When Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, the United States was entering a period of great internal political conflict that would culminate 40 years later with the Civil War. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the young nation was growing and expanding its territorial holdings as daring easterners and newly arrived immigrants headed west across the Mississippi River to explore and settle the western frontier. In his poetry, Whitman describes these settlers as intrepid Americans who were inspired by a determined pioneering spirit, a need for raw materials, and even competition with other countries who were also actively acquiring new territory. Following the American Revolution, European nations had lost much of their territory in North America; however, the great European powers continued to broaden their colonial empires, focusing their efforts in Asia and Africa. Americans kept pace on their own continent, and by the end of the century, the wild frontier Whitman celebrates in much of his poetry had drastically changed and had almost disappeared. Whitman’s “pioneers” had built settlements, farms, and communities throughout the West, while much of the Native American population was displaced and resettled on government-controlled reservations.
As American writers chronicled the monumental changes in their country, the American Romantic movement began in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson and a group of writers known as the...
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Leaves of Grass (Magill Book Reviews)
When Whitman published his first edition, readers were astounded: It had no rhyme or meter, it used the language of contemporary America, and it presented a specific human being speaking of himself in physical as well as spiritual and mental terms. It appalled some readers but refreshed and delighted many others.
The book grew as Whitman grew, through six editions and several annexes that eventually added hundreds of poems to the original twelve. It became, as individual poems such as “Song of Myself” suggest, identified with the poet himself.
Besides depicting an individual man, the collection also depicts a nation, America moving into maturity with the harsh test of the Civil War and the subsequent expansion westward. Whitman writes movingly about the war in the “DRUMTAPS” section, drawing from his experiences in Washington, D.C. as a visitor and nurse to the wounded.
Other poems describe America’s natural grandeur and the energy and drama of its people, from prostitute to politician, from pioneer to slave, from Indian to immigrant. Whitman’s resonant, rambling lines amply embody the vitality of a growing nation and the unconfined natural world he observed so closely.
Yet his world was not all bright and fair. He could be critical of his country’s shortcomings while singing its virtues. He also conveys the pain as well as the joy of love, both emotional and physical, especially in the “CALAMUS”...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Paumanok. Village on Long Island east of New York City where Whitman was born. His early poem “Starting from Paumanok” describes the village as “fish-shaped,” indicating its (and his) nautical origins, an idea that he developed in detail in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” in which he envisions himself a “little boy again,/ Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman recalls Paumanok’s fragrance as “lilac-scent,” its coastline as marked by “Fifth-month grass” and “briers,” and its seashore inhabited by “two feather’d guests from Alabama,” signaling its fertility and hospitality. Later in the poem, now speaking from an adult’s perspective, Whitman cites “Paumanok’s gray beach” as the site of his initial and continuing poetic inspiration.
*Brooklyn. City, which is now part of New York City, to which Whitman’s family moved when his father began work as a carpenter in 1823. Whitman lived in Brooklyn intermittently through the next three decades. He became editor of a leading local newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, in 1846, and formed a habit of walking in the city observing every aspect of urban life. His poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes people traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, using the “heights of Brooklyn to the south and east” and the traffic in the passage between the Hudson and East Rivers as...
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Inscriptions: Questions and Answers
1. What does the “Phantom” represent in As I Ponder’d in Silence?
2. Name the central image to which Whitman compares his book, Leaves of Grass, in the poem In Cabin’d Ships at Sea.
3. To whom does the poet dedicate In Cabin’d Ships at Sea?
4. In To a Historian, what does the poet claim to have written?
5. What are the Eidolons?
6. What advice does Whitman offer in To the States?
7. How does the poet confront adversity in Me Impertube?
8. In I Hear America Singing, where does the shoemaker sing?
9. What is the poet’s request in Shut Not Your Doors?
10. In Poets to Come, what does Whitman urge the poets, orators, singers, and musicians to do?
1. The Phantom represents the “genius of poets of old lands.”
2. Whitman compares his book to a lone bark “athwart the imperious waves.”
3. He dedicates his “song” to “mariners and all their ships.”
4. In contrast to the historian, who writes about “bygones,” Whitman says he writes “the history of the future.”
5. Eidolons are Whitman’s idea of the ultimate reality that is present in all things.
6. Whitman urges the states to “Resist much, obey little.”
7. He wants to stand “at...
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Song of Myself: Questions and Answers
1. What is Whitman, the poet-narrator, doing at the beginning of Song of Myself ?
2. How does Whitman answer the child who asks, “What is the grass?”
3. What does the poet brush away from the face of the sleeping baby?
4. What is the “trapper” wearing when he marries the “red girl”?
5. What does the poet do when he encounters the runaway slave?
6. What sound does the “wild gander” make?
7. How does Walt Whitman describe himself in the poem?
8. What does Whitman call “the journey-work of the stars”?
9. How many men were killed in the massacre in Texas?
10. What will the poet “sound” over the “roofs of the world”?
1. Whitman is loafing and “observing a spear of summer grass.”
2. He is unable to answer the child because, Whitman writes, he does not know any more than the child does.
3. He silently brushes away flies with his hand.
4. The trapper is dressed “mostly in skins.”
5. He gives the man food, clothes, and shelter. He allows the slave to hide out and rest in his house.
6. The wild gander says, “Ya-honk.”
7. Whitman describes himself in Section 24:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and...
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Children of Adam: Questions and Answers
1. Name the central figure in the poem, To the Garden the World.
2. What does Whitman mean when he writes that he is “singing” about something?
3. Describe the significance of the farmer in Section Three of I Sing the Body Electric.
4. What kind of auction does Whitman describe in Section Seven of I Sing the Body Electric?
5. We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d features a transformation of two people. Describe what they become.
6. Who are the “shunn’d persons” in Native Moments?
7. In Once I Pass 'd through a Populous City, what does the speaker remember from his trip to the city?
8. In I Heard You Solemn Sweet Pipes of the Organ, what are the several sounds that the poet hears?
9. Describe what the speaker is seeking in Facing West from California’s Shores.
10. In As Adam Early in the Morning, what does the speaker want others to do?
1. The central figure of the poem is Adam.
2. Whitman does not write actual songs; rather, he is “singing” the praise of his subject. He wants to convey his celebration of the subject.
3. Whitman describes the farmer’s physical attributes and his hobbies, but his most salient characteristic is his important role as a father and grandfather.
4. Whitman describes a...
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Calamus: Questions and Answers
1. What does Whitman find, in These I Singing in Spring, that he deems to be especially important, and why is it important to him?
2. In Recorders Ages Hence, what advice does Whitman give to his future readers?
3. In When I Heard at the Close of Day, what makes Whitman happy?
4. Describe the metaphor Whitman uses in Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone to describe his poems.
5. To whom does Whitman compare the tree in I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing?
6. In This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, how does Whitman feel about men in other countries?
7. Explain the subject of Whitman’s envy in When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame.
8. What does A Glimpse describe?
9. In Sometimes with One I Love, what does Whitman mean when he suggests that “there is no unreturn’d love”?
10. What does the shadow respresent in That Shadow My Likeness?
1. Whitman finds a “calamus root.” It is important to him because he declares that it will be “the token of comrades.”
2. Whitman explains what future readers should say about him: he views himself as a friend and lover first, then as a poet.
3. Whitman is happy when he is with his “dear friend,” his lover.
4. Pieces of grass, roots in the ground, and...
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Birds of Passage and Sea-Drift: Questions and Answers
1. What great social and political event does Whitman write about in France?
2. What cargo are the “proud black ships” carrying in Year of Meteors?
3. In A Broadway Pageant, the poet describes what event?
4. What kind of birds does the boy observe in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking?
5. What happens to the female bird in Out of the Cradle?
6. In Out of the Cradle, where is the beach located?
7. Identify the main character in Aboard at a Ship’s Helm?
8. With whom is the child standing in On the Beach at Night?
9. What is the poet doing in On the Beach at Night Alone?
10. How is the sea described in Patroling Barnegat?
1. Whitman writes about the French Revolution.
2. Some ships are filled with immigrants, and others are filled with gold.
3. Whitman describes a parade down Broadway in Manhattan.
4. The boy observes two mockingbirds on the beach.
5. One day, after she disappears, the male bird sings a lament.
6. The beach is in Paumanok, Long Island, New York.
7. A “young steersman” is the main character of this poem.
8. The child is with her father.
9. He is standing on the beach, observing the night sky.
10. The sea is...
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By the Roadside: Questions and Answers
1. What is the poem, Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States, about?
2. In A Hand Mirror, Whitman describes a person’s exterior as a “fair costume,” but what is the inside of the person like?
3. Describe the audience’s response to the astronomer’s lecture in When I Heard the Learn ’d Astronomer.
4. How does the speaker react to the astronomer’s lecture?
5. Explain the question Whitman asks himself in O Me! O Life!
6. The “sorrows of the world” listed in I Sit and Look Out include which concerns of Whitman’s?
7. In To Rich Givers, what does Whitman give in exchange for “[a] little sustenance”?
8. In The Dalliance of the Eagles, describe what Whitman sees on his walk along “the river road.”
9. What kind of woman is more beautiful, in Beautiful Women?
10. What question does Whitman ask the reader, in Hast Never Come to Thee an Hour?
1. The poem is about revolution against kings, tyrants, and masters.
2. The person’s insides are “rotting away piecemeal” and full of “ashes and filth.”
3. The people in the lecture room applaud.
4. The speaker is not impressed with the astronomer’s discoveries and instead feels compelled to leave the room and look at the...
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Drum-Taps: Questions and Answers
1. Name the city the soldiers are parading through in First O Songs for a Prelude?
2. Who are the two speakers in Song of the Banner at Daybreak?
3. In The Centenarian’s Story, what does General Washington read to his troops before battle?
4. What happened to the young soldier in Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night?
5. In A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim, what does the poet see when he emerges from his tent?
6. What does the poet encounter in the woods in As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods?
7. What was the relationship between the two dead soldiers in Dirge for Two Veterans?
8. Who is the main character in Ethiopia Saluting the Colors?
9. What does the narrator of Reconciliation do at the end of the poem?
10. In The Artilleryman’s Vision, what does the veteran recall as he lies in bed late at night?
1. The new recruits are parading through the streets of Manhattan in New York City.
2. A Poet, a Child, a Father, a Banner, and a Pennant are the speakers in this poem.
3. Washington read the Declaration of Independence.
4. The soldier was killed in battle.
5. He sees three dead soldiers lying on stretchers.
6. The poet discovers...
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Memories of President Lincoln: Questions and Answers
1. What is the underlying occasion that inspired When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, and who is the hero?
2. In Section Three of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, what does Whitman do to the lilac bush?
3. What does Whitman do with the piece of the lilac bush, in Section Six?
4. In Section Eight, what does the star try to tell Whitman?
5. In Section Fifteen, who suffers the most when death occurs?
6. Describe the fate of the captain in O Captain! My Captain! ”
7. In O Captain! My Captain! what do the bells and bugles represent?
8. Explain why the soldiers are quiet in Hush’d Be the Camps To-day.
9. Describe how the soldiers commemorate the death of their “commander” in Hush’d Be the Camps To day.
10. In This Dust Was Once the Man, what does Whitman equate with man?
1. The poem is written to mark the occasion of President Lincoln’s death. The President is the hero.
2. Whitman breaks off a “sprig” of the lilac bush to keep.
3. Whitman places the piece of the lilac bush on the passing coffin.
4. The star tries to tell Whitman that a time of mourning is coming.
5. Whitman understands that the dead do not suffer; rather the living who are left behind experience suffering....
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Autumn Rivulets: Questions and Answers
1. Describe the returning heroes in Section Six of The Return of the Heroes.
2. In The Return of the Heroes, what weapons does Whitman want them to trade for their weapons of war?
3. What influences the child in There Was a Child Went Forth?
4. In The City Dead House, who is the corpse that Whitman describes?
5. In This Compost, why is the earth described as a compost heap?
6. Name the subject of Unnamed Lands.
7. Describe how the woman who sings in the prison affects the prisoners in The Singer in the Prison.
8. In Warble for Lilac Time, what three activities does Whitman wish he could do?
9. To Him That Was Crucified focuses on what specific subject?
10. Explain why Whitman envies his “farmer friend” in The Ox-Tamer.
1. The heroes are described as “harden’d” by the influences of war. They are “[w]orn swart, handsome, strong, of the stock of homestead and workshop.”
2. Whitman wants the soldiers to trade their weapons of war for “the better weapons,” instruments that are used to harvest the land and work machines.
3. The child is influenced by all the objects that he sees, from flowers and people to city streets and ocean waves. Each “became part of him.”
4. The dead body...
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From Noon to Starry Night: Questions and Answers
1. In Thou Orb Aloft Full Dazzling, how does the sun communicate with Whitman?
2. In Section Four of The Mystic Trumpeter, what affect does the trumpeter have on Whitman?
3. Describe the personification of the locomotive in To a Locomotive in Winter.
4. In Mannahatta, how does the poet feel about the island of Manhattan?
5. Explain how Whitman will deal with his enemies in Ah Poverties, Wincings, and Sulky Retreats.
6. Identify the subject of the poem Mediums.
7. In Old War Dreams, what does Whitman dream about?
8. Name the subject of the poem Thick Sprinkled Bunting.
9. According to As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days, what kind of person has the best perspective on world events and issues?
10. In A Clear Midnight, what does the hour of midnight offer the soul?
1. The sun communicates with Whitman by sending rays of light, “shafts of flames gigantic,” for him to interpret.
2. The trumpeter plays, and Whitman imagines that he sees scenes from the past—from medieval times.
3. The locomotive laughs and shrieks like a human.
4. The poet is in love with every aspect of Manhattan, from the people who live there to the ships in the water and the water itself.
5. Although Whitman is...
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Whispers of Heavenly Death and Songs of Parting: Questions and Answers
1. Name the cities Whitman writes about in Of Him I Love Day and Night?
2. Where is the poet walking in As If a Phantom Caress’d Me?
3. What is the spider doing in the poem A Noiseless Patient Spider?
4. In Night on the Prairies, now that supper is over, what are the emigrants doing?
5. What is the poet doing in Night on the Prairies?
6. In the poem Thought, what does the poet think about as he sits with others at a great feast?
7. What does the poet plan to do when he goes “forth” in As the Time Draws Nigh?
8. In Song at Sunset, how does Whitman describe old age?
9. In the poem My Legacy, does the poet plan to leave gems and gold to his friends after his death?
10. Why are the bells ringing in The Sobbing of the Bells?
1. In the poem, Whitman mentions Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York or “Mannahatta.”
2. He is “alone walking here by the shore.”
3. The spider is spinning a web.
4. The emigrants are sleeping, “wrapt in their blankets.”
5. The poet is thinking about ”space and eternity.”
6. For unknown reasons, the poet suddenly conjures up an image of a terrifying ship wreck at sea.
7. Before he dies, the poet plans to “traverse...
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Individual Longer Poems: Questions and Answers
1. In Section Two of Song of the Open Road, what are the “unseen existences” that Whitman perceives along the road?
2. What does Whitman invite the reader to do in Section Nine?
3. Name the qualities a traveler needs in order to journey with Whitman, according to Section Ten.
4. In Section One of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman is curious about whom?
5. Whitman is imagining the future in Section Two. How far ahead is he looking?
6. In Section Seven of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, who has Whitman “consider’d long and seriously”?
7. Explain the human attributes Whitman gives the axe in Section One of Song of the Broad Axe.
8. Describe the land that best suits the axe, according to the lines in Section Two.
9. What makes a city great, according to Section Four?
10. In Section Eight, how did the “European headsman” once use the axe?
1. The “unseen existences” are the “spirits” of those who have traveled the road before him.
2. Whitman invites the reader to “come travel” with him.
3. To join Whitman, the traveler must have courage, good health, and high endurance.
4. Whitman is curious about the people he watches traveling on the ferry and the people he imagines will “cross from shore to shore years hence.”...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
———. Walt Whitman Handbook. Chicago: Packard Press, 1946.
Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Development of a Personality. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960–1962.
Berg, Christine G. “‘Giving sound to the bruised places in their hearts’: Gloria Naylor and Walt Whitman.” The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor. Eds. Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 98–111.
Blodgett, Harold. The Best of Whitman. New York: Ronald Press, 1953.
Chari, V. K. “Whitman and Indian Thought.” Western Humanities Review 8 (1959): 291–297.
Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloan, 1955.
Cowley, Malcolm. Leaves of Grass: The First Edition. New York: Viking, 1959.
Folsom, Ed., ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Graham, Mary Emma. “Politics in Black and White: A View of Walt Whitman’s Career as a Political Journalist.” College Language Association Journal 17 (1973): 263–270.
Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of “Leaves of Grass.” University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Sources for Further Study
Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. A succinct survey intended to be an introductory work for readers and students of Whitman. A good place to start the study of Whitman.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Describes Whitman’s childhood roots in deism and Quakerism, explores the increasing complexity of Christian thought throughout his life, and finds a wealth of biblical images in the poetry.
Crawley, Thomas. “The Christ-Symbol in Leaves of Grass.” In The Structure of “Leaves of Grass.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970. Identifies allusions to Christ and sees the figure as formative for the oneness of the “I” with God, nature, America, and humanity.
Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collection of essays in honor of the centennial of Whitman’s death. Provides a good overview of trends in literary criticism of Leaves of Grass.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on...
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