In “‘As If the Beasts Spoke’: the Animal/Animist/Animated Walt Whitman,” M. Jimmie Killingsworth discusses Whitman’s portrayal of the animal in relation to the human. He argues that Whitman wanted to undermine the distinction between the two, to draw them together. His poems expressed this desire because they constantly drew connections between modernity and nature, and the natural causality in modern progress. That is, human construction using modern techniques and tools still retains a link to the natural world, because it is a part of our Darwinian competitive instincts and the need for security and survival — however, Killingsworth makes it a point to say that Whitman would be disturbed by the contemporary loss of the human connection to nature, and that we now think of nature as an excursion into the wilderness rather than a breath of fresh air under a tree, listening to the sounds of insects and creatures as he would have preferred.
Killingsworth’s discussion also briefly touches on the role of religion, and the dichotomy between religion and science. “Religion disenchants nature by making spirit the exclusive province of God and a supplicant humanity. Science makes the material world the only reality but disenchants by denying spirit altogether” (Killingsworth 24). In Whitman’s animism, then, the animals and humans become the gods; it is the spirit of the animals that is meant to reflect the truth in humanity. Whitman looks to them for a deeper wisdom because they are not plagued by the attachments that human’s contain, such as the one to God. In section 32, Whitman writes:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their conditions,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
In this passage, Whitman expresses respect towards animals for retaining something that humans seem to have already lost sight of — the connection to the earth is the driving force for our continued species. We look too much to the superior role of humans, who are able to reason and connect to God. But, Whitman expresses this an irrational logic — animals love and care for one another, fight for their survival, but do not bother themselves with notions of the God who rules all. They do not let this God guide them, they are instead guides by their instincts and their brothers. He understands this ability as something stronger than a human God, and sees wisdom in their refrain from attempts based on greed and power — the animals don’t want to take over the world, they want to feed their children.
Killingsworth also argues that Whitman uses the animals in his poetry as the “echo” of himself. If he views the animals in their “self-contain’d” wisdom, then it would follow that he tries to guide his readers to imitate the behaviors of those animals. Initially, his words come from the spirit in nature, but “over two decades of development, then, the poet increasingly speaks not from nature or with nature, but rather comes to speak for nature; or worse, he plays the ventriloquist to the dummies of nature, the birds and the hissing ocean” (Killingsworth 26). This comment implies that Whitman began to take on a God role in his writing. In “Song of Myself” Whitman he still contains the connection to nature. But apparently, later on in his writing, Whitman feels that he must take a more direct role in teaching humanity about his ideas of unity and natural foundations. It is his desperation for Americans to understand animism, that the soul of the earth manifests the same in every creature that creates his own belief that he his the authority and, instead of leaving nature itself to guide Americans, he personifies the qualities that he finds respectable in the animals and applies them to the highest and lowest classes of characters.
Ultimately, Whitman believed in this sense of unity. Regardless of his later vain characteristics and God-like expressiveness, he believed in the final destination. He wanted to reestablish the connection to the earth, and to inspire a respect for Americanism that acknowledged its natural roots. He wanted humanity to continue to grow, but to recognize that the human ability to reason is not restricted to only our species, and it does not ensure rational reasoning. Whitman wanted to world to reflect upon our surroundings, and look past science and religion into the heart of the earth.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. ""As If the Beasts Spoke”: The Animal/Animist/Animated Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 28.1 (2010): 19-35. Pitt Digital Library. Web. 4 Feb. 2011.