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Walt Whitman's "Passage to India"

Updated on June 30, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Excerpt from Poem

The speaker in Walt Whitman's "Passage to India" offers a marvelous drama of "achievements" that have moved the citizens of world from barbarism to civilization. And not just some placid, blasé mass of citizenship, but a glorious, 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.

Whitman's poem is displayed in his wide-ranging, dramatic style, which includes his famous catalogues of people, places, events, and traditions. Into this poem, he has packed the essence of world history, literature, and religion, as his speaker sings his song of love for the Divine Creator and the Creation that Divinity has bestowed upon every child of 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."

Tony Kushner reading an excerpt from poem

Commentary

The deathbed edition of Walt Whitman's "Passage to India" consists of nine parts, featuring his sprawling signature style.

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 laying of the Atlantic cable, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. But he also pays tribute to the past, "For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?" But for the past, the wondrous present would not be what it is; thus, he offers a hearty salute to the "The Past! the Past! the Past!"

Part 2: Elucidating Myths and Fables

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

Next, he celebrates the fact that India was the first land to find the pathway to God. Then he praises the adventurous spirit that spans the earth and connects the peoples. Finally, 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

The speaker celebrates the 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. He also alludes to Christopher Columbus: "Ah Genoese thy dream! thy dream! / Centuries after thou art laid in thy grave, / The shore thou foundest verifies thy dream."

Despite 21st century "social justice" warriors' attempts to denigrate the great explorer's accomplishments, Columbus' purpose was gloriously fulfilled by the country he discovered.

Parts 4: Many Voyages

The speaker alludes to the many voyages, including that of Vasco de Gama, to the New World which resulted in his native land's opulence: "thou born America, / For purpose vast, man's long probation fill'd."

Part 5: Earth's Vastness

The speaker then waxes 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 it is "dancing before you, hold[ing] a festival garland / As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand." He and his soul will take a voyage to India: "Caroling free, singing our song of God, / Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration."

The speaker 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 transcends the physical earth and insists that his journey is not merely to a geographical place called India; his journey is a mystical one: "For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, / And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all." Therefore, he will "farther, farther, farther sail!"

The speaker seems to have 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."

This speaker's wide-ranging song of journey dramatizes the heart of that great swami's message. This speaker understands that unity between the East and the West will be achieved through soul awareness, and not merely the physical and material exchange of ideas and material goods.

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 speaker dramatizes his ideas, his musings, and his knowledge of history to enlarge and enlighten the stumbling eyeless of the world. If the members of his audience can bring into their imagination the exalted status of speaker's understanding, they will be able to range farther and farther also, not only over the earth, but far, far above it.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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