What happens in Leaves of Grass?
Leaves of Grass collects dozens of poems that Whitman continuously revised over the last years of his life. As a whole, they explores themes of love, nature, spiritualism, and the soul, declaring that the body is one and the same as the soul.
Perhaps the best known poem in Leaves of Grass is "Song of Myself," a long (and often sexual) poem about the body and soul. The "Myself" referred to in the poem stands both for the individual self and all of humanity.
Many shorter poems touch on the same themes as "Song of Myself," expanding on what Whitman argues throughout the work.
- "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" was written just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as an elegy.
The poet the world has come to know as the American bard was born Walter Whitman in West Hills, Long Island in New York on May 31, 1819. His mother, Louisa, immigrated from Holland and his father, Walter, from England. Whitman’s father worked mostly with his hands as a carpenter and a housebuilder, trades Whitman himself would pursue early on in his life.
Shortly after Whitman was born, his family moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman would receive his schooling. As a young man, he held various jobs: he set type in a printing office, and he worked as a schoolteacher.
By 1841, Whitman was beginning to focus his career on writing—first in the form of journalism. He became something of an accomplished journalist in his own right, reporting for and editing several newspapers and periodicals. Bettina Knapp notes that Whitman completed a “temperance novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, in 1842 to secure funds for Leaves of Grass. He later disavowed this novel due to its poor quality.” It was then, after a brief occupation as a carpenter, that Whitman finally determined to dedicate his time to writing poetry, though he had begun to formulate ideas about what a new American literature would look like much earlier. His vision stems, in part, from his experiences during a trip across America that he undertook in 1848. As he traveled from New York to Louisiana, Whitman was deeply affected by the people and places he saw. These images became a collage of America and a source for his writing.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a lifespan of several editions and 37 years, for Whitman was constantly in the act of revising and augmenting his collection of poems, finally conceiving of it as a “single poem.” Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, a thin volume of a dozen poems. By the final impression in 1891–1892 (sanctioned the “deathbed” edition), the volume had expanded into the text we study today.
The earlier editions (1855, 1856, and 1860) announce the arrival of a brand new voice in American literature and represent Whitman’s experimentation with form and subject matter in poetry. In his work, Whitman ignores many poetic conventions in order to achieve his purpose of creating something new in American letters. For example, Whitman rarely follows a patterned rhyme scheme, and he is not concerned with any regularity of meter; indeed, his poetry is written in free verse, a style of writing that is appropriate to Whitman’s subject matter.
The later editions (1867, 1871, and 1881) are characterized by Whitman’s experiences while caring for the wounded during the Civil War and his response to the assassination of President Lincoln. As Whitman kept crafting the editions of his masterpiece, he made extensive revisions, including: adding new poems, retitling poems, reshuffling the order in which the poems appear, deleting or reworking lines in various poems, dropping several poems, and refashioning punctuation.
In an essay written late in his life, entitled “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman seems surprised by what he has accomplished:
My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to ’80—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull’d...
(The entire section is 1,232 words.)