When the Suez canal opened in 1869, Walt Whitman wrote "A Passage to India" to celebrate both the engineering achievement and the opportunity to connect to other people and spiritual traditions. This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the playwright Tony Kushner reading an excerpt from "A Passage to India" that explores Whitman's hope in bringing people together.
Read this excerpt from "A Passage to India" at the Poetry Foundation.
In 1869, Walt Whitman saw the opening of the Suez Canal as reason for celebration, for this new passage to India was both a marvel of engineering and an opportunity to connect with the spiritual traditions of faraway lands. His verse argues that there are different ways of knowing—through scientific knowledge and through the wisdom of ancient stories—in its first three lines: "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!" At this point—in part because the sentence's subject and verb have yet to come—the reader doesn't know why the speaker includes myths and fables in this group. But the next seven lines make clear his admiration for these ancient civilizations.
Repetition plays a key role in his praise. Lines four through six start with "the;" the next three lines, and five out of the next six, have "you" as the first or second word; and all of the lines end with punctuation that creates a full stop. The effect—one lush phrase following another—adds emphasis to the celebration of these fables and their mystical power.
By the time the subject and verb of the sentence arrive—"You too I welcome, and fully, the same as the rest"—the speaker's reverence is clear. He welcomes Eastern and African "bibles," "religions," and "temples" as much as Western ones. Whitman's use of the present tense in the stanza's final line, "You too with joy I sing," implicitly compares poetry to song, and after so many longer lines, its monosyllabic simplicity makes the praise even more immediate and joyful.
Whitman uses repetition—repeating first words and ending lines with punctuation—in the next stanza as well. Here, in conversation with his soul, the speaker gives voice to God's purpose for the new passage to India: to bring people together. When "The earth be spann'd, connected by net-work," barriers are erased, love is nurtured, and people evolve. Imagining a peaceful new era, the speaker proclaims:
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.
With his eye fixed on a higher purpose, the speaker addresses all the people who made the canal possible. Just as the Suez Canal links distant parts of the world, Whitman's poetry links both ancient religions and modern technology, God and engineering, and the terminology associated with each. In doing so, he is guiding us, looking into a bright future and extending an invitation that is both tender and challenging.
Read a biography of the poet Walt Whitman at the Poetry Foundation.
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