If a poem proceeds by argument, then Starting from Paumanok makes a number of startling “claims.” But Paumanok, like most great poems, has nothing to do with argument. It washes its hands of it. Instead the poem proceeds by means of declarations or announcements. And nowhere are these declarations bolder or more grandiose than in the second phase of the poem, where Whitman proclaims that nothing has “real and permanent grandeur” except religion. For it’s the “essential life of the earth,” greater than love and democracy, and it “makes the
Instead of tenets, we are blessed to witness chants, carols, and songs. They teach us something of Whitman’s godless religion. We learn about the importance of being a sensitive observer of the world, not the “natural” world, as this suggests a separate and distinct “supernatural” realm. No, for Whitman, there’s one world, filled with mockingbirds and rivers, with woodsmen and orators, and with physical pleasures and spiritual joys. We learn about the divinity of soil and sun, the glorious forehead from which life springs. And we learn about the identity of opposites: body and soul is really one thing (just differently described), mortality and immortality is really one thing (eternal process), and we learn, too, that we’re not fallen; we’re perfect, just as we are.
Optimism and good cheer
Some of Whitman’s finest effects are accomplished through voice—an inexhaustibly grand voice, one that doesn’t brook any repudiation. He persuades by an authority born of hope, generosity, and affection.
When you’re swept along by his verse, the experience is so powerful — and perhaps I should only speak for myself — that I actually feel connected to everything and everyone around me. I feel put right with the world, and that death just might be beautiful, as frightening as the thought of extinction is. And I feel a hell of a lot more likely to love my family and friends, to delight in language, and to glorify the world and enjoy them forever.
Do you feel me?
Religion, as conceived by Whitman, is an invitation to enter into an original relationship with life. It’s greater than science and theism, and offers a third way between the chauvinism of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, on the one hand, and the folly of M. Robinson, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others who personify god and turn “him” into what Auden calls “cosmic papa.”
You want religious-poetic ecstasy without god?
Get your Paumanok on.