Walt Whitman: Spirituality and Religion in Whitman's Song of Myself

Walt Whitman
Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons

Spirituality is a mixed bag for the great American poet, Walt Whitman. While he takes a great deal of material from Christianity, his conception of religion is much more complicated than the beliefs of one or two faiths mixed together. Whitman seems to draw from the many roots of belief to form his own religion, putting himself as the center.

Much of Whitman's  poetry resounds with Biblical allusions and innuendo.

In the very first cantos of "Song of Myself," he reminds us that we are "forme'd from this soil, this air," which brings us back to the Christian Creation story. In that story, Adam was formed from the dust of the ground, then brought to consciousness by the breath of life. These and similar references run throughout Leaves of Grass, but Whitman's intent seems rather ambiguous. Certainly, he is drawing from America's religious background to create poetry that will unify the nation. However, his conception of these religious roots seems twisted (not in a negative way) -- changed from the original conception of right and wrong, heaven and hell, good and bad.

In accepting the prostitute and murderer along with the deformed, trivial, flat, and despised, Whitman is trying to accept all of America (accepting the ultra-religious, along with the godless and un-religious). Religion becomes a poetic device, subject to his artistic hand.

Of course, he also seems to stand apart from the grime, putting himself in the position of the observer. He becomes a creator, almost a god himself, as he speaks America into existence (perhaps we could say that he really sings, or chants, America into existence), validating every element of the American experience.



Whitman brings philosophical significance to the most simple objects and actions, reminding America that every sight, sound, taste, and smell can take on a spiritual importance to the fully aware and healthy individual. In the first cantos, he says, "I loafe and invite my soul," creating a dualism between matter and spirit. Throughout the rest of the poem, though, he continues this pattern. He constantly uses the images of body and spirit together, bringing us to a better understanding of his true conception of spirituality.

"Divine am I inside and out," he says, "and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from." Whitman seems to be calling to America, urging the people to listen and to believe. If they won't listen or hear, they may be lost in the perpetual Wasteland of the modern experience. He sees himself as America's savior, the last hope, even a prophet. But he also sees himself as the center, the one-in-one. He's not leading America toward T.S. Eliot's religion; instead, he is playing the part of the Pied Piper, leading the masses toward a new conception of America.