Leaves of Grass "I Hear America Singing"

Walt Whitman

"I Hear America Singing"

Context: When Leaves of Grass was first published, it met with a storm of abuse due in part to the originality of Whitman's style; his poems were a radical departure from previous metrical conventions. Cast in the form of inspired chants, they are not quite blank verse but a verse-prose combination, exciting and full of vitality. Whitman's ideal was to depict America in its entirety, as he saw it, leaving out nothing and glossing nothing over. He loved the common man and had toured the country on foot, working his way from place to place as carpenter and builder. He felt an intense personal relationship to all Creation–to God, to nature, to mankind, to life itself. This idealist who vowed to be a realist found his work despised. He dealt with social and moral topics with a freedom unknown in the 1850's, and to many his work was at best shocking, at worst depraved. It was only gradually that he was recognized for the original genius that he was. Whitman's vitality and enthusiasm, and his ability to see the individual elements of his vast subject with objective and comprehensive clarity and so to present them, are qualities for which he is widely appreciated today, as is the rugged beauty of his lines. In the first portion of Leaves of Grass, a number of poems are given under the general heading "Inscriptions," a suggestive and appropriate term; all are brief and intense, and each is in its way a tribute to some aspect of life. The poem entitled "I Hear America Singing" is the eighteenth of these. In it Whitman celebrates his love for the workingman, which he frequently re-emphasizes throughout his poetry; at the same time he gives a vivid picture of a young and bustling country, enthusiastically building itself toward greatness.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.