from A Passage to India
from Section 2 of 9.
from Section 2 of 9.
1. Whitman’s poem is a poem of praise—it celebrates the opening of the Suez Canal. Using Whitman’s poem as a model, write your own poem of praise for a modern invention or recent scientific advancement. (Note: your subject needn’t be as monumental as the Suez Canal; no one has yet written the Great American Poem about an iPhone!)
2. In the poem, Whitman imagines the people and places of a far-off land brought finally within reach. Choose a place you’ve never been—but can imagine—and write a poem exploring it in your imagination.
1. In “A Passage to India,” Whitman praises not just the “proud truths of the world” and “facts of modern science,” but also the “myths and fables of eld” and “far-darting beams of the spirit.” How do these seemingly disparate ideas relate to each other in the poem? To his mind, are they equivalent? Can one exist without the other, according to Whitman?
2. What is the poet’s attitude toward science and myth? Which words or phrases best suggest his admiration and why?
3. How might you characterize Whitman’s diction in the poem? Is it lofty, formal, casual, familiar? What effect does his word choice have on the poem’s tone?
4. Though he doesn’t use regular rhyme or meter, Whitman does rely on other poetic devices (like repetition or alliteration) to give structure to his poem. What other devices can you identify? What is their effect?
1. Have students explore the video of playwright Tony Kushner’s reading of the poem. Set before another modern wonder, a giant suspension bridge—another subject of Whitman’s praise—Kushner intones the poem in a distinct way. Have students discuss his intonation. What was striking about his presentation? Ask what other kinds of public speaking occasions come to mind upon hearing this poem read in this manner.
2. Robert Frost argues that a sentence has a sound all its own and that “the best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” In small groups, have students explore the sound of sentences, by humming each line and sentence several times and considering the effect. As the group listens to the sentence sounds, ask them to consider Whitman’s overall tone toward his subjects and whether or not his syntax reveals a hierarchy of praise or if the sounds sing the praises of these subjects equally.
3. Organize students to research the images and history of the Suez Canal and other developments of the 19th century, such as the transcontinental railroad and major suspension bridges. Then have them write an essay that explores Whitman’s poem, discussing the speaker’s perception of innovation, progress, diversity, or another “American” value. Other parts of “A Passage to India” or other selections such as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or a host of other poems about the Brooklyn Bridge may be included in this discussion.
This poem has learning resources.
Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855, 1891-2), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. This monumental work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, and found beauty and...