Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman



Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: 1819-1892

Born in Long Island, NY; son of farmer turned builder who moved family to Brooklyn; eight brothers and sisters (names like George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson) – sense of self bound up with America. 

Largely self-educated.  Served as printer’s apprentice, engaged in local politics, taught for a few years in LI schools.  Edited papers (lost job over takes on slavery, Mexican War, territorial expansion, etc.). 

Worked as a “wound-dresser” during the Civil War – visiting dying and wounded soldiers. 

1873: paralytic stroke – never really recovers completely; is an invalid for many of his later years, but begins to enjoy a reputation as “the good gray poet.”

Publication of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855 marked a revolutionary departure in American literature (including his formless free-verse).  Called himself a poet of the common man, writing a new kind of poetry – fundamentally American.  Publishes 6 different editions of LoG from 1855-1881.  Over 400 poems over the different editions.

“He was the poet not only of Darwinian evolution, but of the city and the crowd, science and the machine.  Presenting himself as the model democrat who spoke as and for rather than apart from the people, Whitman’s poet was a breaker of bounds: he was female and male, farmer and factory worker, prostitute and slave, citizen of America and citizen of the world” (2846 in Heath Intro by Besty Erkilla).

Poet of the body and the soul.

Poems talk about love between men as a way to understand democracy and the national crisis. Sees love as a way to heal the nation. 

Critical Reception: Early reviews: “poetry of barbarism,” should “not be read aloud to a mixed audience,” “noxious weeds,” “spasmodic idiocy,” “a mass of stupid filth” (from Concise Anthology).

Emerson: “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass.  I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start” (from Concise Anthology).

Whittier: “loose, lurid, and impious” – threw it in the fire!

By 1870s, his critical reputation started to grow – now acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of all time.


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The new era of America:
Walt Whitman

"Times-Democrat Mr. Whitman's muse is at once indecent and ugly, lascivious and gawky, lubricious and coarse." (Lafcaido Hearn)
Walt Whitman, a Cosmos, of Manhattan the son,                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and                                                                                                                                                                                                               breeding,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      No sentimentalist, no stander above men and                                                                                                                                                                                                                    women or apart from them,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      No more modest than immodest.
Walt Whitman : Song of Myself
When having to think about the philosophy of Americanness, who else could come to one's mind other than Walt Whitman. One of the most read, most enjoyable writers of American Literature so much debated and gossiped about, preceding his own folk's and the world's age by light-years ahead, throwing himself in the face of his contemporary readers, at last knocking down all the remains of the long-suffered puritan establishments and values that the country has carried as a burden for far too long. One simply can not exclude Whitman without having to make a comment about his poetry and art - he simply cannot be ignored, for he and his art does not allow that.
The future poet of democracy was born near Huntington, Long Island, on the last day of May, 1819, and was named for his father, Walter Whitman, a local farmer and, later, carpenter and builder. There must have been some hereditary fault in the family, for two of his brothers were mentally defective and one of his sisters was decidedly queer. Walt himself, however, was growing strong, well-developed and handsome, with a remarkable mind and a rather unusual personality.
The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1824 and soon afterward Walt went to school, but left it at the age of twelve to become a printer's apprentice. A voracious reader, he took also to writing, which occupation remained, in various forms, permanent with him. Both in style and content of writing he was unorthodox, and consequently difficult to appreciate and easy to misunderstand. Anyway, the publishers and editors he worked for found him too individualistic, rather unsociable, and stubbornly unwilling to get adjusted to ordinary requirements of literary work  - (which is probably true). He did not keep his jobs for long.
Whitman finally succeeded in getting a better position, that of editor of the conservative Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1846-1848), then lost it for advocating abolitionism, only to be invited for the same anti-slavery views to take charge of the Brooklyn Daily Freeman.
Just before he accepted the latter position, however, Whitman made a trip to New Orleans, to do some editorial work, but suffered a severe mental disturbance, as a result of which his personality underwent a marked change, and he begun to spend much time wandering about, associating and conversing with the great variety of 'simple' people. As an individual, he became lonesome, keeping company with few men and hardly any women at all. But as a poet and thinker, he matured and deepened.
In 1855 he set to type his own great book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, a product of many years' work, which he described as the "odoriferous classic" which celebrates "the proletarians who make the world almost uninhabitable by their vulgarity", but it was little appreciated by the public and much criticized, possibly because it was written in still unfashionable free verse and too profound for its readers. Never the less, he was immediately recognized for his talent by those who count:
"I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which must yet have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
During the Civil War, Whitman came to Washington, D.C., as a war correspondent and stayed to live in the national capital as a government clerk. In his spare time he worked on his book of social philosophy, Democratic Vistas (1871), in which he eloquently expressed his pride in the American past and hope for the American future.
In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke, which left him increasingly incapacitated, and the death of his mother, whom he adored, was a further painful blow. The remaining years of his life were spent in Camen, N.J., where he died on March 26, 1892.

          If we are to approach Whitman's philosophy we have to rely on two basic sources: on his poetry, and his theoretical writings, mainly criticism - the most important of the latter; Democratic Vistas. Our task is not very simple for the two are often contradictory, not at all coherent and carry a wide range of possible interpretations. We have what Lawrence rightly suggests:
"Whitman is like a human document, or a wonderful treatise in human self revelation. It is neither art nor religion nor truth: Just a self revelation of a man who could not live, and so had to write himself." (D.H. Lawrence)
No poet of any century has exerted as great an influence on the development of modern poetry as Whitman did. Despite the oneness between poetry and the language in which it is created - the frequently untranslatable element in poetry - Whitman's poetic influence has ranged far beyond the English-language poets. As Waldo Frank pointed out in the feature article of The New York Times Book Review on the 100th anniversary of the first edition of the 'Leaves of Grass':
"In the century since the first, slim, privately printed volume of Leaves of Grass appeared, Walt Whitman has become throughout the world America's most widely read, most deeply discussed poet. But the hundred years have not removed the ambiguities of his place in his own country. (...) By a consensus of intellectual opinion, he is our greatest poet, yet the fashionable critics and most of the biographers do not understand him, and in many cases actually dislike him."
Actually it is the revolutionary phenomenon of Whitman in American literature and the revolutionary ferment that still alive in his works to which American conservatism has not been able to reconcile itself. The literary conservatives, slowly and reluctantly, have accepted isolated parts of Whitman (and much of the interpretive literature on him is an attempt to whittle him down to his least vital parts) but it is the whole Whitman that they are afraid of, the Whitman who at one and the same time liberated American senses and sensibilities from the deep freeze of Puritanism, sang the beauty of everyday things and work, brought democracy and the common people into poetry, hailed the working people as the most important force in society, greeted the revolutionary events and developments of his time, dedicated himself to international comradeship, the liberty of nations and the affirmation of the human bonds that link the peoples of the entire globe, who loved and mocked his country, and praised the people and himself at the same time.
Skimming Whitman and discarding much of his cream is, unfortunately, was an all too common phenomenon until the latter times. (See Mark Van Doren, Karl Shapiro, etc.) The battle in American literature for the acceptance of Whitman has a long tradition. Today important forces in American literature unequivocally identify themselves with the Whitman tradition and accept him fully without closing their eyes to his 'weaknesses' and contradictions which are outweighed a hundred times over by the strength and depth that he brought to American and world literature.
"Only the great can afford to be ludicrous, and to share in the laughter on which experience floats. (...) In Walt Whitman's verse, too, we must learn to accept the ridiculous as well as the sublime, and to cherish the note of absurdity as the mark of genius" (Maxwell Geismar)
Whitman, as he himself recognized, was an artist of many contradictions - therefore we must carefully observe him and explore the rich, complex and many-faced world of Walt Whitman the poet, the man, the critic and political thinker. As a pioneer of the modern he is not always successful even in his mode of expression. He wrote some of the most magnificent lines of poetry as well as some of the clumsiest. Materialism and idealism, realism and romanticism, strains of mysticism contend with each other in his works, presenting us with a very complex, manifold philosophy of America, Americanness and ars-poetica that is often characterized as the "poetry of democracy", but more than that, it is the true liberation of the individual self, of all restrictions being political, racial, moral or spiritual.
"In his very rejection of art Walt Whitman is an artist. He tried to produce a certain effect by certain means and he succeeded. . . . He stands apart, and the chief value of his work is in its prophecy, not in its performance. He has begun a prelude to larger themes. He is the herald to a new era. As a man he is the precursor of a fresh type. He is a factor in the heroic and spiritual evolution of the human being. If Poetry has passed him by, Philosophy will take note of him."
(Oscar Wilde)
The central point of Whitman's philosophy lay in his faith in the powers of Man. Man is the source of all potential goodness, beauty and truth; indeed, he and God partake of the same nature. But to develop his creative inclinations, man needs freedom, freedom open to all, built on equality, tolerance, and self-respect. Each individual should be given a full opportunity to use freedom and prepared for it by the public acting in collaboration with the forces of law. This, in essence, was Whitman's idea of democracy.
"I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences...                                                                      ...the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the states, the ever-over-reaching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them."
Walt Whitman : Democratic Vistas
Democracy. Democracy as the term to signify infinite freedom, yet not totally unleashed, but kept to an order, the order of rightness. This is guaranteed by the taken for granted preposition; man is potentially good, therefore his freedom can only be used for good. Man is the equivalent force that God is, freed upon the Earth - America - the place of ultimate freedom and choice, the place where this new idea of "democracy" will emerge, where man is liberated of all conventions and bounding laws that have so far restricted them in their supreme free will.
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in                                        my own face in the glass,                                          I find letters from God dropt in the street, and                      every one is sign'd by God's name.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          And I leave them where they are, for I know that                       wheresoe'er I go,                                                    Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
Walt Whitman : Song of Myself
Whitman goes beyond establishing the universal idea of "democracy" - he proclaims himself the representative person of this new image. He identifies himself with freedom, with God, with limitless power. "I'm full of myself", as he has put it. Moreover he wants to have everything; flesh, food, earth, universe, men and women, everything. Even more - he is everything there is and everything there is not.
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,                                        And what I assume you shall assume,                                                                                                                                                                                                                            For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." (...)
Walt Whitman : Song of Myself
"Be composed-be at ease with me - I am Walt Whitman,                                                                                                                                                                                                            liberal and lusty as Nature,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,                                                                                                                                                                                                                Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you                                                                                                                                                                                                                  and the leaves to rustle for you,                                                                                                                                                                                                                              do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you."
Walt Whitman : To a Common Prostitute
"Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever                                                                                                                                                                                                               I touch and am touched from;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer,                                                                                                                                                                                                         This head is more than churches and bibles or creeds...                                                                                                                                                                                                        I dote on myself... there is that lot of me, and all so luscious..."
Walt Whitman : Song of Myself
In his essay on Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence wrote of, "This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time. All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe." Lawrence is again right in observing the basic pattern of the style that Whitman created, and therefore referred to as the founder of modernism. His usage of free-verse goes beyond the limits of the free-verse and is often called "the maker of great lists". He creates poems that consist of words related to one certain idea, presented in a kind of list, the only coherence making it a poem is the meaning and connection behind the words. Poetry for him is not a distinguished form of art. Everything is poetry and everything is himself. In the preface to the Leaves of Grass (1855) he claims: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Poetry that is country, politics, philosophy, feeling, soul, body and sex. Everything is invincible, lust for anything possible. There is only one law: preeminent freedom.
"Sex contains all, bodies, souls,                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,                                                                                                                                                                                                Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,                                                                                                                                                                                       All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth."                                                                                                                                                                (...)
Walt Whitman : A Woman Waits for Me
"The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,                                                                                                                                                                           It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,                                                                                                                                                                                                              I will go out to the bank by the wood and become undistinguished and naked,                                                                                                                                                                                    I am mad for it to be in contact with me..."
Walt Whitman : Song of Myself
He is a missionary for humanity, to bring the new Testament of "democracy", of equality, tolerance, self-respect, and freedom open to all. Poetry is a mission, the mission of delivering the message to the people, the people of the world. Poetry is America, therefore it is America and the people of America, who are the new prophets of the forecoming era. It is them who have the possibility to change for the better, to become utmost gods of independence.                    
"Their manners, speech, dress, friendships, - the freshness and candor of their physiognomy-the picturesque looseness of their carriage - their deathless attachment to freedom - their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean - the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states - the fierceness of their roused resentment - their curiosity and welcome of novelty - their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy - their susceptibility to a slight -the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors - the fluency of their speech - their delight in music, a sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul - their good temper and open-handedness - the terrible significance of their elections, the President's taking off his hat to them, not they to him - these too are unrhymed poetry.  It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it."
Walt Whitman : Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855).
For conclusion we can summarize that Walt Whitman is a great reformist of his own country as well as the world itself, for he presented us with the idea of absolute freedom, or as he liked to call it - 'democracy'. His philosophy expressed through his art and poetry as well as through his theoretical writings begun a new era in America, and gradually in the whole world. His Americanness lies in his belief of mankind being principally good, and their natural condition being free and equal. Through this he not only made a philosophical and political argument, but made the individual a central objective free of sex, nationality, color, race and religion. His individuality is not an egoism, but an objective representative of the democratic idea carried to its uppermost limit. The other representative is his country, America, which is raised above all others, for the task of implementation is put forward to it. The American people are therefore the possible prophets who can put this to reality. Freedom of thoughts, speech, action and love.
The world is one big whole of equal elements, which can be brought together by the individual in himself. The unity of the universe is the furthest goal of the self, through self-respect and self-liberation.
"One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse."
Walt Whitman : One's-Self I Sing


American Philosophy. edited by Ralph B. Winn [Greenwood Press, Westport, 1977].
Walt Whitman - The Complete Poems. edited by Francis Murphy [Penguin Books, London, 1989].
Walt Whitman - Poetry and Prose. edited by Abe Capek [Seven Seas Publishers, Berlin, 1963].
AMERICAN AUTHORS 1600-1900 A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature . edited by Stanley J. Kunitz & Howard Haycraft [The H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 1977].
The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. [licensed from Columbia University Press, 1993]. in Microsoft Bookshelf. (PC CD-ROM) 

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), U.S. journalist, author. New Orleans Times-Democrat (30 July 1882), of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Caedmon recordings reproduced by arrangement with Harper Collins Publishers.

Walt Whitman (1819-92) :  Song of Myself ; sct. 24, in Leaves of Grass (1855).

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher. Letter, 21 July 1855, on the appearance of Leaves of Grass. The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Caedmon recordings reproduced by arrangement with Harper Collins Publishers.

Compare with: AMERICAN AUTHORS ; A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature .

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), British author. Letter, 22 Dec. 1913 (published in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol. 2, ed. by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, 1981). The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Caedmon recordings reproduced by arrangement with Harper Collins Publishers.

In Walt Whitman; Poetry and Prose (p.17.)

Maxwell Geismar in his Introduction in The Whitman Reader . [Pocket Books, NY, 1955]

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Anglo-Irish playwright, author. Review of Whitman, November Boughs, in Pall Mall Gazette (London, 25 Jan. 1889). The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Walt Whitman : Song of Myself  sct. 48., in Leaves of Grass (1855)

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), British author. - Under the title Walt Whitman. The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright   1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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Biography of Walt Whitman

            One of the people who changed poetry forever was Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman admired people who worked and wrote poems about them. Walt also loved “different” in his poems, and he also talked about war too. Walt changed poetry because he added so much detail, and thought to his poems.
Walt Whitman was born at West Hills, Long Island, New York on May 31, 1819. Walt grew up with his seven brothers and sisters along with his mom, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and dad, Walter Whitman. Walt was the second oldest out of his 7 brothers and sisters. When Walt was four years old, he and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York. When he was old enough to attend private school, he went. Walt was in private school for 6 years, and then he stopped school at age 11 to get a job. Walt was forced to work in a law office at 11 to raise money for the family. After working in a law office, Walt got transferred to work at a Library. After he was fired from the Library he went to work in a physician’s office. Walt finally went to work as an apprentice at a newspaper, setting type.
At Walt Whitman’s mid- teens, he began writing short pieces for the newspaper for a decent amount of money. After his mid-teens Walt began a literary career as a journalist, writing about books, operas, and plays. With real-estate problems, Walt’s dad had to move back to Long Island, but Walt stayed in Brooklyn. Soon after Walt Whitman moved back to Long Island with his family and became a schoolteacher for work. In 1841 Walt was back in New York working as a compositor and writing stories for all different papers. Walt wrote many papers on the Union and the Civil War. Walt Whitman started working on his most famous book, a poetry collection, Leaves of Grass in 1855, but soon after his father, Walter Whitman died days after he published on July 11, 1855. Soon after Walt’s dad died, Walt suffered great financial difficulty because he had to raise his family since.
Walt’s brother joined the Civil War, and Walt wanted to join also, but he couldn’t because he was too old. Whitman became a volunteer nurse after he found out his brother was hurt in the Civil War. Walt visited hospitals and took care of all the men that were injured. Walt suffered a stroke in 1873, but fortunately he didn’t die. Walt soon moved to Camden, New Jersey and died on March 26, 1892 and was the age of 72.
In conclusion Walt Whitman was a great man. Walt had no children or wife, but had a great life with the success of his poems. Walt admired President Abraham Lincoln and also admired the brave soldiers in the Civil War. Walt was a great poet and he changed poetry forever.


Aboard at a Ship’s Helm


Aboard at a ship's helm,
A young steersman steering with care.
Through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing,
An ocean-bell--O a warning bell, rock'd by the waves.
O you give good notice indeed, you bell by the sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.
For as on the alert O steersman, you mind the loud admonition,
The bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds
away gayly and safe.

But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard the ship!
Ship of the body, ship of the soul, voyaging, voyaging, voyaging.                              
Summary of Aboard at a Ship’s Helm


The poem Aboard at a Ship’s Helm is about a boy that is steering with care on a ship’s helm. He goes through fog and he hears the wave crashing like an ocean bell. The steering boy gives good notice to the warning bell that is ringing on the sea-reef. The bell is warning the boy from another ship or danger. The steersman doesn’t mind the bell and escapes from the danger. The boy turns the bows and goes at tacking speeds away from the danger. The ship is guiding the boy through life, but the ship is just another part of the boys adventure. There can be many more adventures in life than just a dangerous ship ride.


In the poem Aboard at a Ship’s Helm, Walt Whitman didn’t give any rhyme pattern. This poem is an analogy of a boy and a ship, and Whitman compares them together like a boy above a ship like the boys everlasting soul. Walt Whitman also gives several alliterations like sea-reef’s ringing, ringing, ringing. Through the whole poem, Walt Whitman talks about the boy, saying that the danger from the ship’s voyage is everlasting in the boy’s soul, and that there are many hazards in the sea, but at least the ringing bell can give a caution.


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Walt Whitman


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Walt Whitman