Brought up in a family with Deistic and Quaker leanings, the second oldest of eight children, Walt Whitman never belonged to a church but attended Sunday school at times and was surrounded by the religious and political foment of antebellum America at home and during an apprenticeship in the publishing trade. A journalist, editor, and publisher in early adulthood, he blended the styles of journalism and the King James Bible to develop a long-lined free verse that coheres as biblical poetry does: with rhythmic phrasing and repetitive syntactic strategies (such as anaphora).
Whitman envisioned his book as a new bible for the United States, one that would give the people a sustaining literature of religious love, ecstasy, faith, and common values that would define, guide, and elevate a national people to greatness. The aim to write a new bible for the United States, “the new Israel,” was common in the antebellum decades; however, it was Whitman’s book that achieved the range and rhythms of American voices and ideals in powerful and unique poetry that viewed the whole of individual and national life as spiritual.
Although a lyrical expression of the self’s experience, Leaves of Grass as a whole strives to function as an epic. In an essay, “The Bible as Poetry,” Whitman located the Bible as the center of his own art for its “naturally religious poetry” that, without artificiality, celebrated a people’s greatness and contained the whole of the people’s shared life history, psychological development, strong forthright heroes, honest and direct emotion, sensuality, friendship, “the fervent kiss,” ecstasy, faith, and mortality.
The “I” of many of the poems accomplishes democratic individuality within the political body by shifting fluidly from a single consciousness to a representative American to America itself. The speaker wanders about the cities and lands, looking in on scenes and often imaginatively becoming a “representative” person (for example, a carpenter, hunter, slave, slave auctioneer). People and objects in nature are perceived through eyes of intimate love as divine. Throughout, the “I” and the United States are divine—creative, loving,...
(The entire section is 904 words.)