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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"indecent." The poet's work was more warmly received in England, where his
admirers included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
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
by his outspokenness on sexual matters, began to rise, particularly in
England, where Swinburne, Mrs. Gilchrist, and E. Carpenter all praised his
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
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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