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Walk Whitman was an unconventional American poet whose work had an enormous impact upon new developments and trends in poetry at the end of the 19th century, and widely influenced American poetry of the 20th century. This time period was characterized by the presence of various trends and schools of thought in poetry; Whitman was considered a Transcendentalist (along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, who were both friends of Whitman); but he was also credited with being an influence upon the Realist school of poetry. Whitman's subject matter was considered by some readers to be controversial for his frank depiction of sexuality and the sensual nature of his poetic observations. He also had unusual views about spirituality.

Whitman rejected conventional views of religion and realized his spiritual beliefs and perspective via his poetry. His celebration of the human body and the human spirit in equal measure prompted many critics to call him a sort of prophet who was creating a new American religion through poetry. Leaves of Grass contains many musings and explorations of life's pleasure and pain, along with detailed descriptions of human emotion and  behavior. But above all the theme that comes through frequently is a love of the natural world and the possibility of salvation and redemption (very religious concepts) through immersion in nature and embracing humankind's place amid nature, including plants, animals and all the elements and creators in the world. Although similar viewpoints were espoused by the English Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats (who were definitely an influence upon Whitman's writing), it was not until Whitman's work emerged that this kind of unabashed paganism was expressed in such a straightforward way in contemporary poetry.

Whitman also had strong views about equality and slavery; his experiences witnessing slave auctions affected him deeply and inspired part of his famous poem "I Sing the Body Electric." He was an ardent believer in equal rights for all people, and was a political activist for years, but it was through his poetry that he was able to catalyze and inspire social change and a shift in public consciousness. Leaves of Grass was well received and soon after its first publication Whitman began work on a second edition, which was published by a Boston publisher that was active in the abolitionist movement.

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