What is mysticism: christian mysticism is not a coherent philosophy of life, but more a temper of mind. A mystical experience, according to BERTRAND RUSSEL, involves insight, a sense of unity and the unreality of time and space, and a belief that evil is mere appearance. A mystic’s vision is intuitive; he feels the presence of a divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of sense perception. He feels that God and the Supreme Soul animating all things are identical.
He sees an essential identity of being between Man, Nature and God. He believes that “all things in the visible world are but forms and manifestations of the one Divine Life, and that these phenomena are changing and temporary, while the soul that informs them is eternal”. The human soul, too, is eternal. Transcendentalism is closely connected to mysticism, for it emphasizes the unintuitive and spiritual above the empirical.
Whitman’s poetry is full of mystic and transcendental strains: He was deeply influenced by Emerson, the American transcendentalist. His thought was intuitive and not systematic like a logician’s. He wrote like a mystic:
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible to proof, is its own proof.
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities, and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immorality of things and the excellence of things.
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the Soul.
Whitman believed the soul to be immortal. He felt identification with all animate and inanimate things around him. What is interesting about Whitman’s mysticism is that, as Schyberg observes, “in his book we can find the typical characteristics of absolutely all the various mystic doctrines”.
Whitman is a mystic with a difference: One cannot call him a pure mystic in the sense of oriental mysticism. He is not a praying man. Like all mystics he believed in the existence of the soul, and in the existence of the Divine Spirit, in the immortality of the human soul, and in the capacity of a human being to establish communication between his spirit and the Divine Spirit.
But he differs from the oriental or traditional mystics in that he does not subscribe to their belief that communication with the Divine Spirit is possible only through denial of the senses and mortification of the flesh. Whitman declares that he sings of the body as much as of the soul. He feels that spiritual communication is possible, indeed desirable, without sacrificing the flesh. Thus there is a great deal of the sexual element in Whitman’ s poetry, especially in the early poetry-Section 5 of Song of Myself is a case in point where the sexual connotations are inseparable from the mystical experience.
The Material World is not denigrated: Whitman does not reject the material world. He seeks the spiritual through the material. He does not subscribe to the belief that objects are illusive. There is no tendency on the part of the soul to leave this world for good. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, we see the soul trying to play a significant role in the administration of this world of scenes, sights, sounds, etc. Whitman does not belittle the achievements of science and materialism. In Section 23 of Song of Myself, he accepts the reality of materialism and says:
Human for positive science!
Long live exact demonstration!
Nature and man shall be disjoined and diffused no more.
Seeking the divine reality: Whitman accepted the Theory of Evolution but could not believe evolution to be a mechanical process. In the slow process of growth, development and change that science was revealing, Whitman saw God making Himself evident and unmistakable to man. The soul of man finds full dissatisfaction only in seeking out the reality behind the manifestations. As he says in Passage to India:
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
At the end of the journey the soul meets with God-or the “Great Camerado” as he says in Song of Myself.
Whitman’s sense of unity of the whole: His cosmic consciousness.: Whitman has throughout his poetry shown his faith in the unity of the whole, or “oneness” of all. This sense of the essential divinity of all created things is an important aspect of mysticism and is also closely related to Whitman’s faith in democracy calling for equality and fraternity. Song of Myself is replete with lines proclaiming this “oneness”. He knows