!
Cooling airs from Caucasus far, soothing cradle of man,
The river Euphrates flowing, the past lit up again.

Lo soul, the retrospect brought forward,
The old, most populous, wealthiest of earth's lands,
The streams of the Indus and the Ganges and their many affluents,
(I my shores of America walking to-day behold, resuming all,)
The tale of Alexander on his warlike marches suddenly dying,
On one side China and on the other side Persia and Arabia,
To the south the great seas and the bay of Bengal,
The flowing literatures, tremendous epics, religions, castes,
Old occult Brahma interminably far back, the tender and junior Buddha,
Central and southern empires and all their belongings, possessors,
The wars of Tamerlane, the reign of Aurungzebe,
The traders, rulers, explorers, Moslems, Venetians, Byzantium, the Arabs, Portuguese,

The first travelers famous yet, Marco Polo, Batouta the Moor,
Doubts to be solv'd, the map incognita, blanks to be fill'd,
The foot of man unstay'd, the hands never at rest,
Thyself O soul that will not brook a challenge.

The mediaeval navigators rise before me,
The world of 1492, with its awaken'd enterprise,
Something swelling in humanity now like the sap of the earth in spring,
The sunset splendor of chivalry declining.

And who art thou sad shade?
Gigantic, visionary, thyself a visionary,
With majestic limbs and pious beaming eyes,
Spreading around with every look of thine a golden world,
Enhuing it with gorgeous hues.

As the chief histrion,
Down to the footlights walks in some great scena,
Dominating the rest I see the Admiral himself,
(History's type of courage, action, faith,)
Behold him sail from Palos leading his little fleet,
His voyage behold, his return, his great fame,
His misfortunes, calumniators, behold him a prisoner, chain'd,
Behold his dejection, poverty, death.

(Curious in time I stand, noting the efforts of heroes,
Is the deferment long? bitter the slander, poverty, death?
Lies the seed unreck'd for centuries in the ground? lo, to God's due occasion,
Uprising in the night, it sprouts, blooms,
And fills the earth with use and beauty.)

7

Passage indeed O soul to primal thought,
Not lands and seas alone, thy own clear freshness,
The young maturity of brood and bloom,
To realms of budding bibles.

O soul, repressless, I with thee and thou with me,
Thy circumnavigation of the world begin,
Of man, the voyage of his mind's return,
To reason's early paradise,
Back, back to wisdom's birth, to innocent intuitions,
Again with fair creation.

8

O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.

With laugh and many a kiss,
(Let others deprecate, let others weep for sin, remorse, humiliation,)
O soul thou pleasest me, I thee.

Ah more than any priest O soul we too believe in God,
But with the mystery of God we dare not dally.

O soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, lave me all over,
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.

O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them,
Thou mightier centre of the true, the good, the loving,
Thou moral, spiritual fountain—affection's source—thou reservoir,
(O pensive soul of me—O thirst unsatisfied—waitest not there?
Waitest not haply for us somewhere there the Comrade perfect?)
Thou pulse—thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if, out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?

Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,

And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.

Greater than stars or suns,
Bounding O soul thou journeyest forth;
What love than thine and ours could wider amplify?
What aspirations, wishes, outvie thine and ours O soul?
What dreams of the ideal? what plans of purity, perfection, strength?
What cheerful willingness for others' sake to give up all?
For others' sake to suffer all?

Reckoning ahead O soul, when thou, the time achiev'd,
The seas all cross'd, weather'd the capes, the voyage done,
Surrounded, copest, frontest God, yieldest, the aim attain'd,
As fill'd with friendship, love complete, the Elder Brother found,
The Younger melts in fondness in his arms.

9

Passage to more than India!
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?
O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those?
Disportest thou on waters such as those?
Soundest below the Sanscrit and the Vedas?
Then have thy bent unleash'd.

Passage to you, your shores, ye aged fierce enigmas!
Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems!
You, strew'd with the wrecks of skeletons, that, living, never reach'd you.

Passage to more than India!
O secret of the earth and sky!
Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers!
Of you O woods and fields! of you strong mountains of my land!
Of you O prairies! of you gray rocks!
O morning red! O clouds! O rain and snows!
O day and night, passage to you!

O sun and moon and all you stars! Sirius and Jupiter!
Passage to you!

Passage, immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovel'd here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken'd and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

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 of 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 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 spiritual enlightenment.

Part 3: The Great Explorer

After merely mentioning 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 "Genoese," the Italian explorer, 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.

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, and the tempest-torn struggles that ultimately resulted in the discovery of new lands where new nations would be formed.

The speaker's 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 believes 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 cravings 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 cosmic 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, metaphorically grasping 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 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 metaphorically imagines 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 achievements 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 dramatizes 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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