Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, , at sacred-texts.com
Born 1819; died 1892.
In each of these instances of so-called Cosmic Consciousness it would be proper to give a fairly exhaustive account of the external life of the man as well as of his teaching, since the one does, and ought to be shown to, corroborate the other. It would not, however, be possible to do this and still keep the argument within reasonable limits. Fortunately, too, it is not absolutely necessary; most of the men in question being so well known. Also it may be said that the present volume is intended not so much to teach anything as to show that there exists a certain lesson to be learned and to indicate where it may be studied. This volume is not so much a road as a finger post on a road. Its greatest value (if it have any) will be to lead to the serious study of certain men of an exceptional type; not one or the other of them, but as a group and from a particular standpoint. While it is necessary, then, to say a few words about Walt Whitman here, it will be well for the reader to be far from satisfied with these but to seek elsewhere a much more complete statement of the life and thought of this remarkable man. The following brief description is taken from the writer's "Life of Whitman" , written in the summer of 1880, while he was visiting the author. Walt Whitman was then sixty-one years of age:
At first sight he looks much older, so that he is often supposed to be seventy or even eighty. He is six feet in height, and quite straight. He weighs nearly two hundred pounds. His body and limbs are full-sized and well proportioned. His head is large and rounded in every direction, the top a little higher than a semicircle from the front to the back would make it. Though his face and head give the appearance of being plentifully supplied with hair, the crown is moderately bald; on the side and back the hair is long, very fine, and nearly snow white. The eyebrows are highly arched, so that it is a long distance from the eye to the centre of the eyebrow (this is the facial feature that strikes one most at first sight). The eyes themselves are light blue, not large—indeed, in proportion to the head and face they seem rather small; they are dull and heavy, not expressive—what expression they have is kindness, composure, suavity. The eyelids are full, the upper commonly droops nearly half over the globe of the eye. The nose is broad, strong, and quite straight; it is full-sized, but not large in proportion to the rest of the face; it does not descend straight from the forehead, but dips down somewhat between the eyes with a long sweep. The mouth is full-sized, the lips full. The sides and lower part of the face are covered with a fine white beard, which is long enough to come down a little on the breast. The upper lip bears a heavy moustache. The ear is very large, especially long from above downwards, heavy and remarkably handsome. I believe all the poet's senses are exceptionally acute, his hearing especially so; no sound or modulation of sound perceptible to others escapes him, and he seems to hear many things that to ordinary folk are inaudible. I have heard him speak of hearing the grass grow and the trees coming out in leaf. His cheeks are round and smooth. His face has no lines expressive of care, or weariness, or age—it is the white hair and beard, and his feebleness in walking (due to paralysis) that make him appear old. The habitual expression of his face is repose, but there is a well-marked firmness and decision. I have never seen his look, even momentarily, express contempt, or any vicious feeling. I have never known him to sneer at any person or thing, or to manifest
in any way or degree either alarm or apprehension, though he has in my presence been placed in circumstances that would have caused both in most men. His complexion is peculiar—a bright maroon tint, which, contrasting with his white hair and beard, makes an impression very striking. His body is not white like that of all others whom I have seen of the English or Teutonic stock—it has a delicate but well-marked rose color. All his features are large and massive, but so proportioned as not to look heavy. His face is the noblest I have ever seen.
No description can give any idea of the extraordinary physical attractiveness of the man. I do not speak now of the affection of friends and of those who are much with him, but of the magnetism exercised by him upon people who merely see him for a few minutes or pass him on the street. An intimate friend of the author's, after knowing Walt Whitman a few days, said in a letter: "As for myself, it seems to me now that I have always known him and loved him."
And in another letter, written from a town where the poet had been staying for a few days, the same person says: "Do you know every one who met him here seems to love him?"
The following is the experience of a person well known to the present writer: He called on Walt Whitman and spent an hour at his home in Camden, in the autumn of 1877. He had never seen the poet before, but he had been profoundly reading his works for some years. He said that Walt Whitman only spoke to him about a hundred words altogether, and these quite ordinary and commonplace; that he did not realize anything peculiar while with him, but shortly after leaving a state of mental exaltation set in, which he could only describe by comparing to slight intoxication by champagne, or to falling in love, and this exaltation, he said, lasted at least six weeks in a clearly marked degree, so that, for at least that length of time, he was plainly different from his ordinary self. Neither, he said, did it then or since pass away, though it ceased to be felt as something new and strange, but became a permanent element in his life, a strong and living force (as he described it), making for purity and happiness. I may add
that this person's whole life has been changed by that contact—his temper, character, entire spiritual being, outer life, conversation, etc., elevated and purified in an extraordinary degree. He tells me that at first he used often to speak to friends and acquaintances of his feeling for Walt Whitman and the "Leaves," but after a time he found that he could not make himself understood, and that some even thought his mental balance impaired. He gradually learned to keep silence upon the subject, but the feeling did not abate, nor its influence upon his life grow less.
Walt Whitman's dress was always extremely plain. He usually wore in pleasant weather a light gray suit of good woolen cloth. The only thing peculiar about his dress was that he had no necktie at any time, and always wore shirts with very large turndown collars, the button at the neck some five or six inches lower than usual, so that the throat and upper part of the breast were exposed. In all other respects he dressed in a substantial, neat, plain, common way. Everything he wore and everything about him was always scrupulously clean. His clothes might (and often did) show signs of wear, or they might be torn or have holes worn in them, but they never looked soiled. Indeed, an exquisite aroma of cleanliness has always been one of the special features of the man; it has always belonged to his clothes, his breath, his whole body, his eating and drinking, his conversation, and no one could know him for an hour without seeing that it penetrated his mind and life, and was in fact the expression of a purity which was physical as much as moral and moral as much as physical.
Walt Whitman, in my talks with him at that time, always disclaimed any lofty intention in himself or his poems. If you accepted his explanations they were simple and commonplace. But when you came to think about these explanations, and to enter into the spirit of them, you found that the simple and commonplace with him included the ideal and the spiritual. So it may be said that neither he nor his writings are growths of the ideal from the real, but are the actual real lifted up into the ideal. With Walt Whitman his body, his outward life, his inward spiritual existence and his poetry were all one; in every respect each tallied
the other, and any one of them could always be inferred from any other. He said to me one day (I forget now in what connection): "I have imagined a life which should be that of the average man in average circumstances, and still grand, heroic." There is no doubt that such an ideal had been constantly before his mind, and that all he did, said, wrote, thought and felt, had been and were, from moment to moment, molded upon it. His manner was curiously calm and self-contained. He seldom became excited in conversation, or at all events seldom showed excitement; he rarely raised his voice or used any gestures. I never knew him to be in a bad temper. He seemed always pleased with those about him. He did not generally wait for a formal introduction; upon meeting any person for the first time he very likely stepped forward, held out his hand (either left or right, whichever happened to be disengaged), and the person and he were acquainted at once. People could not tell why they liked him. They said there was something attractive about him; that he had a great deal of personal magnetism, or made some other vague explanation that meant nothing. One very clever musical person, who spent a couple of days in my house while Walt Whitman was there, said to me on going away: "I know what it is; it is his wonderful voice that makes it so pleasant to be with him." I said: "Yes, perhaps it is; but where did his voice get that charm?'
Though he would sometimes not touch a book for a week, he generally spent a part (though not a large part) of each day in reading. Perhaps he would read on an average a couple of hours a day. He seldom read any book deliberately through, and there was no more (apparent) system about his reading than in anything else that he did; that is to say, there was no system about it at all. If he sat in the library an hour, he would have half a dozen to a dozen volumes about him, on the table, on chairs and on the floor. He seemed to read a few pages here and a few pages there, and pass from place to place, from volume to volume, doubtless pursuing some clue or thread of his own. Sometimes (though very seldom) he would get sufficiently interested in a volume to read it all. I think he read almost, if not quite the whole,
of Renouf's "Egypt," and Bruschbey's "Egypt," but these cases were exceptional. In his way of reading he dipped into histories, essays, metaphysical, religious and scientific treatises, novels and poetry—though I think he read less poetry than anything else. He read no language but English, yet I believe he knew a great deal more French, German and Spanish than he would own to. But if you took his own word for it, he knew very little of any subject.
His favorite occupation seemed to be strolling or sauntering about outdoors by himself, looking at the grass, the trees, the flowers, the vistas of light, the varying aspects of the sky, and listening to the birds, the crickets, the tree-frogs, the wind in the trees, and all the hundreds of natural sounds. It was evident that these things gave him a feeling of pleasure far beyond what they give to ordinary people. Until I knew the man it had not occurred to me that anyone could derive so much absolute happiness and ample fulfilment from these things as he evidently did. He himself never spoke of all this pleasure. I dare say he hardly thought of it, but anyone who watched him could see plainly that in his case it was real and deep.
He had a way of singing, generally in an undertone, wherever he was or whatever he was doing, when alone. You would hear him the first thing in the morning while he was taking his bath and dressing (he would then perhaps sing out in full, ballads or martial songs), and a large part of the time that he sauntered outdoors during the day he sang, usually tunes without words, or a formless recitative. Sometimes he would recite poetry, generally, I think, from Shakespeare or Homer, once in a while from Bryant or others. He spent very little time in writing. It is probable that he never did give much time to that occupation. He wrote few private letters. While he was with us he would write a letter to a Canadian paper, about his travels, his condition, and his latest doings and thoughts, and get fifty or a hundred copies and send them to his friends and relations, especially the girls and young folks, and make that do for correspondence. Almost
all his writing was done with a pencil in a sort of loose book that he carried in his breast pocket. The book consisted of a few sheets of good white paper, folded and fastened with a pin or two. He said he had tried all sorts of note-books and he liked that kind best. The literary work that he did was done at all sorts of times, and generally on his knee, impromptu, and often outdoors. Even in a room with the usual conveniences for writing he did not use a table; he put a book on his knee, or held it in his left hand, laid his paper upon it and wrote so. His handwriting was clear and plain, every letter being perfectly formed.
He was very fond of flowers, either wild or cultivated; would often gather and arrange an immense bouquet of them for the dinner-table, for the room where he sat, or for his bed-room; wore a bud or just-started rose, or perhaps a geranium, pinned to the lapel of his coat, a great part of the time; did not seem to have much preference for one kind over any other; liked all sorts. I think he admired lilacs and sunflowers just as much as roses. Perhaps, indeed, no man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him; all sights and sounds, outdoors and indoors, seemed to please him. He appeared to like (and I believe he did like) all the men, women and children he saw (though I never knew him to say that he liked anyone), but each who knew him felt that he liked him or her, and that he liked others also. He was in this and in everything entirely natural and unconventional. When he did express a preference for any person (which was very seldom) he would indicate it in some indirect way; for instance, I have known him to say: "Goodbye, my love," to a young married lady he had only seen a few times.
He was especially fond of children, and all children liked and trusted him at once. Often the little ones, if tired out and fretful, the moment he took them up and caressed them, would cease crying, and perhaps go to sleep in his arms. One day several ladies, the poet and myself, attended a picnic given to hundreds of poor children in London. I lost sight of my friend for perhaps an
hour, and when I found him again he was sitting in a quiet nook by the river side, with a rosy-faced child of four or five years old, tired out and sound asleep in his lap.
For young and old his touch had a charm that cannot be de. scribed, and if it could the description would not be believed except by those who knew him either personally or through "Leaves of Grass." This charm (physiological more than psychological), if understood would explain the whole mystery of the man, and how he produced such effects not only upon the well, but among the sick and wounded.
It is certain, also, perhaps contrary to what I have given, that there is another phase, and a very real one, to the basis of his character. An elderly gentleman I talked with (he is a portrait painter and a distant relative of the poet), who was much with him, particularly through the years of his middle age and later (1845 to 1870), tells me that Walt Whitman, in the elements of his character, had deepest sternness and hauteur, not easily aroused, but coming forth at times, and then well understood by those who knew him best as something not to be trifled with. The gentleman alluded to (he is a reader and thorough accepter of "Leaves of Grass") agrees with me in my delineation of his benevolence, evenness and tolerant optimism, yet insists that at the inner framework of the poet there has always been, as he expresses it, "a combination of hot blood and fighting qualities." He says my outline applies more especially to his later years; that Walt Whitman has gradually brought to the front the attributes I dwell upon, and given them control. His theory is, in almost his own words, that there are two natures in Walt Whitman. The one is of immense suavity, self-control, a mysticism like the occasional fits of Socrates, and a pervading Christ-like benevolence, tenderness and sympathy (the sentiment of the intaglio frontispiece portrait, which I showed him, and he said he had seen exactly that look "in the old man," and more than once during 1863–’64, though he never observed it before or since). But these qualities, though he has enthroned them and for many years governed his life by them, are duplicated by far sterner ones. No doubt
he has mastered the latter, but he has them. How could Walt Whitman (said my interlocutor) have taken the attitude toward evil, and things evil, which is behind every page of his utterance in "Leaves of Grass" from first to last—so different on that subject from every writer known, new or old—unless he enfolded all that evil within him.
Then there was another side to the picture—the indispensable exception that proved the rule. This man, the sight of whom excited such extraordinary affection, whose voice had for most of those who heard it such a wonderful charm, whose touch possessed a power which no words can express—in rare instances, this man, like the magnet, repelled as well as attracted. As there were those who instinctively loved him, so there were others, here and there, who instinctively disliked him. As his poetic utterances were so ridiculous to many, even his personal appearance, in not a few cases, aroused equally sarcastic remark. His large figure, his red face, his copious beard, his loose and free attire, his rolling and unusually ample shirt-collar, without necktie and always wide open at the throat, all met at times with jeers and explosive laughter.
He did not talk much. Sometimes, while remaining cheery and good-natured, he would speak very little all day. His conversation, when he did talk, was at all times easy and unconstrained. I never knew him to argue or dispute, and he never spoke about money. He always justified, sometimes playfully, sometimes quite seriously, those who spoke harshly of himself or his writings, and I often thought he even took pleasure in those sharp criticisms, slanders and the opposition of enemies. He said that his critics were quite right, that behind what his friends saw he was not at all what he seemed, and that, from the point of view of his foes, his book deserved all the hard things they could say of it—and that he himself undoubtedly deserved them and plenty more.
When I first knew Walt Whitman I used to think that he watched himself, and did not allow his tongue to give expression to feelings of fretfulness, antipathy, complaint and remonstrance.
It did not occur to me as possible that these mental states could be absent in him. After long observation, however, and talking to others who had known him for many years, I satisfied myself that such absence or unconsciousness was entirely real. His deep, clear and earnest voice made a good part, though not all, of the charm of the simplest things he said—a voice not characteristic of any special nationality or dialect. If he said (as he sometimes would involuntarily on stepping to the door and looking out), "Oh, the beautiful sky!" or, "Oh, the beautiful grass!" the words produced the effect of sweet music.
He said, one day, while talking about some fine scenery and the desire to go and see it (and he himself was very fond of new scenery): "After all, the great lesson is that no special natural sights—not Alps, Niagara, Yosemite or anything else—is more grand or. more beautiful than the ordinary sunrise and sunset, earth and sky, the common trees and grass." Properly understood, I believe this suggests the central teaching of his writings and life—namely, that the commonplace is the grandest of all things; that the exceptional in any line is no finer, better or more beautiful than the usual, and that what is really wanting is not that we should possess something we have not at present, but that our eyes should be opened to see and our hearts to feel what we all have.
He never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of men, or time in the world's history, or feudalism, or against any trades or occupations—not even against any animals, insects, plants or inanimate things, nor any of the laws of nature, or any of the results of those laws, such as illness, deformity or death. He never complained or grumbled either at the weather, pain, illness or at anything else. He never in conversation, in any company, or under any circumstances, used language that could be thought indelicate (of course he has used language in his poems which has been thought indelicate, but none that is so). In fact, I have never known of his uttering a word or a sentiment which might not be published without any prejudice to his fame. He never swore; he could not very well, since as far as I know he never spoke in anger, and apparently never was angry. He never
exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt it. His conversation, mainly toned low, was always agreeable and usually instructive. He never made compliments, very seldom apologized, used the common forms of civility, such as "if you please" and "thank you," quite sparingly, usually made a smile or a nod answer for them. He was, in my experience of him, not given to speculating on abstract questions (though I have heard others say that there were no subjects in which he so much delighted) . He never gossiped. He seldom talked about private people, even to say something good of them, except to answer a question or remark, and then he always gave what he said a turn favorable to the person spoken of.
His conversation, speaking generally, was of current affairs, work of the day, political and historical news, European as well as American, a little of books, much of the aspects of nature—as scenery, the stars, birds, flowers and trees. He read the newspapers regularly, liked good descriptions and reminiscences. He did not, on the whole, talk much anyhow. His manner was invariably calm and simple, belonged to itself alone, and could not be fully described or conveyed.
Walt Whitman is the best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense, first because he is the man in whom the new faculty has been, probably, most perfectly developed, and especially because he is, par excellence, the man who in modern times has written distinctly and at large from the point of view of Cosmic Consciousness, and who also has referred to its facts and phenomena more plainly and fully than any other writer either ancient or modern.
He tells us plainly, though not as fully as could be wished, of the moment when he attained illumination, and again towards the end of his life of its passing away. Not that it is to be supposed that he had the Cosmic Sense continuously, for years, but that it came less and less frequently as age advanced, probably lasted
less and less long at a time, and decreased in vividness and intensity.
Moreover, in the case of Whitman, we have means of knowing the man thoroughly from youth till death—both before and after illumination—and so (better than in any other. case, except, perhaps, that of Balzac) can compare the fully developed man with his earlier self. The line of demarcation (between the two Whitmans) is perfectly drawn.
On the one hand the Whitman of the forties, writing tales and essays (such as "Death in a School-room," 1841; "Wild Frank's Return," id.; "Bervance, or Father and Son," id.; "The Tomb Blossoms," 1842; "The Last of the Sacred Army," id.; "The Child Ghost, a Story of the Last Loyalist," id.; "The Angel of Tears," id.; "Revenge and Requital," 1845; "A Dialogue," id.,; etc.), which even his present splendid fame cannot galvanize into life; on the other the Whitman of the fifties, writing the first (1855) edition of the "Leaves."
We expect and always find a difference between the early and mature writings of the same man. What an interval, for instance, between Shelley's romances and the "Cenci"; between Macaulay's earliest essays and the history. But here is some. thing quite apart from those and similar cases. We can trace a gradual evolution of aptitude and power from "Zastrozzi" to "Epipsychidion," from Macaulay's "Milton" to his "Massacre of Glencoe." But in the case of Whitman (as in that of Balzac) writings of absolutely no value were immediately followed (and, at least in Whitman's case without practice or study) by pages across each of which in letters of ethereal fire are written the words ETERNAL LIFE; pages covered not only by a masterpiece but by such vital sentences as have not been written ten times in the history of the race. It is upon this instantaneous evolution of the Titan from the Man, this profound mystery of the attainment of the splendor and power of the kingdom of heaven, that this present volume seeks to throw light.
And it is interesting to remark here that Whitman seems to have had as little idea as had Gautama, Paul or Mohammed what
it vas that gave him the mental power, the moral elevation and the perennial joyousness which are among the characteristics of the state to which he attained and which seem to have been to him subjects of continual wonder. "Wandering amazed," he says, "at my own lightness and glee" [193: 36].
Let us see, now, what Whitman says about this new sense which must have come to him in June, 1853 or 1854, at the age, that is, of thirty-four or thirty-five. The first direct mention of it is on page 15 of the 1855 edition of the "Leaves" [191: 15]. That is to say, it is upon the third page of his first writing after this new faculty had come to him—for the long preface in this volume was written after the body of the book. The lines are found essentially unaltered in every subsequent edition. In the current (1891–92) edition they are upon page 32.
As given here the quotation is from the 1855 edition, as it is important to get as near the man at the time of writing the words as possible. He says:
Henceforth, he says, his life received its inspiration from the newcomer, the new self, whose tongue, as he expresses it, was plunged to his bare-stripped heart.
His outward life, also, became subject to the dictation of the new self—it held his feet. Finally he tells in brief of the change wrought in his mind and heart by the birth within him of the new faculty. He says he was filled all at once with peace and joy and knowledge transcending all the art and argument of the earth. He attained that point of view from which alone can a human being see something of God ("which alone," says Balzac, "can explain God;" which point, unless he attains, "he cannot," says Jesus, "see the kingdom of God"). And he sums up the account by the statement that God is his close friend, that all the men and women ever born are his brothers and sisters and lovers and that the whole creation is built and rests upon love.
Add now to this the following four lines [192: 207], written at another time but certainly referring to the same or to a similar experience:
At the same time and in the same connection consider this passage:
For the purpose now of aiding to bring before the mind of the earnest reader (and any other has little business with this book) a hint, a suggestion (for what more is it possible to give here?) of what this Cosmic Consciousness is, it may be well to quote from a prose work of Whitman's certain passages that seem to throw light on the subject. Speaking of the people, he says: "The rare, cosmical, artist mind, lit with the infinite, alone confronts his manifold and oceanic qualities" [195: 215]. Again: "There is yet, to whoever is eligible among us, the prophetic vision, the joy of being tossed in the brave turmoil of these times
[paragraph continues] —the promulgation and the path, obedient, lowly reverent to the voice, the gesture of the god, or holy ghost, which others see not, hear not" [195: 227]. Once more: "The thought of identity. . . . Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth (significant only because of the Me in the centre), creeds; conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and looked upon, it expands over the whole earth and spreads to the roof of heaven" [195:229]. Yet another: "I should say, indeed, that only in the perfect un-contamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion positively come forth at all. Only here and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight. Only here communion with the mysteries, the eternal problems, whence? whither? Alone and identity and the mood—and the soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought, and awe, and aspiration—and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable" [195: 233]. The next passage seems prophetical of the coming race: "A fitly born and bred race, growing up in right conditions of outdoor as much as indoor harmony, activity and development, would probably, from and in those conditions, find it enough merely to live—and would, in their relations to the sky, air, water, trees, etc., and to the countless common shows, and in the fact of life itself, discover and achieve happiness—with Being suffused night and day by wholesome ecstasy, surpassing ail the pleasures that wealth, amusement, and even gratified intellect, erudition, or the sense of art, can give" [195: 249]. And finally, and best of all, the following: "Lo! Nature (the only complete,
actual poem) existing calmly in the divine scheme, containing all, content, careless of the criticisms of a day, or these endless and wordy chatterers. And to! to the consciousness of the soul, the permanent identity, the thought, the something, before which the magnitude even of Democracy, art, literature, etc., dwindles, becomes partial, measurable—something that fully satisfies (which those do not). That something is the All and the idea of All, with the accompanying idea of eternity, and of itself, the soul, buoyant, indestructible, sailing Space forever, visiting every region, as a ship the sea. And again to! the pulsations in all matter, all spirit, throbbing forever—the eternal beats, eternal systole and dyastole of life in things—wherefrom I feel and know that death is not the ending, as we thought, but rather the real beginning—and that nothing ever is or can be lost, nor even die, nor soul nor matter" [195: 253]. Here we have brought out strongly the consciousness of the Cosmos, its life and eternity—and the consciousness of the equal grandeur and eternity of the individual soul, the one balancing (equal to) the other. In a word, we have here the expression (as far, perhaps, as it can be expressed) of what is called in this volume Cosmic Consciousness.
Those who so far have been endowed with Cosmic Consciousness have been, almost to a man, carried away and subjugated by it; they have looked upon it—most of them—as being a preterhuman, more or less supernatural faculty, separating them from other men. They have almost, if not quite, always sought to help men, for their moral sense has been inevitably purified and elevated by the oncoming of the new sense, to an extraordinary degree; but they have not realized the need, nor, probably, felt the possibility of using their unusual insight and power in any systematic manner. That is, THE MAN has not mastered, taken possession of, and used, the new faculty, but has been (on the contrary) largely or entirely mastered and used by it. This was clearly the case with Paul, who was led away by the grandeur and glory of the new sense to underrate the really equal divinity of his previous human faculties. The same words could with nearly equal truth be applied to the case of Gautama. The evils that
humanity has suffered and is to-day suffering simply because these two men took this mistaken view—the evils, namely, that have come upon us through despising "the flesh"—i.e., through despising the so-called "natural man"—the evils, in fine, that have come from the teaching that one part of man is good and to be cultivated, while another part is bad and (if possible) to be extirpated, or, if that is not possible, covered up and hidden away—the evils that have come upon us from this false view are entirely incalculable and would sometimes almost tempt us to forget the even greater benefits bestowed upon the race by the men from whom the evils specified have come. Not that Gautama and Paul are by any means entirely responsible for the monasticism and asceticism of their followers. It is doubtless true, as Lecky [114: 108] tells us, that this movement had already begun. But no one can or will deny that the influence of these two men in intensifying and directing the passion for abnegation of pleasure and so-called purity (in other words, in setting aside the things of the self conscious life in favor of those of the Cosmic Conscious) was incalculably great.
The evils in question have been clearly seen, lucidly portrayed and traced back to their predominant source in these great teachers by many writers. Among the rest Kidd [108:125f] has indicated with great force and truth the immense impulse toward self denial that marked the early centuries of Christianity; has shown that the impulse in question, though "irrational," had a meaning deeper than reason; that if the race is to advance such anti-social instincts are a necessity (though it is neither necessary nor well that they should often have the force they possessed in the centuries referred to); that they have their place in this scheme just as have their complement, the social instincts. What Kidd does not see is—whence the great teachers derived the insight from which was born the assurance that so moved them and through them the world.
This antagonism between the higher and the lower life, between the life for self and the life for others, between the life of the flesh and the life of the spirit, between the life of the individual
and the life of the race, between the self conscious life and the Cosmic Conscious life, is, perhaps, the supreme fact of the modern world—giving to it both motion and stability, just as the opposite forces, the centrifugal and the centripetal, give both motion and stability in the sphere of the astral universe. And from this point of view it is clear why it should be that: Le sort des grands hommes est de passer tour à tour pour des fous et pour des sages. La gloire est d’etre un de ceux que choisit successivement l’humanité par les aimer et les haïr [138: 182].
It may be that Walt Whitman is the first man who, having Cosmic Consciousness very fully developed, has deliberately set himself against being thus mastered by it, determining, on the contrary, to subdue it and make it the servant along with simple consciousness, self consciousness and the rest of the united, individual SELF. He saw, what neither Gautama nor Paul saw, what Jesus saw, though not so clearly as he, that though this faculty is truly Godlike, yet it is no more supernatural or preternatural than sight, hearing, taste, feeling, or any other, and he consequently refused to give it unlimited sway, and would not allow it to tyrannize over the rest. He believes in it, but he says the other self, the old self, must not abase itself to the new; neither must the new be encroached upon or limited by the old; he will see that they live as friendly co-workers together. And it may here be said that whoever does not realize this last clause will never fully understand the "Leaves."
The next reference made by Walt Whitman to Cosmic Consciousness, to be noted here, is in a poem called the "Prayer of Columbus" [193: 323], a few words on the history of which will be in order. It was written about 1874–5, when the condition of the poor, sick, neglected spiritual explorer was strikingly similar to that of the heroic geographical explorer shipwrecked on the Antillean island in 1503, at which time and place the prayer is supposed to be offered up. Walt Whitman—a very common trick with him—used this agreement of circumstance to put his own words (ostensibly) into the mouth of the other man. The prayer is in reality, of course, Walt Whitman's own and all the allusions
in it are to his own life, work, fortunes—to himself. In it he refers specifically and pointedly to the present subject matter. Speaking to God, he says:
Thou knowest my manhood's solemn and visionary meditations.
One effort more, my altar this bleak sand;
That Thou O God my life hast lighted,
With ray of light, steady, ineffable, vouchsafed of Thee,
Light rare untellable, lighting the very light,
Beyond all signs, descriptions, languages;
For that O God, be it my latest word, here on my knees,
Old, poor, and paralyzed, I thank Thee.
My hands, my limbs grew nerveless,
My brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d,
Let the old timbers part, I will not part,
I will cling fast to Thee O God, though the waves buffet me, Thee,
Thee at least I know.
At the time of writing these lines Walt Whitman is fifty-five or fifty-six years of age. For over twenty years he has been guided by this (seeming) supernatural illumination. He has yielded freely to it and obeyed its behests as being from God Himself.
He has "loved the earth, sun, animals, despised riches, given alms to every one that asked, stood up for the stupid and crazy, devoted his income and labor to others" [193: 273], as commanded by the divine voice and as impelled by the divine impulse, and now for reward he is poor, sick, paralyzed, despised, neglected, dying. His message to man, to the delivery of which he has devoted his life, which has been dearer in his eyes (for man's sake) than wife, children, life itself, is unread or scoffed and jeered at. What shall he say to God? He says that God knows him through and through, and that he is willing to leave himself in God's hands. He says that he does not know men nor his own work, and so does
not judge what men may do with, or say to, the "Leaves." But he says he does know God, and will cling to him though the waves buffet him. Then about the inspiration, the illumination, the potent, felt, interior command stronger than words? He is sure that this comes from God. He has no doubt. There can be no doubt of that.
He goes on to speak of the ray of light, steady, ineffable, with which God has lighted his life, and says it is rare, untellable, beyond all signs, descriptions, languages. And this (be it well remembered) is not the utterance of wild enthusiasm, but of cold, hard fact by a worn-out old man on (as he supposed) his deathbed.
This acknowledgment by Whitman of God's goodness recalls forcibly Bacon's gratitude to God for his "gifts and graces," his circumstances in the summer of 1621 (both outwardly and inwardly) being as parallel as they could possibly be with those of Whitman in 1875.
The next direct allusion to Cosmic Consciousness to be noted is embodied in a poem called "Now Precedent Songs, Farewell" [193: 403], written in June, 1888, when he again, and with good reason, supposed himself dying. The poem was written as a hasty good-bye to the "Leaves." At the end of it he refers to his songs and their origin in these words:
He says: Compared to the flash, the divine illumination from which they had their origin, how poor and worthless his poems are. And it must be borne in mind that Whitman never had a bad opinion of the "Leaves." He used to say (in a semi-jocular manner, but fully meaning it all the same) that none of the fellows (meaning out-and-out admirers), not even O'Conner, Burroughs or Bucke, thought as highly of them as he did. But thinking that way of them he could still exclaim how poor they were compared to the illumination from which they sprang. But he did not die at that time. He rallied, and again, it seems, from time to time
the vision appeared and the voice whispered. Doubtless the vision grew more dim and the voice less distinct as time passed and the feebleness of age and sickness advanced upon him. At last, in 1891, at the age of seventy-two, the "Brahmic Splendor" finally departed, and in those mystic lines, "To the Sunset Breeze" [193: 414], which the Harpers returned to him as "a mere improvisation," he bids it farewell:
As a man with Cosmic Consciousness sees the Cosmic order, and that, as Paul says, "all things work together for good" * [19: 8: 28], so every such man is what is called "an Optimist," and it may be freely stated that the knowledge of the friendliness of the universe to man is a distinctive mark of the class of men considered in this volume. That Whitman has this mark needs saying only to those who have not read him. Again and again in ever-varying words he says and repeats: "And I say there is in fact no evil" [193: 22]. "Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul" [193: 31]. "Is it lucky to be born?" he asks, and answers: "It is just as lucky to die" [193: 34].
So Dante, in summing up, declares that, seen by the light of the Cosmic Sense, all is perfect, including that which outside that light is (or seems) imperfect [72: 213].
It is not supposed that in the case of any man so far born has the Cosmic Sense been constantly present for years, months, or even weeks—probably not even for days or hardly hours. In many cases it appears only once and for a few moments only, but that flash is sufficient to light up (more or less brightly) all the subsequent years of life. In the greatest cases it may be present for many minutes at a time and return at intervals of weeks,
months or years. Between these extremes there would seem to be a vast range of greater and less cases.
It has already been stated more than once that while Cosmic Consciousness is actually present there is a profound change in the appearance of the subject of it. If one thinks how the countenance is lit up by ordinary great joy, it will be seen that the change spoken of must happen. Not only so, but it is within the personal knowledge of the writer that (at all events, in some cases) a man does not altogether return (at least permanently) to his old expression and appearance for months or even years after a period of illumination.
This is as much as to say that the face of a man who had occasional periods of illumination, extending through years, would wear, habitually, a more or less exalted and noble expression, and this is true.
It is, however, of course, while Cosmic Consciousness is actually present that the change in the aspect of the subject is the greatest. The following seems to be a description of this change. Either Cosmic Consciousness was actually present at the hour mentioned or it had been present immediately before it. The account is by an eye witness—Miss Helen Price—a lady well known to the person who writes these lines:
a. The subjective light appeared strongly to Whitman.
b. The moral elevation and
c. Intellectual illumination were extreme, and in his case stand out very clearly, since we know the man so well both before and after the oncoming of the Cosmic Sense.
d. In no other man who ever lived was the sense of eternal life so absolute.
e. Fear of death was absent. Neither in health nor in sickness did he show any sign of it, and there is every reason to believe he did not feel it.
f. He had no sense of sin. This must not be understood as meaning that he felt himself to be perfect. Whitman realized his own greatness as clearly and fully as did any of his admirers. He also realized how immeasurably he was below the ideal which he constantly set up before himself.
g. The change of the self conscious man into the Cosmic Conscious was instantaneous—occurring at a certain hour of a certain day.
h. It occurred at the characteristic age and at the characteristic time of the year.
i. The altered appearance of the man while in the Cosmic Conscious state was seen and noted.
235:* In the passage Paul seems to limit the statement "to them that love God" (to those who have Cosmic Consciousness), but what he really intends is doubtless: All things work together for good; but this is only really seen and known by those who have been endowed with the Cosmic Sense.