A Bible Scholar Reads Whitman

our authors Jan 22, 2024

by F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp

How does a biblical scholar come to write a book on Walt Whitman? For me it was in part because Whitman was in my blood (so to speak); in part because his poetry helped me figure out the nature of biblical poetry’s free-verse rhythms; and in part because I came to believe I had something to contribute to the study of Whitman as a biblical scholar. My love for Whitman ultimately is an inheritance from my mom, an English professor who taught Whitman as often as she could. I became reacquainted with Whitman’s poetry as a doctoral student when I picked up a used copy of Leaves of Grass. I was then writing a dissertation on the biblical book of Lamentations, a collection of five poems that lament the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and beginning to think seriously about the nature of biblical Hebrew poetry. In (re)reading Whitman at that time I was immediately struck by the seeming familiarity of his rhythms, use of parallelism, and fondness for parataxis, all aspects reminiscent of biblical poetic style. I returned to Whitman on and off over the years as I continued to explore the nature of biblical verse in my teaching and writing. Eventually, in a chapter on the nonmetrical nature of biblical poetic rhythm I decided to use a brief assessment of Whitman’s free verse as an entree into my own analysis of the free rhythms of biblical verse. My intent was to decenter the place of meter, rhyme schemes, and regular stanza structure in how biblical scholars tended to conceptualize poetry—biblical poetry has none of these features and nonmetrical verse has had a prominent place in English-language poetry since Whitman’s days. As this introductory section grew to more than 80 pages I knew I had to find another outlet for my ideas about Whitman and the Bible. It was then that the germinal idea for this book was born. A happy yet decisive coincidence was also my putting a three-week pro-seminar at the center of a course on translation technique in 2011 as a way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB). I had not previously studied the KJB. As it turns out, the story of the making of the KJB is fascinating, especially when its 16th-century predecessors are also folded in, including those first translations of William Tyndale, the stylistic genius behind so much of the KJB’s adored language. And it is a style that would become consequential for so many writers of English, including Walt Whitman.

The general topic of Whitman and the English Bible is one of the older preoccupations of Whitman scholarship. Divine Style focuses specifically on the question of style, Whitman’s poetic style, and is framed explicitly from the perspective of a biblical scholar. I leverage the field-specific knowledge of a biblicist in querying what role the KJB—the version of the English Bible Whitman read and used—played in the evolution of Whitman’s mature poetic style. No Hebrew Bible scholar can read Leaves and fail to hear and feel its familiar rhythms, style, and even, at times, its unique manner of phrasing. My study gives these impressions precise articulation and illustration. The center of attention is the immediate run-up to the 1855 Leaves and the general period of the first three editions of Whitman’s remarkable book. My intent is to press the idea that the KJB’s influence was consequential for many of the leading elements of Whitman’s mature style. In anticipation of the conclusions reached and stated most positively, those aspects most reminiscent of the English Bible—Whitman’s signature long lines, the prevalence of parallelism and the “free” rhythms it helps create, his prosiness and tendency towards parataxis, aspects of diction and phrasing, and the decidedly lyrical bent of the entire project—are all characteristics of the style that begins to emerge in the immediate run-up to the 1855 Leaves and come into full bloom in that volume (and the succeeding two editions ), but which are either entirely absent or not prominent in Whitman’s earlier writings (prose and poetry). And what is more, in almost every instance, as far as I can tell, what Whitman takes from the Bible he reshapes, recasts, extends, molds, modifies—even contorts and warps, such that it becomes his own. That is, this is the kind of collaging that M. Miller notes is “essential” to Whitman’s “writing process,” and thus by its nature such taking—in many instances at least—often requires the sense and sensibility of a Hebraist for its detection and (fuller) appreciation. Whitman’s use of the English Bible cannot of its own fully account for the genius of his mature style but it seems to me to be an impactful force in shaping key aspects of that style. Or put more provocatively, it is hard to imagine Whitman evolving the poetic style that typifies the early Leaves absent the mediating impress of the King James Bible.

In many ways this is a straightforward literary-critical piece of scholarship. How I handle texts, the mode of close reading I employ, my attention to historical context (of Whitman, of the KJB, of the underlying biblical texts), and the kinds of arguments I make will all be familiar to literary critics and comparativists. However, in one respect it is totally a product of the digital turn in the humanities. Twenty years ago it would have been extremely difficult for a non-specialist like myself to undertake a project like this one. The advent of digital repositories like the Walt Whitman Archive and the ever-increasing availability of journals and monographs in digital or online formats has made possible fully interdisciplinary projects like this. What I have accomplished correlates directly with the increase in accessibility enabled by the use of new digital technologies. This digital turn has been doubly beneficial for me. Over the course of the project, as a result of a degenerative eye disease, I have lost my ability to read print and have become fully dependent on digital mediation for access to both primary and secondary sources. In this way, the project is both a manifestation of digital methodologies, and it is a testament to the way that digital technologies make scholarship accessible for people with disabilities. Indeed, the opportunity to publish with Open Book Publishers, a publisher with commitments to Open Access publishing, publishing high quality scholarship, and exploring how digital technologies can expand and enhance the academic monograph, is hugely appealing to me precisely because anyone interested in the topic, including especially people like me with print disabilities, will be able to access my work.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats below.

Divine Style: Walt Whitman and the King James Bible
Dobbs-Allsopp, Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, explicitly approaches Whitman from the perspective of a biblical scholar. Utilising his wealth of expertise in this field, he constructs a compelling, erudite and methodical argument for the King James Bible’s importance in…

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