Madison Morrison's Web / Particular and Universal


When he met Oscar Wilde for the first time the young William Butler Yeats was astonished. Never before, he reports, had he heard "a man talking with perfect sentences." Yeats had met not a book but a man posing as a book, one who claimed that he never traveled anywhere without Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance. From Wilde, Yeats learned what it is to be singular, how a particular point of view is capable of grasping the universal. We may take from this two lessons: that we are capable of encompassing the universe; but also that the universe may be larger than we think, certainly larger than Oscar Wilde thought. Here we might recall Jean-Paul Sartre's humbling deflation of our ambitions. There is more, he remarks, in a grain of sand than in our conception of the universe. The western preoccupation with particular and universal, it might be noted, is by no means universal.

Both the poet and the philosopher attempt to make sense of experience, each following an appropriate strategy. As the philosopher renders experience through an analytic prism, so the poet creates a synthesizing opticon to project it. Some philosophers, some poets engage in both activities. Lao-zi is both philosophical and poetic, Dante both poetic and philosophical. Each writer diffracts his own experience and by reprojecting it enables others to view their own more clearly. The Italian poet-philosopher and the Chinese philosopher-poet differ in their rhetoric: one is systematic and expansive, the other, fortuitous and cryptic. Yet both regard experience in the same way: as intensely personal and as philosophically meaningful. The work of both, like that of Homer, Valmiki, Shakespeare and Whitman, has nearly universal appeal.

My first essay attempts to answer the question, What is it that lifts Whitman out of his role as American Poet and recasts him as Universal Sage? Surely not any philosophical system, for among western poets he is the first non-Aristotelian. He accomplished something that few other writers ever have. For out of his democratic experience Whitman created a universal language. His incorporation of an exotic system of thought links him with the expatriate Modernists, Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the subjects of my second essay. His intuitive method in this links him with the subjects of my third essay, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. In their rhetoric of personal experience and intercultural exchange all follow Whitman.

Lao-zi's Dao De Jing has proven central to the western reception of Asian thought. My exposition of Daoist principles complements the earlier summary of Pound's Confucian principles, the study of Whitman's Vedantic element and the citation of Buddhist precepts relevant to Modernist poets. Next I turn to the panoply of western culture as represented by the progression of the long poem from Homer to Byron. Philosophy in the form of allegory seems to me essential to the epic. As in those cultures unified by the allegorization of Ramayana, so in ancient Greece and Rome, and the cultures that emerge from them, allegory may be the fundamental means whereby particular experience is rendered universal. Allegory, theology and philosophy are all of a piece. When integrated with profound experience they issue in the highest poetry.

Like the second and third, the final two essays form a pair. Together they bring to conclusion my meditation on particular and universal. The sixth examines the universal in a single national literature, the seventh, the particular, in one of its prominent phases. With Tennyson we return to the question with which we began: How is it that he, like Whitman, in the now universal medium of English, managed to create a universal grammar of particular experience?

My dedication indicates my principal indebtedness, to a former student latterly turned teacher. I should also like to thank Meghmala Tarafdar for help with Sanscrit terms, Fang Po for help with Chinese quotations, and Mowbray Allan for help with the concept of Experience and much else.