THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 5, March, 1936
(Pages 197-201; Size: 15K)
(Number 6 of a 7-part series)

PRECURSORS OF H.P.B.

WALT WHITMAN

WALT WHITMAN'S mission differed from that of other poets. The expression of lyrical beauty was not his aim, for his poetry lacks the background of legend, myth, euphemism or rhyme. He made no attempt to clarify ideas, but sought to bring the reader into the atmosphere of thought, leaving him there to pursue his own flight.

He dissected the mind of his race with the delicate fingers of a surgeon of souls. Fearlessly he attacked the cancerous growth of materialism, the worship of false idols, the superstitions of the churches, the separative tendency of creeds and sects, the despairing hold of the people on departed models of obedience and compulsion. He visioned the future in terms of solidarity, and it was to these prophetic years that he sang his songs. He penned his words for future minds and dedicated them to the Culminating Man, to the new Empire of Spiritual Manhood, built upon the foundation of Universal Brotherhood, without distinction of race, creed, caste or color.

Walt Whitman's poetry is a declaration of the principles which he felt would revolutionize the world if they were accepted and put into practice. Considered in this light, it presents many points of comparison with the Declaration of the United Lodge of Theosophists. For the latter is a declaration of the principles which, if strictly adhered to, will keep the link of the Theosophical Movement unbroken and prepare the way for the Messenger of 1975.

In the first sentence of its Declaration, the United Lodge of Theosophists expresses its devotion to the cause of Theosophy. Walt Whitman was also devoted to his Cause -- the Great Idea, as he calls it -- the idea of perfect and free individuals, linked together by the bond of Brotherhood.

The United Lodge of Theosophists is loyal to the Great Founders of the Theosophical Movement...the Masters. Walt Whitman openly declared his belief in these Perfected Men, to whom he dedicated a tiny poem of two lines, called Perfections:

"Only themselves understand themselves,
As Souls only understand Souls."
One of his many expressions of loyalty to these Perfected Men appears in his poem To Him that is Crucified. Here he salutes not only the Adept to whom the poem is dedicated, but also those who are with him, those who preceded him and those who are still to come.

Walt Whitman's devotion to his Cause must be prefaced by the word independent. He consistently declined to identify himself with any formal organization, declaring that he had nothing in common with organizations. Although claimed by most of the radicals of his day, he steadily refused to compress universal ideas within the mold of any "ism." As he truly said:

"These are the thoughts of all men in all ages
        and lands; they are not original with me;
If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing."
Like the United Lodge of Theosophists, Walt Whitman was opposed to the idea of organization itself. "To hold men together by paper and seal, or by compulsion," he said, "is no account. That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living principle." The ideal institution which he hoped to see established in the future would be one without "edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument," the sole bond between its associates being "the dear love of comrades."

Being opposed to the idea of organizations in general, Walt Whitman was naturally not the friend of churches. He fearlessly exhorts the people to:

"Beware of churches! Beware of priests!

Above all things the flights and sublime ecstasies of the soul cannot submit to the statements of any church or any creed. Really what has America to do with all this mummery of prayer and rituals and the rant of exhorters and priests? I demand something far more real than that for America. I say that today the mummery of the churches, in which none believe but all agree to countenance, is what stands most in the way of a real religion for these States."

Here a parallel passage from one of the Master's letters might be quoted in corroboration of Whitman's statement:
"I will point out the greatest, the chief cause of nearly two-thirds of the evils that pursue humanity ever since that cause became a power. It is religion under whatever form and in whatever nation. It is the sacerdotal caste, the priesthood and the churches. It is in those illusions that man looks upon as sacred, that he has to search out the source of that multitude of evils which is the great curse of humanity and that almost overwhelms mankind....Remember the sum of misery will never be diminished unto that day when the better portion of humanity destroys in the name of Truth, morality and universal charity, the altars of these false gods."
Whitman's boldly-expressed religious views gained many enemies for him, and he was called an infidel by those whose conception of Deity was cramped within the limits of an anthropomorphic form. He rebelled against this description of himself, and declared that he could not have written a word of his Leaves of Grass without its religious background. But the word Religion, as he conceived it, stood for something vital, for something fundamental and universal:
"I say the whole earth, and all the stars in the
        sky are for Religion's sake;
I say no man has ever been half devout enough;
None has ever yet adored enough, or worshipped half enough.
I say the real and permanent grandeur of These
        States must be their Religion;
Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur,
Nor character, nor life, worthy the name, without Religion."
Walt Whitman did not believe in an extra-cosmic God. He found God at every point of space, in every hour of the day, within every one of his comrades as well as within himself. As God was everywhere, he saw no necessity for an intermediary between God and man. There was no Church for him more sacred than the Temple of the human body, and no Bibles save those which had grown from the experiences of the human soul.

Walt Whitman's unorthodox religious views seem to have been the natural result of his early training. The Whitman family rarely went to church. The one exception they made to this general rule was when the Quaker, Elias Hicks, preached in the neighborhood. Young Walt heard Elias Hicks preach when he was a lad of ten. The sermon made such an impression upon the sensitive plate of his mind that he never forgot it. Hicks' opposition to creeds and sects, his insistence upon the existence of the "God within," the line of demarcation which he drew between the man Jesus and the Christos-principle -- all of these seeds sown on that early Sabbath morning came to due fruition in Whitman's mind. As a young man he listened to words of logic, to sermons and metaphysical disquisitions. They only drove the damp of night deeper into his soul. The Self of which Hicks had spoken still stood aloof, untouched, unsung.

"Is the Self to be found in form? To be in any form, what is that?" he questioned. If nothing lay more developed, the quahaug in its callous shell were enough. He sang of the beauty of the human body, but knew full well that it could not be the Self:

"That shadow, that likeness, that goes to and fro,
        seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering,
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits;
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me!"
This doubt was followed by a conviction that he himself was other than this flitting shadow, for that which he called himself could stand aside and observe its actions:
"Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it."
He soon became aware that within gross physical matter finer states of matter lay concealed, and that there were "living beings, identities, now doubtless near us, in the air, that we know not of." He felt sure that "interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors, the eye-sight has another eye-sight, the hearing another hearing, the voice another voice." But even the existence of that finer sense-body failed to explain the mystery of the Self. It was only another of those "corpses" which he longed to discard and pass beyond. The Self could not be identified with such impermanent forms as these, for
"How can the real Body ever die and be buried?
Of your real Body, and any man's or woman's real Body,
Item for item, it will elude the hands of the
        corpse-cleaners, and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the
        moment of birth to the moment of death."
By means of strong search, questions and humility, Walt Whitman was nearing the end of his quest. One midsummer evening, as he lay on the beach meditating, the answer came:
"Something there is,
Something there is more immortal than the stars,
Something that shall endure longer than lustrous Jupiter,
Longer than sun, or any revolving planet,
Or the radiant brothers, the Pleiades."
And so, by gradual stages, Walt Whitman reached a truer realization of the Self as
"The Body Permanent,
The Body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art,
The real I MYSELF!"
"Religion," Walt Whitman once said, "means degrees of realization." He has now passed the first degree, the first step of his several progressive awakenings. He has realized that he is a Soul. Therefore all his brothers and sisters must also be Souls, and from that time on he recognizes them as such:
"Souls of men and women! It is not you I call
        unseen, unheard, untouchable and untouching!
It is not you I argue pro and con about, to settle
        whether you are alive or no;
I own publicly who you are, if nobody else owns!"
His third step of awakening may be described as God-realization. As H.P.B. says in Isis Unveiled, "Man-spirit proves God-spirit, as the one drop of water proves a source from which it must have come....Prove the soul of man by its wondrous powers -- you have proved God!" Whitman had proved his own soul. No longer was he curious about God, for he saw God in man.
"What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways,
But that man and woman are as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?"
With his fourth step of awakening came the realization of the spirituality and immortality of the Universe. He saw that it was all of the same stuff as himself; that the One Life permeated Nature as it did Walt Whitman; that the very leaves of grass beneath his feet were as divinely inspired as any Bible. This realization of the Oneness of all identified him with the objects which had at one time seemed external, and infinitely increased his sense of their mysterious beauty. In his Song at Sunset he speaks of this experience:
"Illustrious the mystery of motion, in all beings,
        even the tiniest insect!
How the earth darts on and on! How the sun,
        moon, stars dart on and on!
How the water sports and sings! (Surely it is alive!)
How the trees rise and stand up--with strong
        trunks, with branches and leaves!
Surely there is something more in each of the
        trees -- some living Soul
O amazement of things! O spirituality of things!"
And later, in his poem To Think on Time, he expresses his final conclusion:
"I swear I think now that everything without
        exception has an eternal Soul!
I swear I think there is nothing but Immortality!"

Next article:
Precursors of H.P.B.
Walt Whitman -- II
(Part 7 of 7)


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