The poet the world has come to know as the American bard was born Walter Whitman in West Hills, Long Island in New York on May 31, 1819. His mother, Louisa, immigrated from Holland and his father, Walter, from England. Whitman’s father worked mostly with his hands as a carpenter and a housebuilder, trades Whitman himself would pursue early on in his life.
Shortly after Whitman was born, his family moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman would receive his schooling. As a young man, he held various jobs: he set type in a printing office, and he worked as a schoolteacher.
By 1841, Whitman was beginning to focus his career on writing—first in the form of journalism. He became something of an accomplished journalist in his own right, reporting for and editing several newspapers and periodicals. Bettina Knapp notes that Whitman completed a “temperance novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, in 1842 to secure funds for Leaves of Grass. He later disavowed this novel due to its poor quality.” It was then, after a brief occupation as a carpenter, that Whitman finally determined to dedicate his time to writing poetry, though he had begun to formulate ideas about what a new American literature would look like much earlier. His vision stems, in part, from his experiences during a trip across America that he undertook in 1848. As he traveled from New York to Louisiana, Whitman was deeply affected by the people and places he saw. These images became a collage of America and a source for his writing.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a lifespan of several editions and 37 years, for Whitman was constantly in the act of revising and augmenting his collection of poems, finally conceiving of it as a “single poem.” Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, a thin volume of a dozen poems. By the final impression in 1891–1892 (sanctioned the “deathbed” edition), the volume had expanded into the text we study today.
The earlier editions (1855, 1856, and 1860) announce the arrival of a brand new voice in American literature and represent Whitman’s experimentation with form and subject matter in poetry. In his work, Whitman ignores many poetic conventions in order to achieve his purpose of creating something new in American letters. For example, Whitman rarely follows a patterned rhyme scheme, and he is not concerned with any regularity of meter; indeed, his poetry is written in free verse, a style of writing that is appropriate to Whitman’s subject matter.
The later editions (1867, 1871, and 1881) are characterized by Whitman’s experiences while caring for the wounded during the Civil War and his response to the assassination of President Lincoln. As Whitman kept crafting the editions of his masterpiece, he made extensive revisions, including: adding new poems, retitling poems, reshuffling the order in which the poems appear, deleting or reworking lines in various poems, dropping several poems, and refashioning punctuation.
In an essay written late in his life, entitled “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman seems surprised by what he has accomplished:
My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to ’80—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull’d enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future!
Indeed, Leaves of Grass grows as America changes, ever evolving with the landscape, politics, and vibrant life in America, which proved to be an endless source of material for the poet who was gifted with an unusual sensitivity to his surroundings.
Whitman was committed to the role he envisioned for himself among Americans. He was a poet, a seer, a spiritualist, and a lover—above all, straightforward and full of life. Though he is often perceived to be too much of an egoist, Whitman means for his bold declarations of self love to be reflective of a credo for all Americans. Writing about himself in the third person, Whitman explains his goal:
His whole work, his life, manners, friendships, writings, all have among their leading purposes an evident purpose to stamp a new type of character, namely his own, and indelibly fix it and publish it, not for a model but an illustration, for the present and future of American letters and American young men.
He serves as an “illustration” of what an American was then and what an American could be; his poetry forms a blueprint for the potential successes and failures of Americans in the future.
Though in “No Labor Saving Machine,” Whitman writes as if he feels obliged to concede that all he contributes to America are a few simple poems, most scholars and readers argue that he was more of an inventor than he presumed to be. Van Wyck Brooks, for example, explains how Whitman “precipitated the American character”:
All those things that had been separate, self-sufficient, incoordinate—action, theory, idealism, business—he cast into a crucible; and they emerged, harmonious and molten, in a fresh democratic ideal, based upon the whole personality.
Whitman was just as much of an innovator through his poetry as any of the inventors of the time. His work was not only his poetry in Leaves of Grass, but also includes, more importantly, his shaping of the national character. Many consider his accomplishment to be the invention of a new kind of person: free, strong, vocal, at ease with himself, learned yet unbiased against the illiterate, proud, friendly, and honest—in short, American. In creating his book of poetry, Whitman also created himself for the American people.
Walt Whitman died in his home in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26, 1892. He is noted for his daring experimentation and his steadfast belief in democratic principles.
Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 and contained only twelve poems. Whitman continued to add to and revise his collection over the next 30 years. Over the years, Whitman published a number of volumes of Leaves of Grass as he wrote more poems and increased the collection. He explores many issues and themes in his work, and it is impossible to breifly summarize the entire work here.
These eNotes attempt to describe and analyze many of Whitman’s major poems. The entire “deathbed” edition of Whitman’s work contains over 400 poems. While it is not possible to discuss every poem, a fair sampling is offered here. The oganization of this MaxNotes follows the sections of the Norton edition of Leaves of Grass. Poems from each section are included for analysis and discussion.
Estimated Reading Time
The Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass is 707 pages long and includes the entire “deathbed” collection of almost 400 poems along with an assortment of uncollected poems and manuscript fragments. Much of the language is dated, and Whitman uses some unusual and unique images, words, sentences, and even spelling throughout the text. It may be difficult for readers to fully comprehend the entire collection, a section, or even one poem during a first reading.
The average reader might want to divide his or her reading time into many sessions of two to three hours, focusing on a few poems in each section during each session. It should be noted here that Whitman spent over 30 years writing and revising Leaves of Grass. The reader should plan to spend a considerable amount of time with each poem and/or section of the book.
Summary (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Brought up in a family with Deistic and Quaker leanings, the second oldest of eight children, Walt Whitman never belonged to a church but attended Sunday school at times and was surrounded by the religious and political foment of antebellum America at home and during an apprenticeship in the publishing trade. A journalist, editor, and publisher in early adulthood, he blended the styles of journalism and the King James Bible to develop a long-lined free verse that coheres as biblical poetry does: with rhythmic phrasing and repetitive syntactic strategies (such as anaphora).
Whitman envisioned his book as a new bible for the United States, one that would give the people a sustaining literature of religious love, ecstasy, faith, and common values that would define, guide, and elevate a national people to greatness. The aim to write a new bible for the United States, “the new Israel,” was common in the antebellum decades; however, it was Whitman’s book that achieved the range and rhythms of American voices and ideals in powerful and unique poetry that viewed the whole of individual and national life as spiritual.
Although a lyrical expression of the self’s experience, Leaves of Grass as a whole strives to function as an epic. In an essay, “The Bible as Poetry,” Whitman located the Bible as the center of his own art for its “naturally religious poetry” that, without artificiality, celebrated a people’s greatness and contained the whole of the people’s shared life history, psychological development, strong forthright heroes, honest and direct emotion, sensuality, friendship, “the fervent kiss,” ecstasy, faith, and mortality.
The “I” of many of the poems accomplishes democratic individuality within the political body by shifting fluidly from a single consciousness to a representative American to America itself. The speaker wanders about the cities and lands, looking in on scenes and often imaginatively becoming a “representative” person (for example, a carpenter, hunter, slave, slave auctioneer). People and objects in nature are perceived through eyes of intimate love as divine. Throughout, the “I” and the United States are divine—creative, loving,...
(The entire section is 904 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
“America” is the first word of Walt Whitman’s 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, but this most American of poetic achievements is also the most universal. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” Whitman says, a belief that informs Leaves of Grass and led Whitman to redefine “poem” in such a way as to change forever the face of poetry.
Whitman paid for the publication of the first version of Leaves of Grass and even set some of the type himself. It is a slim volume, containing a preface and twelve poems, each several pages in length, sprawling across the pages, and looking quite unlike the neatly rhymed and metered poems then popular with readers. Whitman...
(The entire section is 1861 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Inscriptions: Summary and Analysis
One’s-Self I Sing - Summary
Inscriptions begins with the poem One’s-Self I Sing, a celebration of “The Modern Man.” Whitman begins by declaring: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,/Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” He continues his salute to both men and women (“the female equally with the male I sing”), and he describes human life as “immense in passion, pulse, and power.”
In Cabin’d Ships at Sea - Summary
Whitman depicts a sailing ship at sea (“joyous full of faith, spreading white sails”), and then goes on to compare his book of poems to a ship, calling it “a lone bark cleaving the ether …,” and his readers mariners on a...
(The entire section is 939 words.)
Song of Myself: Summary and Analysis
One of the major poems of the collection, Song of Myself, is divided into 52 separate sections and is comprised of 1,346 lines. In Song of Myself, Whitman pays tribute to himself and his readers (“I celebrate myself and sing myself…”) as he depicts the physical, emotional, and spiritual world around him. The poem begins with Whitman describing himself as he “loafes” or relaxes contentedly, “observing a spear of summer grass.” The poet delights in his environment, fully appreciating the sights, sounds, and smells that surround him. He tells his readers that in spite of the difficulties and distress human beings experience, the world and all life is, and always will be, perfect. Hard...
(The entire section is 1189 words.)
Children of Adam: Summary and Analysis
To the Garden the World - Summary
In many ways, the few lines of this first poem belonging to Children of Adam establish the many themes Whitman writes about throughout the whole of the cluster: the paradise of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the meaningfulness of procreation, an admiration for the human body—male and female, and a celebration of physical love between men and women.
The opening line, “To the garden the world anew ascending,” immediately presents Whitman’s vision of rebirth. This is a return to the Garden of Eden to experience “anew” all its passionate innocence and abundant splendor, as well as its revelry in the paradise of self fulfilling physical love between men and...
(The entire section is 2630 words.)
Calamus: Summary and Analysis
In Paths Untrodden - Summary
The opening poem of the Calamus cluster in Leaves of Grass establishes what the collection will be about: affection between men. Whitman plainly declares that he is “Resolv’d to sing no songs to day but those of manly attachment.” Indeed, he identifies his specific subject matter as “all who are or have been young men,” and he intends to “celebrate the need of comrades.” The poem also establishes the difficulty of choosing such a subject; in order to do so, Whitman must find himself “Escaped from the life that exhibits itself, / From all stands hitherto publish’d.” He needs to think in a new and different way and find “standards not yet publish’d.” He...
(The entire section is 2397 words.)
Birds of Passage and Sea-Drift: Summary and Analysis
Pioneers! O Pioneers! - Summary
The poet describes and pays tribute to the American pioneers who bravely set out to discover and settle new lands in America’s western frontier. Whitman says he too is a part of this “resistless restless race” who through “the battle” and even in “defeat” continues its relentless journey of discovery. The pioneers have chosen to abandon the comfort and safety of their homes and endure dangers and hardship in their quest for adventure and a better life.
We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
(The entire section is 977 words.)
By the Roadside: Summary and Analysis
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer - Summary
The poet attends a lecture, where an astronomer is impressing the audience with his intelligence and the evidence he has gathered to support his claims, his findings: the “proofs,” “figures,” and “columns” of facts; the “charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure.” The astronomer is met with “much applause,” but the poet finds himself unimpressed with the science he has just been taught. He seems baffled, to an extent, by his reaction: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.” It is as if his mind tells him that he should be impressed with the astronomer’s lecture, but his heart tells him that the glory of nature itself is...
(The entire section is 1291 words.)
Drum-Taps: Summary and Analysis
First O Songs for a Prelude - Summary
Whitman begins this section, which is devoted to the Civil War, with a rousing portrayal of New York City and the Union preparing for war. The poet describes regiments of soldiers marching through Manhattan as exuberant crowds line the streets, cheering on their heroes. Men from all occupations rush to volunteer while women sign up to serve as nurses.
To the drum-taps prompt,
The young men falling in and arming,
The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the black-smith’s hammer, tost aside with precipitation,)
The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court
The driver deserting his wagon...
(The entire section is 1579 words.)
Memories of President Lincoln: Summary and Analysis
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d - Summary
The first poem of the Memories of President Lincoln grouping is its best known. As an elegy, it commemorates the death of President Lincoln by assassination on April 14, 1865, though it never mentions the president directly. Whitman begins the poem by painting a picture of spring and fading flowers, which mark the event of the death of the president. In the same way that spring will return and the lilacs will bloom again, so will the president remain in Whitman’s thoughts. Caught in a moment of deep grief over the loss “of him I love,” Whitman feels “helpless” at the “cruel hands that hold [him] powerless” in the face of death,
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
Autumn Rivulets: Summary and Analysis
There Was a Child Went Forth - Summary
The subject of Whitman’s poem is a child growing up. Everything that touches the child’s life is in some way absorbed or remembered by the child: any and all objects “became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, / Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.” Whitman then goes on to list the variety of objects that influence this child and become a part of his identity: flowers, plants, animals, trees, people, landscapes, parents, family traditions, city streets, automobiles, boats, ocean waves, the sky, and the air. Each object in its own way makes an impression upon the young child, who will carry these impressions and experiences with him “every...
(The entire section is 2427 words.)
From Noon to Starry Night: Summary and Analysis
Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling - Summary
In this poem, Whitman conveys his impressions of the sun, as he celebrates the “full dazzling” effects it has on him. He sees the sun shining its rays on land and on water, and he writes that he has “always loved” the “illustrious” sun from his youth to the present time. Whitman understands that the sun does not answer his worshipful declarations with words, but he feels that the sun communicates with him in its own way: “sudden breaks and shafts of flame gigantic, / I understand them, I know those flames, those perturbations well.” After praising the sun for sending its “fructifying heat and light” to all lands and waters nationwide, Whitman asks that this orb...
(The entire section is 1321 words.)
Whispers of Heavenly Death and Songs of Parting: Summary and Analysis
Whispers of Heavenly Death - Summary
The poet begins the final clusters of Leaves of Grass with a series of reflective poems about death and dying. In this first poem, images of “unseen rivers,” “currents flowing,” and enormous clouds “swelling and mixing” remind the poet that death is a common, and inevitable, human experience. And while the end of life may be a sad event, there is nothing to fear. The clouds and the sky are “mystical,” peaceful images that suggest the ubiquitous presence of death. When one gazes heavenward, one can be assured that “Some soul is passing over.”
A Noiseless Patient Spider - Summary
In this brief poem, Whitman observes a spider spinning...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)
Individual Longer Poems: Summary and Analysis
Song of the Open Road - Summary
Whitman extends an invitation to the reader to travel with him, spiritually and literally, and he will lead by example. The opening lines of the poem celebrate both the options that lie before Whitman and the length and breadth of the continent: “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” Whitman finds all he needs (“The earth, that is sufficient”) in these possibilities, as he begins to walk on the road. He imagines all who have traveled the same path before him, believing “that much is also unseen here.” Not only is there the physical path of the road for the traveler to behold, but the road is full of the “unseen existences” or “spirits” of those who...
(The entire section is 2593 words.)