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...
(The entire section is 5,268 words.)