Walt Whitman Poetry: American Poets Analysis
An approach to Walt Whitman’s poetry profitably begins with the “Inscriptions” to Leaves of Grass, for these short, individual pieces introduce the main ideas and methods of Whitman’s book. In general, they stake out the ground of what Miller has called the prototypical New World personality, a merging of the individual with the national and cosmic, or universal, selves. That democratic principles are at the root of Whitman’s views becomes immediately clear in “One’s-Self I Sing,” the first poem in Leaves of Grass. Here, Whitman refers to the self as a “simple separate person,” yet utters the “word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Citizens of America alternately assert their individuality—obey little, resist often—and yet see themselves as a brotherhood of the future, inextricably bound by the vision of a great new society of and for the masses. This encompassing vision requires a sense of “the Form complete,” rejecting neither body nor soul, singing equally of the Female and Male, embracing both realistic, scientific, modern humanity and the infinite, eternal life of the spirit.
Leaves of Grass
Whitman takes on various roles to lead his readers to a fuller understanding of this democratic universal. In “Me Imperturbe,” he is at ease as an element of nature, able to confront the accidents and rebuffs of life with the implacability of trees and animals. As he suggests in Democratic Vistas, the true idea of nature in all its power and glory must become fully restored and must furnish the “pervading atmosphere” to poems of American democracy. Whitman must also empathize with rational things—with humanity at large and in particular—so he constructs what sometimes seem to be endless catalogs of Americans at work and play. This technique appears in “I Hear America Singing,” which essentially lists the varied carols of carpenter, boatman, shoemaker, woodcutter, mother, and so on, all “singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” as they ply their trades. In longer poems, such as “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman extends his catalog to all the states of the Union. He intends to acknowledge contemporary lands, salute employments and cities large and small, and report heroism on land and sea from an American point of view. He marks down all of what constitutes unified life, including the body, sexual love, and comradeship, or “manly love.” Finally, the poet must join the greatness of love and democracy to the greatness of religion. These programs expand to take up large parts of even longer poems, such as “Song of Myself” or to claim space of their own in sections of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman uses another technique to underscore the democratic principle of his art: He makes the reader a fellow poet, a “camerado” who joins hands with him to traverse the poetic landscape. In “To You,” he sees the poet and reader as passing strangers who desire to speak to one another and urges that they do so. In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman travels the highways with his “delicious burdens” of men and women, calling them all to come forth and move forever forward, well armed to take their places in “the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.” His view of the reader as fellow traveler and seer is especially clear in the closing lines of the poem:
Camerado, I give you my hand!I give you my love more precious than money,I give you myself before preaching or law;Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Finally, this comradeship means willingness to set out on one’s own, for Whitman says in “Song of Myself” that the reader most honors his style “who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” The questions one asks are one’s own to puzzle out. The poet’s role is to lead his reader up on a knoll, wash the gum from his eyes, and then let him become habituated to the “dazzle of light” that is the natural world. In other words, Whitman intends to help his reader become a “poet” of insight and perception and then release him to travel the public roads of a democratic nation.
This democratic unification of multiplicity, empathic identification, and comradeship exists in most of Whitman’s poems. They do not depend on his growth as poet or thinker. However, in preparing to analyze representative poems from Leaves of Grass, it is helpful to establish a general plan for the various sections of the book. Whitman revised and reordered his poems until the 1881 edition, which established a form that was to remain essentially unchanged through succeeding editions. He merely annexed materials to the 1881 order until just before his death in 1892, then authorized the 1891-1892 version for all future printings. Works originally published apart from Leaves of Grass, such as Drum-Taps or Passage to India, were eventually incorporated in the parent volume. Thus, an analysis of the best poems in five important sections of this final Leaves of Grass will help delineate Whitman’s movement toward integration of self and nation, within his prescribed portals of birth and death.
“Song of Myself”
“Song of Myself,” Whitman’s great lyric poem, exemplifies his democratic “programs” without diminishing the intense feeling that so startled his first readers. It successfully combines paeans to the individual, the nation, and life at large, including nature, sexuality, and death. Above all, “Song of Myself” is a poem of incessant motion, as though Whitman’s energy is spontaneously bursting into lines. Even in the contemplative sections of the poem, when Whitman leans and loafs at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, his senses of hearing, taste, and sight are working at fever pitch. In the opening section, he calls himself “nature without check with original energy.” Having once begun to speak, he hopes “to cease not till death.” Whitman says that although others may talk of the beginning and the end, he finds his subject in the now—in the “urge and urge and urge” of the procreant world.
One method by which Whitman’s energy escapes boundaries is the poet’s ability to “become” other people and things. He will not be measured by time and space, nor by physical form. Rather, he effuses his flesh in eddies and drifts it in lacy jags, taking on new identities with every line. His opening lines show that he is speaking not of himself alone but of all selves. What he assumes, the reader shall assume; every atom of him, and therefore of the world, belongs to the reader as well. In section 24, he represents himself as a “Kosmos,” which contains multitudes and reconciles apparent opposites. He speaks the password and sign of democracy and accepts nothing that all cannot share. To stress this egalitarian vision, Whitman employs the catalog with skill and variety. Many parts of “Song of Myself” list or name characters, places, occupations, or experiences, but section 33 most clearly shows the two major techniques that give these lists vitality. First, Whitman composes long single-sentence movements of action and description, which attempt to unify nature and civilization. The poet is alternately weeding his onion patch, hoeing, prospecting, hauling his boat down a shallow river, scaling mountains, walking paths, and speeding through space. He then follows each set of actions with a series of place lines, beginning with “where,” “over,” “at,” or “upon,” which unite farmhouses, hearth furnaces, hot-air balloons, or steamships with plants and animals of land and sea. Second, Whitman interrupts these long listings with more detailed vignettes, which show the “large hearts of heroes”—a sea captain, a hounded slave, a fireman trapped and broken under debris, an artillerist. Sections 34-36 then extend the narrative to tales of the Alamo and an old-time sea fight, vividly brought forth with sounds and dialogue. In each case, the poet becomes the hero and is actually in the scene to suffer or succeed.
This unchecked energy and empathy carry over into Whitman’s ebullient imagery to help capture the physical power of human bodies in procreant motion. At one point Whitman calls himself “hankering, gross, mystical, nude.” He finds no sweeter flesh than that which sticks to his own bones, or to the bones of others. Sexual imagery, including vividly suggestive descriptions of the male and female body, is central to the poem. Although the soul must take its equal place with the body, neither abasing itself before the other, Whitman’s mystical union of soul and body is a sexual experience as well. He loves the hum of the soul’s “valved voice” and remembers how, on a transparent summer morning, the soul settled its head athwart his hips and turned over on him. It parted the shirt from the poet’s “bosom-bone,” plunged its tongue to his “bare-stript heart,” and reached until it felt his beard and held his feet. From this experience came peace and the knowledge that love is fundamental to a unified, continuous creation. Poetic metaphor, which identifies and binds hidden likenesses in nature, is therefore emblematic of the organic world. For example, in answering a child’s question, “What is the grass?” the poet offers a series of metaphors that join human, natural, and spiritual impulses:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
The grass becomes hair from the breasts of young men, from the heads and beards of old people, or from offspring, and it “speaks” from under the faint red roofs of mouths. The smallest sprout shows that there is no death, for “nothing collapses,” and to die is “luckier” than anyone had supposed. This excerpt from the well-known sixth section of “Song of Myself” illustrates how image making signifies for Whitman a kind of triumph over death itself.
Because of its position near the beginning of Leaves of Grass and its encompassing of Whitman’s major themes, “Song of Myself” is a foundation for the volume. The “self” in this poem is a replica of the nation as self, and its delineation in the cosmos is akin to the growth of the United States in the world. Without putting undue stress on this nationalistic interpretation, however, the reader can find many reasons to admire “Song of Myself.” Its dynamic form, beauty of language, and psychological insights are sufficient to make Whitman a first-rate poet, even if he had written nothing else.
Celebration of self and sexuality
The passionate celebration of the self and of sexuality is Whitman’s great revolutionary theme. In “Children of Adam,” he is the procreative father of multitudes, a champion of heterosexual love and the “body electric.” In “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers,” he sings of the need for superb children, brought forth by the “muscular urge” of “stalwart loins.” In “I Sing the Body Electric,” he celebrates the perfection of well-made male and female bodies. Sections 5 and 9 are explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse and physical “apparatus,” respectively. Whitman does not shy away from the fierce attraction of the female form or the ebb and flow of “limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous” that undulate into the willing and yielding “gates of the body.” Because he sees the body as sacred, as imbued with divine power, he considers these enumerations to be poems of the soul as much as of the body.
Indeed, “A Woman Waits for Me” specifically states that sex contains all—bodies and souls. Thus, the poet seeks warm-blooded and sufficient women to receive the pent-up rivers of himself, to start new sons and daughters fit for the great nation that will be these United States. The procreative urge operates on more than one level in “Children of Adam”—it is physical sex and birthing, the union of body and soul, and the metaphorical insemination of the poet’s words and spirit into national life. In several ways, then, words are to become flesh. Try as some early Whitman apologists might to explain...
(The entire section is 5268 words.)
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