from A Passage to India

Passage O soul to India!
Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.

Not you alone, proud truths of the world,            
Nor you alone, ye facts of modern science,            
But myths and fables of eld, Asia’s, Africa’s fables,   
The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams,            
The deep diving bibles and legends,         
The daring plots of the poets, the elder religions;            
O you temples fairer than lilies, pour’d over by the rising sun!            
O you fables, spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!            
You lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as roses, burnish’d with gold!            
Towers of fables immortal, fashion’d from mortal dreams!            
You too I welcome, and fully, the same as the rest!      
You too with joy I sing.            

Passage to India!
Lo, soul! seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?            
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,                  
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,            
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.            

A worship new I sing,            
You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours,            
You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours,            
You, not for trade or transportation only,
But in God’s name, and for thy sake, O soul.            
   
 

Notes:

from Section 2 of 9.

Source: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (Viking Press, 1982)

Writing Ideas

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.

Discussion Questions

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?

Teaching Tips

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.

More Poems by Walt Whitman