Repetition in Whitman and Kierkegaard

by Ian McGuire


What am I after all but a child pleas’d with the sound of my own

                         name? repeating it over and over…[1]


The piece [“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”] will bear reading many times – and perhaps indeed only comes forth as from recesses, by many repetitions.[2]


That Whitman, infamous cataloguer, master of epanaphora, obsessive reviser and re-publisher of his own work, is a poet absorbed in, perhaps swamped by, repetition is quite easy to see. Yet, as these quotations remind us, repetition is a tricky phenomenon. It points simultaneously away from meaning – the child’s name repeated as a game until it becomes just sound – and towards it – the repeated readings of the literary critic, coaxing meaning from hidden recesses. This paradox and its multiple implications have been the focus of most recent literary criticism devoted or related to the question of repetition.[3] Within Whitman scholarship references to repetition are surprisingly sparse, but where they do occur they tend to revolve around this same paradox as manifested in Whitman’s catalogues. The catalogues’ repetitive grammatical structures emphasise sameness and simultaneity while their varied contents, including the geographical and demographic breadth of America, stress variety and change. These lists, in other words, always point both ways: towards the synchronic and the diachronic, the eternal and the actual. But they also serve, it is usually claimed, to unite the two.[4]

The logic of this paradox (the eternal emerging from the actual then falling back into it) is Hegelian, an association not always noted by literary critics, but one made quite explicit by Whitman who writes approvingly of Hegel in Specimen Days:

In my opinion the above formulas of Hegel are an essential and crowning justification of New World democracy in the creative realms of time and space. There is that about them which only the vastness, the multiplicity and the vitality of America would seem able to comprehend…. It is strange to me that they were born in Germany, or in the old world at all.[5]

Critics have tended to brush aside Whitman’s association with Hegel, seeing it as a slightly pretentious quirk of his old age. There is no doubt that it is second-hand and very much filtered through the romanticism of his mentor Emerson, but I wish to argue that if we are to move the discussion of Whitman’s repetition (and indeed literary repetition in general) significantly beyond the paradoxes of presence and absence we must recognise the philosophical pedigree of that paradox. It is thus worth taking Whitman’s Hegelianism seriously, at least seriously enough to allow into Whitman’s purview the archenemy of Hegelianism, and the prophet of “true” repetition, Søren Kierkegaard.   

Kierkegaard and Whitman were contemporaries, born six years apart, who, despite significant differences of temperament and context, shared a common experience of rapid cultural modernisation, and a common awareness of and engagement with the Romantic tradition.  A detailed comparison of their differing historical and intellectual circumstances is far beyond the scope of this article, but I will show that their work has enough in common to make a Kierkegaardian reading of Whitman interesting and useful. In particular, Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel and his uncompromising emphasis on the difference between the eternal and the actual, offers a new and bracing paradigm for reading the questions of identity and difference that are central to Whitman’s poetry and that over the last decade have become central to Whitman criticism.

            Kierkegaard’s understanding of repetition, as laid out in Repetition (1843), is broadly philosophical rather than specifically literary, and consequently he begins where most literary discussions end, with the realisation that repetition always cuts both ways – both towards and away from meaning.  Repetition thus indicates or reminds us of the unavoidably dialectical nature of existence, which contains, to put it bluntly, both life and death.[6] Beginning from this point, the question becomes not what does repetition mean but rather how do we best cope with the situation which repetition points to – the need for and the impossibility of meaning and permanence. If, as Kierkegaard suggests, all existence is repetition, in the sense that we exist in the perpetual tension between presence and absence, then what kind of repetition, what kind of existence, is most authentic, truest to our ontological situation?  There are three alternatives offered in Repetition: recollection, which is Greek, aesthetic repetition, which is Hegelian, and religious repetition, which is Kierkegaardian.  The aesthetic response, in contrast to both the Greek and the religious responses, uses the negative to enrich or enliven the experience of the actual. One example of this (which is picked up and developed in Repetition) would be the poet who having experienced an unhappy love affair then goes on to write great love poetry.  Kierkegaard is careful to give the aesthetic its due. It is not easily or commonly achieved, and it is certainly superior to Greek recollection, which simply turns away from the negative in favour of an ideal located in the past. The poet, Kierkegaard suggests, is an aesthetic exception “who constitutes the transition to the truly aristocratic exceptions, to the religious exceptions” (228). The “religious exception,” however, is capable of a higher, religious repetition, capable of fully experiencing the inadequacy and incompleteness of temporal existence but of returning to it anyway and not as a duty or as a “timorous, anxious routine” but rather with delight “as if finitude were the surest thing of all” (40).  Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” (notably Abraham) is “in infinite resignation … reconciled with existence.” The key to this paradox is faith, the ability to be true simultaneously and without compromise to the extremes of hope and despair. And faith is the key Kierkegaardian virtue – faith, to use a Christian language, in God, but faith also, to use a more modernist language, in the absurd, meaning perhaps the possibility of the impossible, and thus the principle of infinite openness. A Kierkegaardian reading of Whitman’s repetitions should not, therefore, linger too long on details of poetics, or Hegelian paradox, which Kierkegaard rather disingenuously perhaps dismisses as common knowledge,[7] but rather should seek to understand ideas and practices of repetition within the context of the larger question of the nature, especially the tone, of Whitman’s response to the negative.

             It is best to begin such a reading with Whitman’s most famous early poem, “Song of Myself,” a poem which epitomises from the Kierkegaardian point of view the limitations of aesthetic repetition. There is a long line of writing on Whitman, beginning with Yeats and Lawrence, which criticises the quest for identity in “Song of Myself” and elsewhere (identity not only between human and natural, but also between man and woman, past and present, black and white) as naïve and/or imperialistic: a wishing away of the reality of evil, or a refusal of the reality of social difference. A Kierkegaardian reading while agreeing with the main thrust of such arguments would understand these limitations in a religious light, as a failure to fully recognise the self’s dependence upon that which is unknowable. 

For example, it is a commonplace of Whitman criticism that the 1855 edition in general and “Song of Myself” in particular rests upon an association of Whitman’s self and his poetic project with the rhythms and repetitions of the natural world. The title of Leaves of Grass of course plays with that idea, which then crops up frequently in the poems themselves. One well-known passage will serve as an example:


What do you think has become of the young and old men?

            And what do you think has become of the women and children?


                        They are alive and well somewhere;

                        The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to

arrest it,

                        And ceased the moment life appeared.


                        All goes onward and outward …. and nothing collapses

                        And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.  (32)


In several journal entries following the publication of Repetition Kierkegaard addresses a review of the book by Johan Ludvig Heiberg who argues for just such a “naturalist” approach to the question of repetition. For Heiberg, as for Whitman, repetition is essentially a natural phenomenon, even a natural law, which humans should strive to understand and sympathetically match themselves to. Kierkegaard, however, sees this approach as encouraging only sentimentalised inertia. Repetition always begins with an experience of the limits of the actual or the known, an experience of loss, but in Heiberg, Hegel and Whitman, such loss is absorbed into a cyclical and progressive pattern of recuperation. As Whitman famously asserts: “the unseen is proved by the seen / Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn” (29).  For Kierkegaard, on the other hand (in opposition to Hegel but in tune with a long Christian tradition), there is an absolute contradiction between the material and the spiritual, the known and the unknown. This contradiction constitutes human experience, but it can only be truly lived (although never fully resolved) through faith.  To resolve the problems of loss by identifying the human with the natural, as Whitman (like Heiberg) continually seeks to do, is thus too easy. It is to deny, first, the limitations of the known (sometimes glossed as sin), second, the radical otherness of the unknown (sometimes glossed as spirit), and, third, the singularity of the leap of faith through which these opposing tendencies can be both recognised and held together.

            This urge towards identity which is for Kierkegaard characteristic of the aesthetic and which is also typical of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass may be more fully understood in relation to the understanding of time which it implies. Stephen Crites has argued that Kierkegaard understands aesthetic repetition as promoting an “eternal present” in which everything is simultaneously included, in contrast to the “eternal future” of religious repetition.[8] The present is clearly Whitman’s favourite tense as it was for Emerson, and in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), for example, we see him wielding the present against the future in order to achieve a rather literal form of repetition. The argument of the poem is that time and distance “avail not” that the experience of Whitman’s future readers is essentially the same as Whitman’s own. To support his assertion Whitman juggles verb tenses in the poem in such a way that the future is squeezed out of existence. Whitman’s present becomes the past and the reader’s future becomes the present:  “Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky I felt” (my emphases).  The future, in contrast, is Kierkegaard’s favourite tense. In The Concept of Anxiety he writes that “the future is the incognito in which the eternal even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time.” [9] The future properly understood as unknowable stands for eternity. The moment in which we constantly exist and which therefore is human existence is thus the meeting point of the temporal and the eternal. To live properly in the moment means not just to live in Whitman’s eternal present of aesthetic repetition, but to live with a constant attention to the future into which the self is falling and in friction with which it becomes what it is.

            Since the future is this space of possibility and otherness and for God “everything is possible” for Kierkegaard, at certain moments, the future becomes a name for God. To deny the future thus means to deny God – to despair.  In the poems of 1855 and 1856 Whitman, as we have seen, certainly denies the future yet he seems, in orthodox terms at least, rather far from despair. For Kierkegaard, of course, most despair lacks self-consciousness – a lack which may pragmatically make it better, but spiritually make it worse. It is only when despair begins to become conscious, and thus probably more painful, Kierkegaard argues, that it dialectically begins to open up the road to faith – to consciously recognise one’s radical incompleteness is only one step away from accepting it.

            In the late 1850s Whitman experienced a shattering loss of love (the details of which are still unknown to biographers), which, in combination with a lack of literary success and the political turmoil of the period, pushed him into an emotional “slough” that lasted several years. In the poems of this period conscious despair enters Whitman’s work with a vengeance and brings with it, along the line argued by Kierkegaard, hints of a new vision of the future and a newly religious form of repetition.

            In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” which may poetically mark the beginning of this new phase, Whitman interestingly reworks the temporal manoeuvres of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” While in the earlier poem a buoyant present invades and neutralises the future, in the later work the unhappy present shrinks back into the past. Whitman strangely tries to rewrite his own personal and poetic beginnings to make them congruent with his present suffering. The poem thus repeats backwards rerunning Whitman’s present loss of love as mythologised past – his boyhood experience on the shore of Long Island. What is the thinking (conscious or not) behind such a move? In his famous work on repetition, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud asks a similar question – why do people repeat experiences which have been, and can only be, painful? One obvious answer, which Freud acknowledges, is that such repetitions may be an attempt to master an experience which in its initial form was simply overwhelming. This makes some sense in regard to Whitman – by placing despair at the beginning of his poetic project Whitman attempts to contain or even co-opt its hugely disruptive force, to make it part of the body of work which elsewhere in the poems of this period (notably in “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean  of Life”) it threatens to wreck. In doing this Whitman is engaged in Freudian terms in an act of (perhaps spurious) self-analysis: he seeks to identify an originary trauma which will explain (away) his current suffering. And in this sense the poem, like a process of analysis, seeks to end unconscious repetition by a final conscious act of remembering. The problem that both Freud and Whitman encounter is that some forms of repetition are hard to stop. Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, notes puzzling examples of repetition which can have no such rational, healthy purpose, while Whitman’s poetic beginnings, we learn, are not actually based on an original experience but on the repetition of a more general experience of loss expressed in the bird’s song which he hears on the shore.[10] Rather than ending or containing the poet’s despair this act of repetition turns it into an inescapable destiny:


Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,

                        Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,

            Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there

in the night

                        By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,

                        The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,

                        The unknown want, the destiny of me.  (393)


Freud notes that those who are gripped by the compulsion to repeat may feel, as Whitman seems to, that they are under the sway of an inescapable, even a demonic, force (“Demon or bird!” Whitman exclaims in confusion). Whereas the real explanation for the puzzling phenomenon, he goes on to argue, is the Death Instinct: an urge inherent in organic life to return to an earlier state of existence. Whitman’s final answer in “Out of the Cradle…” is rather similar to Freud’s. In a state of mental and emotional turmoil, imagining the future as only a grim repetition of the past, he appeals desperately for the “word final, superior to all,” and receives from the sea a saving answer: “the low and delicious word death, / and again death, death, death, death…” In contrast to a future of chaotic and zombie-like repetition, Whitman finds a relaxing surety in the primordial certainty of death.

But if the final word is death then the crucial question becomes how death is tensed. For Kierkegaard, like Heidegger, an authentic mood towards death is anticipatory; death calls upon us to face our future and to include it in our sense of ourselves. For Freud, and for Whitman in this poem, in contrast, death is seen as a return. The sea is a mother, albeit of a rather scary kind: “some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet / garments, bending aside.”

In “Out of the Cradle…,” then, Whitman finally escapes from fatalism by intensifying it, a manoeuvre which in Kierkegaard’s terms only takes him further into despair. For Kierkegaard the fatalist is a man who, worshipping the false God of necessity, has catastrophically lost sight of the future where God actually abides. In The Sickness Unto Death, he is compared to someone unable to breathe: “Personhood is a synthesis of possibility and necessity. Its manner of being is therefore like breathing (respiration), which is aspiration and expiration. The determinist’s self cannot breathe because it is impossible to breathe necessity alone, which on its own suffocates the human self.”[11] Although a typical reading of this poem sees its acceptance of death as a move towards an existential maturity compared to the youthful boisterousness of the 1855 edition,[12] a Kierkegaardian reading suggests that the poem is in some sense a false beginning.  Although Whitman has begun to make his despair conscious, the conclusion that there is nothing but death actually demonstrates little significant advance over his earlier idea that there is nothing but life.

            In “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life,” written probably a little later than “Out of the Cradle…,” some significant change is, however, apparent. In this poem repetition initially takes the form of metaphor. Walking along the beach thinking “the old thought of likenesses,” the speaker begins to see echoes of his own unhappy situation in the drift thrown up by the sea: “I too but signify at the utmost a little washed up drift” (395). Once taken up, this similitude leads the speaker to a devastating repudiation of his earlier work, and, ironically perhaps, to an awareness of painful inner divisions.


O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,

                        Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,

                        Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have

not once had the least idea who or what I am …


Typical of the mechanics of repetition, the search for identity produces difference, but Whitman’s characteristically dialectical logic rolls on into the next section of the poem turning this difference back into identity:


You oceans both, I close with you,

                        We murmur alike reproachfully rolling sands and drift, knowing not


                        These little shreds indeed standing for you and me and all.


By turning against himself as he did a few lines earlier, by, most significantly, lamenting his own sense of loss and alienation, the speaker has actually brought himself back into line with a natural order characterised by lamentation and loss. As Whitman accepts the negative as his own harsh patrimony, he seems poised to effect the same kind of fatalistic reconciliation as he achieved at the end of “Out of the Cradle….”  It is by no means a happy moment, but it asserts a universal, if mournful, identity:


You friable shore with trails of debris,

                        You fish-shaped island, I take what is underfoot,

                        What is yours is mine my father.  (395)


Almost immediately, however, and in a move which differentiates this poem from “Out of the Cradle…” and arguably from the rest of Whitman’s early work also, this identity collapses. It breaks apart on the actuality of Whitman’s experiences of loss which refuse to be dialectically worked up into a higher unity:


I throw myself upon your breast my father.

                        I cling to you so you cannot unloose me,

                        I hold you so firm till you answer me something.


                        Kiss me my father,

                        Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love,

                        Breathe to me while I hold you close the secret of the murmuring I

envy.  (396)


In these remarkable lines, the memory of Whitman’s dead father merges with that of his lost lover to form an image of pained and unrequitable desire. While in “Out of the Cradle…” his call for the word supreme was answered with “death,” here there is no answer at all. The word death does not occur in the poem. The experience of loss remains, instead, unnameable, a “secret.”

            This idea of secrecy is a new and unappealing one for Whitman, who is famously a poet of openness, but it is frequent and very important in Kierkegaard for whom secrecy is a key element of selfhood. In Fear and Trembling he argues that “the single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate and psychical, is the hidden.”[13]  The particular secrecy that Kierkegaard is thinking of is Abraham’s inability to communicate to his family his intention to follow God’s command and sacrifice Isaac. For Kierkegaard what Abraham does is literally unspeakable in that it emerges from and testifies to his relationship with God, the Absolute, a relationship which, because it transcends sense making (which Kierkegaard calls the ethical or universal) can never make sense. Similarly, although in a non-Christian context, Derrida has reversed Kierkegaard’s logic and argued that it is not our relationship with God which creates the subject’s hiddenness, but rather the subject’s hiddenness which has been called God: “God is the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not the exterior.” [14] It is this line of thought, which Whitman, albeit with some regret, is moving towards in “As I Ebb’d….”

            As the possibility of secrecy emerges into Whitman’s poetry, it brings with it the possibility of the future and of repetition. The final section of “As I Ebb’d…” remains discontented and uncertain, but this uncertainty contains previously undiscovered possibilities. Whitman tentatively resumes his poetic task, but understands its purposes much more modestly: “I mean tenderly by you and all, / I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down / where we lead, and following me and mine” (396). The phantom here is Whitman’s future reader imagined very differently from the future reader of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” The future whose force Whitman has previously refused one way or another now paradoxically haunts him.

The phantom reader is a figure of the future as other – as finally unamenable, even dialectically, to Whitman’s vast poetic consciousness. Once such otherness exists and is recognised (which I am suggesting begins for Whitman in the late 1850s), then the connected questions of its figuration and of the self’s relationship to it become crucial.  For Kierkegaard like other post-Hegelian thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, this spiritual other can only be apprehended (if at all) dialectically – meaning that our experience of the unknown is always embedded in the known. What differentiates Kierkegaard from Nietzsche and Heidegger, however, is that he finds the source of this dialectic in Christ, the God-man and the very “sign of contradiction.”

Kierkegaard’s Christ is always our contemporary yet remains in an important sense unrecognisable: “To be the individual human being or an individual human being … is the greatest possible distance, the infinitely qualitative difference, from being God, and therefore it is the most profound incognito.”[15] To know Christ is therefore always in a sense not to know him, or to know the limits of our knowledge. A version of this paradoxical known and unknown Christ is central to the finest of Whitman’s Drum Taps poems. In “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” the speaker finding three dead bodies outside a hospital tent, lifts the blankets which cover them, and looks at each in turn. The first body is that of an old man, the second of a young boy, and the speaker addresses them both with a combination of fondness and ignorance – he both recognises and does not recognise them:


Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and

flesh all sunken about the eyes?

            Who are you my dear comrade?


            Then to the second I step – and who are you my child and darling?

                        Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?


Here Whitman confronts again the secrecy of “As I Ebb’d…,” but this time filtered and exacerbated by his Civil War experiences, his years in the hospitals where he befriended and occasionally fell in love with the sick and dying, men who in one way or another were poised to depart. In the final stanza, however, this sense of otherness rooted in personal and political loss is given a specifically religious form. The third corpse is recognised as Christ himself:


Young man I think I know you – I think this face is the face of the

Christ himself,

                        Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.  (441)


While it is tempting to see these lines as resolving the uncertainties of what has gone before, with knowledge replacing uncertainty, I would argue, following Kierkegaard,  that it actually only focuses and intensifies them. To recognise Christ is to recognise precisely the unrecognisable. The terse predicates of the final line cannot be reconciled. In these Civil War poems, Christ offers Whitman, like Kierkegaard, a way not to deny or resolve otherness but to make it succinctly present.

            Once the paradox of Christ is made present it must be either accepted via an act of faith or rejected via a movement of offence. If accepted then faith leads on to religious repetition, a process demonstrated quite fully, if indirectly, in “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.”  The speaker of this poem is a soldier who during night-time retreat comes across a church being used as a field hospital. The scene inside the church is primarily one of darkness and suffering, but it is lightened briefly and typically by a moment of unspoken affection between the speaker and a dying young soldier, “face white as a lily,” who is implicitly an image of Christ. Whitman makes the encounter with Christ contemporaneous both within the narrative of the poem and by a form of framing in which the speaker insists on the recuperative powers of memory and language: “These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor.” Left at this stage the poem seems set on a form of aesthetic repetition by which the poet achieves an appealing but, in Kierkegaardian terms, spurious redemption. The poem, however, ends with another kind of repetition or resumption that complicates and reworks the first:


But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he


                        Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

                        Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

                        The unknown road still marching.  (440)


The resumption of the march occurs within the speaker’s memory, but it is also a counterbalance to that memory – an image of forgetting and of a return to an orthodox secular temporality. While such a return might suggest a kind of loss, a weakening of insight, for Kierkegaard and here for Whitman, the opposite is just as true. The danger of aesthetic repetition is that it abandons the actual in favour of the ideal. The poem’s final resumption is an image of religious repetition in that it returns to the actual while keeping a grip on the eternal. The speaker marches on the “unknown road” a road that he does not recognise, but also a road to the unrecognisable. To resume the unknown road is then to return to life, to experience, but an experience which includes indirectly, punningly, an awareness of its own limitations.

            This gesture whereby aesthetic repetition is posited then refused is key to the best of the Drum Taps poems, and the key to this gesture is the image (frequently unspoken or indirectly communicated) of Christ. “The Wound-Dresser,” probably the most famous of the Civil War poems, is concerned like “A March…” with  questions of resumption or remembering. In order to write about his hospital experiences Whitman constructs an elaborate temporal framework whereby he imagines himself in the future being asked to remember the war. Writing about his contemporary experience (the poem was first published in 1865 and probably written a year or two before) thus becomes transformed into an act of imaginative recollection: “But in silence, in dreams’ projections / … / with hinged knees returning I enter the door.” The elaborateness of this framework, which recalls “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Out of the Cradle…,” is at least in part an aesthetic form of control. By shifting the losses of the present into the past, Whitman endeavours to limit their power, or, to put it sympathetically, to make them bearable. Here as elsewhere in Drum Taps, however, the aesthetic is complicated and overtaken by the religious. Whitman’s “hinged knees” suggest immediately the possibility that this return is a form of prayer, and section two climaxes with an invocation of Christian sacrifice as the speaker kneeling before a dying boy exclaims, “poor boy! – I never knew you / Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Having raised the possibility that death might be defeated by sacrifice, the poem stands in Kierkegaardian terms at a crossroads: the choice, as described in Practice in Christianity, being between faith and offence. (If we do not believe in Christ we must surely be offended by the claims he makes.) But Kierkegaard also argues that faith requires the possibility of offence, “the possibility of offence is precisely the repulsion in which faith can come into existence – if one does not choose to be offended.”[16] The extremism of the Christian paradox can only be fully known if we are aware of the lowest experiences of suffering and wretchedness in actuality as well as the highest possibilities of hope in the eternal. The aesthetic solution, as I have said before, is to seek a compromise or at least a connection between these two extremes. In the famous third section of “The  Wound-Dresser,” however, Whitman confronts the paradox head-on. The body that Whitman has previously hymned becomes a site of suffering and sorrow, and, quite explicitly, of offence:


I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,

                        Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so


                        While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.


Yet in the final lines of the section Whitman asserts his faith:


I am faithful, I do not give out,

The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,

These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a

fire, a burning flame).


This third section then answers the question raised by the ending of section two – what is the meaning of the Christian promise? Whitman’s answer here, like Kierkegaard’s, is to insist on faith not as an alternative to paradox but rather as a  continual experience of it: the burning flame within and the blasted bodies without, the experience of repulsion and the experience of love.[17]

The clearest consequences of a Kierkegaardian reading of Whitman are, as I hope I have shown, to shift our attention from the 1855 and 1856 editions to the poems of the late 1850s and the Civil War, and to increase our awareness of the poems’ religious and temporal concerns. This approach also, however, raises other interesting questions to do with Whitman’s treatment of sexuality and politics, questions which despite their undoubted interest I have not been able to pursue. How might we read Whitman’s ideals of democracy and same-sex love as expressed in the Calamus poems, for example, in light of Kierkegaard’s religious model of difference?  What is the erotic charge of the Christ figure of Drum Taps and how might that complicate or revise a Kierkegaardian Christology? This article is in that sense only a beginning; such questions remain, in Kierkegaardian terms, both of and for the future.

[1] Leaves of Grass (New York: Library of America, 1992) p. 516. Unless otherwise stated, all references to Whitman’s poems will be from this edition. Page numbers will appear in parentheses in the text.

[2] From Whitman’s editorial preface to “A Word Out of the Sea,” later renamed “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” when it was first published in the Saturday Press in 1859. Quoted in Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1985) p. 310.

[3] See most notably J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982), but also, among many others, Edward Said, “On Repetition” in The World , The Text and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983); Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan “The Paradoxical Status of Repetition,” Poetics Today 1 (1980) 151-159 and Debra Fried “Repetition, Refrain and Epitaph,” English Literary History 53 (1986) 615-632.

[4] For examples of this line of thinking see Ivan Marki, The Trial of the Poet: An Interpretation of the First Edition of Leaves of Grass (New York: Columbia UP, 1976); Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973) pp.166-187; John B. Mason, “Walt Whitman’s Catalogues: Rhetorical Means for Two Journeys in ‘Song of Myself’.” American Literature 45 (1973) 34-49 and George B. Hutchinson, The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986).

[5] “Specimen Days,”  The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Louis Untermeyer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949) p. 778

[6] As Deleuze notes, “The whole mystical game of loss and salvation is therefore contained in repetition, along with the whole theatrical game of life and death, and the whole positive game of illness and health.” The Deleuze Reader (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) p.84.

[7] “At the same time, I perceived that repetition in the sphere of individual life has a far deeper meaning…. The other knowledge about and reflection upon repetition I reduced to a jest and thereby avoided becoming ridiculous in the eyes of my reader by earnestly wanting to instruct him in what everyone knows.” Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) p.298.

[8] Stephen Crites, “‘The Blissful Security of the Moment’: Recollection, Repetition and Eternal Recurrence,” International Kierkegaard Commentary, Fear and Trembling  and Repetition, ed. Robert L. Perkins (Macon: Mercer UP, 1993) pp. 225-246.

[9] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980) p. 89.

[10] For Kierkegaard, one imagines, Freudianism would count as a contemporary form of the fallacy of recollection. No one is unhappier, he notes in Either/Or, than the person who recollects what he should hope for.

[11] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1989) p.70.

[12] See, for example, David Cavitch, My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) pp. 139-153; Stephen E. Whicher, “Whitman’s Awakening to Death: Toward a Biographical Reading of ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,’” The Presence of Walt Whitman, Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. R. W. B. Lewis, (New York: Columbia UP, 1962) pp. 1-27.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition p. 82.

[14] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 108.

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991) p. 127.

[16] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity p.121.

[17] The temporal implications of the paradox are encapsulated in the parentheses which open section three “(open doors of time! open hospital doors!)” where the urge towards an eternal beyond temporal differentiation is matched by an insistence on earthly time as an experience of decay and suffering.