Sunday Science Poem: Outward Exploration and Our Inner Passage to India

Walt Whitman’s “Passage to India” (1871)

ColombusMapWhat does our drive to explore and discover tell us about our inner landscape?

Walt Whitman’s poem “Passage to India” takes as its launching point three astoundingly ambitious projects to connect the world in the mid-19th Century: the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Suez Canal, and the U.S. transcontinental railroad. These are “the great achievements of the present,” but to understand their full meaning, Whitman tells us we need to turn to the past – to the dreams and aspirations of earlier explorers and visionaries, who launched us into the present, and whose restlessness tells us about our own psychic composition.

The past shows us that humans have always been dissatisfied with boundaries, “Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,/ With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts”: prehistoric humans expanding out of Africa into Asia and Europe; following mammoths over the frozen Siberian tundra; trekking across to what is now Alaska and down the entire Western Hemisphere; sailing to remote Pacific Islands in what to us seem like insanely inadequate vessels that are are little more than rafts. Are these external explorations a manifestation of our struggles with some unexplored internal landscape?

By the late 1860’s the seas had all been crossed, the North American Continent could now be traversed by anyone who purchased a ticket, and news could be transmitted almost instantaneously across the Atlantic. So now what? Whitman asks, “Who shall soothe these feverish children?/ Who justify these restless explorations?” This is where the poet comes in, as a messianic figure to take us along the passage to the India of our soul, and to reconcile our scientific achievements with the motive, psychic force behind our imaginations.

(An afterthought: What does our failure to use science to solve certain problems tell us about our inner demons?)

To whet your appetite, below are four of the nine sections of the poem. Read the whole thing at the Whitman Archive.

Passage to India
Singing my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World the east the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann'd,
The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires;
Yet first to sound, and ever sound, the cry with thee O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!

The Past—the dark unfathom'd retrospect!
The teeming gulf—the sleepers and the shadows!
The past—the infinite greatness of the past!
For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?
(As a projectile form'd, impell'd, passing a certain line, still keeps on, 
So the present, utterly form'd, impell'd by the past.)

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.

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Cover'd all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless 
         stars above, 
Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts, 
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and 
          Whither O mocking life?

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a 
         throb to answer ours, 
Cold earth, the place of graves.)

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.

After the seas are all cross'd, (as they seem already cross'd,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish'd their 
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the 
         geologist, ethnologist, 
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Then not your deeds only O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, 
         shall be justified, 
All these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth'd,
All affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told,
All these separations and gaps shall be taken up and hook'd and 
         link'd together, 
The whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth, shall be 
         completely justified, 
Trinitas divine shall be gloriously accomplish'd and compacted by 
         the true son of God, the poet, 
(He shall indeed pass the straits and conquer the mountains,
He shall double the cape of Good Hope to some purpose,)
Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more,
The true son of God shall absolutely fuse them.

Passage to more than India!
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?
O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those?
Disportest thou on waters such as those?
Soundest below the Sanscrit and the Vedas?
Then have thy bent unleash'd.

Passage to you, your shores, ye aged fierce enigmas!
Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems!
You, strew'd with the wrecks of skeletons, that, living, never 
         reach'd you. 

Passage to more than India!
O secret of the earth and sky!
Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers!
Of you O woods and fields! of you strong mountains of my land!
Of you O prairies! of you gray rocks!
O morning red! O clouds! O rain and snows!
O day and night, passage to you!

O sun and moon and all you stars! Sirius and Jupiter!
Passage to you!

Passage, immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!

Image: Christopher Columbus’ map, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, via the Wikimedia Commons.

All of the Finch and Pea Sunday Science Poem posts can be found here.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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