Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Whitman's A Passage to India

The first part of Whitman's 1871 paean to global connectedness is still inspiring, possibly even more so now with the Internet and with India's technical explosion.
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,
I sound, to commence, the cry, with thee, O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!
The poem is usually linked with:

The opening of the Suez canal (November 1869).
The opening of the transcontinental railroad (May 15, 1869).
The laying of the first usable transatlantic cable (Great Eastern, July 27, 1866).

It would be nicely appropriate if Whitman had also heard about the Porthcurno-Bombay cable, laid in 1870; by extending both ends of the Malta-Alexandria cable, it provided a passage to India for telegraphs as well as ships. Truly this was the beginning of the first global network.

Whitman jumps from the cultural implications of India (as symbolic of ancient civilization and wisdom) into a dream that all this technology is a spiritual hotline into the eternal wisdom of the past. He may yet be strangely right about that. The poem arrives instantly at the brink of astounding ideas, but of course it cannot see further than it sees, and the second half gradually vagues out.



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