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Walt Whitman

A uniquely American poet, journalist, and essayist, Walt Whitman is best known for his lyrical Leaves of Grass (1855), which was periodically banned for being "indecent," as well as for the equally powerfully moving poems, I Sing the Body Electric and Song of Myself.  Visionary for incorporating natural speech patterns into his poetry while ignoring conventional rhyme and meter, Whitman generated poetry whose overall effect is lilting and melodic. 

Harold Bloom wrote in The Western Canon (1994) that "no Western poet, in the past century and half, not even Browning or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson."

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and
knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all men ever born are also my brothers... and the
women my sisters and lovers. - Song of Myself

Born to a dysfunctional family in Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819, Whitman lived for a while in an idyllic farmhouse overlooking the sea.  His father was a Quaker carpenter and slave owner who was a borderline alcoholic.  His mother was a descendant of Dutch farmers. 

While still a child, the family moved to Brooklyn, where they enrolled Whitman in school.  He particularly enjoyed reading the classics in his youth and was inspired by writers such as Goethe, Hegel, Carlyle, and Emerson.  At the age of 13, he left school to become an apprentice to a printer, where he learned typesetting.  By the age of 16, he was teaching at a country school and working as a journeyman printer.  He contributed to the Democratic Review before he was twenty-one years old.

At thirty, Whitman traveled through the western United States, taking a year off to edit a newspaper in New Orleans.  Returning home, he took up his father's trade of carpentry before wanderlust struck again, and he moved to New York.  There, he was overwhelmed by the rapid growth of the city in all its glory.  He wanted to pay homage to the exuberance he felt inside with a new kind of poetry more in keeping with mankind's new faith, hopeful expectations, and energies.  

In vain were nails driven through my hands.
I remember my crucifixion and bloody coronation.
I remember the mockers and the buffeting insults
The sepulchre and the white linen have yielded me up
I am alive in New York and San Francisco,
Again I tread the streets after two thousand years. - Song of Myself

The first edition of Whitman's masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, appeared in July 1855 at the poet's own expense.  He also set the type for it.  The poem was autobiographical.  That same year, Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, another great American epic, was published.  The third edition of Leaves was published during Whitman's wandering years in 1860.  It was greeted with warm appreciation.

Although Whitman's early work was far from popular, Ralph Waldo Emerson was among the poet's staunchest early admirers.  He found Leaves particularly inspiring, writing of the poem in 1855, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."

When Whitman wrote the first edition, he knew little or nothing about mystic eastern philosophy, but in later editions, critics have identified various eastern Indian concepts expressed in his work.  He uses words from the Sanskrit in some of his later poems written after 1858.  And his references show a deepened knowledge of the world's philosophical concepts.

Leaves includes a group of poems entitled 'Calamus,' which has been taken as a reflection of the poet's homosexuality, although according to Whitman they celebrated the "beautiful and sane affection of man for man."  Some sources say that the poet had only one ill-fated attempt at a sexual relationship, most likely homosexual, in the winter of 1859-60.

During the Civil War, Whitman worked for a while as a clerk in Washington, D.C.  When his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, he rushed to his side to care for him, as well as for other sick and disabled soldiers.  The War left its mark on the poet, as well, its influence showing in the prose piece, Memoranda During the War (1875), as well as in the poems published under the title of Drum-Taps (1865).  In Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), Whitman introduced an elegant elegy on President Abraham Lincoln, 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd'.  Another of the poet's most memorable poems about Lincoln, O Captain!  My Captain!, recalls the President's tragic death.

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

In appreciation for Whitman's service during the war, he was given a clerkship in the Department of the Interior, after which he was transferred to the attorney general's office.  There his chief read Leaves and labeled it "indecent."  The poet's work was more warmly received in England, where his admirers included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

While Whitman loved writing poetry, he was forced to give up his strenuous schedule following a paralytic attack in 1873.  At the age of 64, he settled in a little house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent nearly the rest of his life.  He was cared for by a widow whom he had befriended.  His reputation, which was often overshadowed by his outspokenness on sexual matters, began to rise, particularly in England, where Swinburne, Mrs. Gilchrist, and E. Carpenter all praised his artistry.

Although his poems lack much of the standard of traditional poetic measure, Whitman's style is unmistakably his own.  His writings are filled with meaning, beauty, and intrigue.  Underwood says of his work, "Pupils who are accustomed to associate the idea of poetry with regular classic measure in rhyme, or in ten-syllabled blank verse or elastic hexameters, will commence these short and simple prose sentences with surprise, and will wonder how any number of them can form a poem.  But let them read aloud with a mind in sympathy with the picture as it is displayed, and they will find by nature's unmistakable responses, that the author was a poet, and possessed the poet's incommunicable power to touch the heart."

Whitman's final volume of poetry was the "Deathbed" edition of Leaves of Grass, which he prepared in 1891-92.  It concludes with the prose piece, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," in which the poet attempts to explain his life and work. 

Walt Whitman died in Camden on March 26, 1892.

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