Date of Award

4-6-2017

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

English (M.A.)

Department

English

First Advisor

Robert Franciosi

Second Advisor

Michael Webster

Third Advisor

Brian Deyo

Academic Year

2016/2017

Abstract

Walt Whitman’s great masterpiece Leaves of Grass stands out in the canon of nineteenth-century American poetry for both its innovations in form and its bold ventures into controversial subjects. One such subject is the role of science as opposed to religion in shaping the modern worldview. Whitman’s poetry alternately and at times simultaneously expresses both materialistic and metaphysical cosmologies, criticizing and casting away ancient traditions as often as he calls on them for inspiration.

In this paper I explore the influence of contemporary science on Whitman’s worldview, analyze how its theories shape the cosmology presented by his poetry, and discuss the complex relationship between Leaves of Grass and the legacy of Western religion and literature out of which it grew—and continues to “grow” with each new reading. Ultimately I argue that Whitman seeks to discover and express truth in all its forms, which means engaging directly with the natural world, then embracing both the objective hard data we draw from it as well as our own subjective, even spiritual, experiences. Since neither religion alone nor science alone allows for this complex and often cognitively dissonant relationship to the world, he preaches a new way forward: poetry will offer the grand transcendent synthesis of the two, encompassing all truth and continuing to evolve as a living entity within humanity generation by generation going forward.

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