Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

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What subject does Whitman address in the first paragraph of the Leaves of Grass preface?

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Whitman's preface to his first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass celebrates America (the United States) and the American poet. In the second paragraph to the preface, Whitman calls the U.S. itself the "greatest poem." In the first paragraph he asserts that, contrary to what some say, America calmly embraces the past, and does not "repel" it.

However, Whitman also declares that the forms of the past are past, and now the old poetic life, which has done what was required of it, will be transformed into the "new life of new forms." He imagines the corpse of the poetic past being carried out of eating and sleeping rooms of the house—the places where the living are active—and says that its baton or call to action has passed down to a worthy heir who is approaching.

This heir to the poetic forms is Walt Whitman himself and, more to the point, the poems that follow in his volume. He envisions himself, a poet-sage, as the expression of America in vibrant microcosm. He has learned what he could from the past, and now will breath new life and form into poetry. He describes himself as "fittest" for his time, meaning his own voice is the best one to express what is at the heart of the nation—and the universe for that matter.

Here, as throughout the volume, Whitman's persona exudes extreme optimism and self-confidence. He is exuberant over his country and his new kind of poetry.

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In the first paragraph of the preface to this text, Whitman seems to suggest that America knows and accepts what it has been in the past; how it, perhaps, has carried forward the "politics or the idea of castes or the old religions" of the past; and how America can and should recognize and accept the lessons the past has to teach it. He believes that America is not so impatient for change that it cannot see that the old ideas and values are to be credited for producing what it is now; the old life has allowed the new life to form. He compares America's past, via metaphor, to a "corpse [that] is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house," the house being a metaphor for the country. That corpse, that past, was "fittest for its days" (i.e., it was the best that could be done then and under those circumstances), and "its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches." This heir, a metaphor for the new ideas and new values, will be "fittest for his days" as well. Unlike some other thinkers of his time, who encouraged a break from the past and a disavowal of its values—people like Thoreau—Whitman seems to suggest that America's past, though we now see it as flawed, was a necessary step to get America to its present, improved, state.

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In the preface to the Leaves of Grass, in the first paragraph, Walt Whitman addresses the fact that America does not hide from its past, whether its mistakes or failures, or its good actions and successes. To Walt Whitman, America accepts all that has made it the nation that it is. This includes the nation as it was in his time, and as it is today.

Whitman is saying that America accepts its past, its varied politics, ideologies, religious beliefs, and classes (castes). He goes further to say that America accepts its past with “calmness”. American society as a whole was not fretting over the debates that helped forged the nation. It is a recognition that varied opinion and such are what make for constructive discourse in a nation and what ultimately lead to a nation finding its true self through much trial and error. This trial and error can be civil war, wars against the tyranny of other nations, and heated political debate within the nation.

Walt Whitman additionally states that America is not impatient with its growth process. America, in essence its citizenry, know that the development of a strong nation takes time. Whitman indicates that the nation can learn from what went before, which helps the country to better face the challenges that will always be present in the world. It is a sort of ‘trial by fire’ that in the end refines the nation and makes it stronger and more resilient.

Whitman is saying that America does not have to always hold on to the old way of doing things. It can confidently move forward as it sees opportunity and is not so rigid that it is bound to traditional ways of doing things. It can be proactive and innovative as it develops as a nation, without fear, employing the immense natural and human resources that it has been blessed with.

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In the preface of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman addresses America's past. In the opening paragraph, Whitman speaks to the fact that America does not "repel" (or refuse to accept) what has happened in its history.

Whitman refers to the "fact" that America stands strong in its history regardless of the negative aspects of what has happened. For Whitman, the politics, religions, and literature (while seemingly stuck) do not have to be regarded as the defining of America can/could be.

Instead, he recognizes the fact that the history has molded America into what is is today. Americans can learn from the past, and not make the same mistakes seen in the past again, or they can become the corpse "slowly born" (meaning that Americans are already dead if they fail to learn from America's past mistakes).

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