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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Walt Whitman, poet of the body : stylistics of (dis)embodiment Hubert, Denise Dawn


This thesis proposes a unified theory for reading and interpreting Leaves of Grass (1891-92), by American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). This theory proceeds from the premises that spiritual themes are foundational for the poems, and that Whitman's chief poetic aim is to lead readers toward a spiritual understanding of human experience. This theory proposes that the material and spiritual realms coexist and interact continuously, and that human comprehension of an organized, coherent cosmic scheme is possible within the framework of material, temporal life, thanks to the innate divinity of the human being. This project employs linguistic pragmatic theories to examine the subjectivity of Whitman's speaker's consciousness in terms of how it situates and represents itself, and how it relates to the real and conceptual worlds around it. I analyse cohesion (M.A.K. Halliday) and flow of consciousness (Wallace Chafe) in Whitman's poetry to illustrate that he deliberately employs stylistics of disembodiment and de-situation to shift the focus of his poetry away from the material world, toward the spiritual realm. This analysis is broken into themed segments: 1) the speaker and his conception of his self (poems analysed include "Song of Myself and "Starting from Paumanok"); 2) the speaker's interpersonal relationships (poems analysed include "I Sing the Body Electric," "The Sleepers," and "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand"); and 3) the speaker's interaction with his nation and cosmos (poems analysed include "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "A Noiseless Patient Spider"). These poems reveal a speaker with privileged conceptual access to the spiritual realm, which he interprets for readers, hoping this will spark them to develop their own cosmic awareness. The speaker redefines elements of the material world, like the body and its desires, or political life in a democracy, illustrating that these have spiritual significance; they forge connections between souls. Consequently, these spiritual connections valorize mundane pursuits. Moreover, this process of redefinition, or translation, charges his often eroticized discourse with spirituality, rendering it appropriate as public, national discourse for the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth-century.

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