Was Somebody Asking to See the Soul?

"Nothing, not God, is greater to one than oneself is," wrote Walt Whitman. In verses like these Whitman dared to confront traditional views of spirituality. In the April 19 Adult Ed Dumbarton's Marianne Noble showed how the poet reframed what he saw as the misguided understanding of the soul and the body. 
 
Noble told attentive listeners how Whitman's views differed from those of both the Calvinists and the Romantics. For the Calvinists, the soul was pure, the body impure. "They viewed the world as a site of corruption.  The Romantics venerated nature and rejected the view that the world was a trying-ground of temptation, though they insisted that body and soul were separate.
 
To give Dumbartonians a sense of the Romantic view of the soul, against which Whitman reacted, Noble shared William Cullen Bryant's poem "To a Waterfowl." The poet worries the duck he is watching will be killed by hunters but muses it will migrate to a safe place among others of its kind. When the duck is out of sight, he says what he has learned is imprinted on his heart. The duck is not valuable in itself but valuable only for its spiritual lessons.

"In Bryant's poem we learn God guides us all the days of our life," Noble said. " If we can obey our instincts, we will probably be going in the right direction towards heaven." 
 
Another Romantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson,  believed spirituality involved making the visible world transparent, seeing past or through it to the causes and spirits animating it. According to Noble, Emerson and Bryant wrote about separated parts of body and soul, which they are trying to imagine are connected somehow.
 
Noble reminded Adult Ed that the sense of spirituality in nature is not Whitman’s.  "Whitman’s involves a focus on the thing itself, with reference to the totality of which it is a part," she said.     
 
Whitman had a lot to say, literally, about "parts" and "wholes.""
 
I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference to the soul,
Because having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul.
 
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
 
When we read Whitman's joke, "Was somebody asking to see the soul?" we respond "yes!" But we cannot find it. Whitman claimed the soul was not hidden from view but part of a cosmic totality created by the material world.”"One might reasonably find this understanding of the soul disappoiting," commented Noble, "But Whitman stressed that there is more spirituality in reality itself than people realize."

Marianne Noble is an associate professor in the Department of Liberature at American University.  She has recently completed a book on Sympathy and Human Contact in American Romantic literature, and a collection of essays that she edited-- "Emily Dickinson and Philosophy"--was published  last year.

--By Ginny Finch