Walt Whitman used animistic techniques in his poetry and prose, specifically "Song of the Redwood Tree," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and Specimen Days. The term animism can be traced to the Latin root of the word, anime, which connotes a "soul" or "vitality." So, when one is talking about animistic techniques, one is speaking of the (metaphoric or realistic) ensoulment of natural objects. In the wake of a growing global crisis modern scholarship has begun reexamining the implications of this belief; often it introduces ambiguities into an otherwise comfortable relationship of unquestioned human domination. In Specimen Days, Whitman seems to have a more clear view of his natural philosophy, in which he expresses his belief that nature possesses an inherency that he envies and an ability to communicate that quality with him. However, Whitman's "Song of the Redwood Tree" is ambiguous and contradicting. Whitman creates a vision of Manifest Destiny by portraying settlers in California clearing space for houses and agriculture by cutting down the majestic redwood forests. However, this poem contains a particularly odd element: the trees have a voice. They mourn their own demise while simultaneously celebrating the arrival of the new American populace. It is a conflicting image. The animistic, majestic qualities of the trees challenge an anthropocentric view of the world, not allowing the reader to quickly disregard the extinction of the redwood forests in order to embrace American ideals of progress, which in a way defeats the more imperialistic message of the poem. Another comparison, with "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," demonstrates how important subversion of self to place is when using animistic techniques in poetry. This poem implies that animate nature is a locus for Whitman's creative genius, both inspiring his poetry and permeating it with confusion. Whitman's very engagement with the process of imagining a voice for nature inserts doubt into some of his more imperialistic pronouncements and encourages the reader to question his own previously unexamined assumptions. Animistic literary techniques have the potential to encourage an involvement with non-human nature, along with a more conscious awareness of the way we use (and abuse) that Other.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Woodbury, Rachelle Helene, "Animism in Whitman: "Multitudes" of Interpretations?" (2006). All Theses and Dissertations. 730.
animism, animistic poetry, Walt Whitman, Song of the Redwood Tree, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, Specimen Days, nature, voice of nature, nature and the poet, American nature poetry