Walt Whitman: Perfume and the Atmosphere – Form and Formlessness

Continued from Walt Whitman: Living the Paradox of Nonduality

Song of Myself continues. In the line preceding the lines that follow, Whitman was loafing, leaning, inviting his soul, observing a spear of summer grass. The sense was of solitude and focus. Now the next passage:

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes …. the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it, and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume …. it has no taste of the distillation …. it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever…. I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

From solitude to crowds, to the smells of life, humanity, and the world, Whitman likes it. He knows that if he lets his attention drop, he could be swallowed up by the concerns of man, worry, consumerism, desperation, and fear. He will not let that happen.

While he says he likes the perfume, he sings that it is the atmosphere that he loves. Forever he speaks from atmosphere itself, not from the crowd of perfumes. He speaks authentically, undisguised, naked. He is mad to know the atmosphere, to touch it and feel it touch him. Notice is now sent that this writing is not going to cater to the multitudes. This is not going to be a hack writing job that will find a place on a shelf with a thousand other perfumes. However, Song of Myself, too, is a perfume.

In the first lines of Song of Myself, Whitman revealed the paradox of nonduality, that we are the same — “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — and that everyone and every thing, every atom, is distinct and individual: “I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.”

We know and see how we are different. Each one of us, each and every thing is a perfume on the shelf. That’s the world. How easy is it to see we are all the same at the very same time that we are different?

Now Whitman is going deeper into the claim that we are the same. Our sameness is the atmosphere. To know the atmosphere is to know the nondual nature of reality. We hear talk of gurus stripping us of our egos, of standing naked before the truth, of shedding the veil that hides the truth. Whitman knows that to contact the atmosphere is to be natural, in nature — “by the bank of the wood,” where water meets soil, where man meets atmosphere — and “undisguised and naked.”

In the lines that follow, in case the reader hasn’t already realized it, Whitman declares the reader “shall possess the origin of all poems,” which is the atmosphere. The poems themselves are perfumes, each one different, each one arising from the same atmosphere, which now the reader, naked and undisguised in the mind, may come to know.

Perfume and atmosphere stand for form and formlessness, respectively. Song of Myself is the revelation that the perfume is the atmosphere, the atmosphere is the perfume, and that they are exactly each other. Joy and celebration are the natural emanations of this realization. Read the first few lines of Song of Myself and identify celebration, sameness, and distinct individuality:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.

Yet Whitman says “The atmosphere is not a perfume.” He must make it clear that the perfume and the atmosphere are a duality in order for the atmosphere to be seen. Whitman must separate the water and the land. He must get the reader to see the two before seeing the one. He addresses contradiction later in Song of Myself in a famous passage beginning, “Do I contradict myself?”

1 thought on “Walt Whitman: Perfume and the Atmosphere – Form and Formlessness

  1. Greg Perry

    Great series of posts on a transcendant poem. Thanks. Whitman was one of my very first teachers. I love that stripping the sense of the ego with the wish to go undisguised and naked. My view of the ‘perfume’ is it’s that sense of the past, of the domesticated, of the whole shebang of duality. He loves it. It could make him drunk (unconscious), but he will not let it. And the atmosphere is the present, is the now, is the transcendental One. It is forever. Great stuff.


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