Walt Whitman

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Which Walt Whitman's poem best reveals Romantic thinking and how?

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"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is another of Whitman's poems that illustrates Romantic principles. In the poem, a narrator explains how, when he listened to an astronomer lecture about the stars, showing figures and charts and equations, he started to feel lethargic and ill. So, he got up and went outside, alone, into the night, and looked up at the stars.

This poem addresses the Romantic emphasis on the individual and the power the individual has to divine truth from natural settings. There is something to be learned in a classroom, certainly, but we learn truth—the things that are truly important—on our own, through our own intuition. On his own, the narrator "ris[es] and glid[es]," becomes active and almost holy in his movement. The night is "mystical" and the solitude and silence are "perfect." We can achieve something most like perfection, the sublime, in nature, and this notion is incredibly Romantic.

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In Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider," there are a number of characteristics of American Romanticism.

Characteristics, in general, include: the emotional, individualism, a love of separateness or nature, creative vitality..., and...introspection, among several others.

I chose this poem because it provided an easy identification of these characteristics. In the poem, the speaker watches a spider as it patiently builds its web, repeating its movements over and over and over again. The spider is on an isolated "promontory" from which it throws out "filament, filament, filament" giving one the sense of quiet concentration and continuous endeavor, in order to explore the "vacant, vast surrounding" as it continues to work tirelessly.

A noiseless, patient spider,

I mark'd, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark'd how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them--ever tirelessly speeding them.

In the second stanza, Whitman makes a connection between the life of a spider and a human being. The speaker notes that he, too, is surrounded by enormous, immeasurable space: "ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing" to learn of his environment, much like the spider. This continues until man can build an anchored bridge to connect the spheres of life with a "thread" that will somehow connect him to the world—connect his soul to the world.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,--seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form'd--till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

The emotional essence is most evident in the poem's last line, where the speaker hopes that the "thread" flung will find a connection for his soul. A sense of the individualism is found in the second stanza, where a man addresses his own soul, on its personal journey through the universe, trying to find a "joining" of some kind. Nature is evident with the metaphor the speaker uses when comparing the work of the patient spider to the work of a man, even to referring to the "filament" of the spider, and the "gossamer thread" of the man.

The aspect of creative energy is also present in comparing the microcosm of the spider's world to the microcosm of the speaker— as isolated as the spider, but looking for a link between a world of solitude and one of community with someone or something greater than himself. Lastly, there is the use of introspection present as the speaker looks at the example of the spider and finds a parallel with his own life, to find some meaning in his life experience; the work of the spider and the man are metaphorically similar, but the speaker's ability to find meaning in his existence alludes to a higher plane of existence.

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Choose a poem from Whitman, and explain how it reveals Romantic thinking. Cite examples from the poem as your support.

First, let's summarize a few key characteristics of Romantic literature and poetry. These works often:

  • Celebrate free expression and the individual
  • Appreciate the beauty of the natural world and often use natural imagery to illustrate ideas
  • Prioritize imagination and emotions over formal, socially sanctioned thoughts (such as organized religion)

Whitman was a true romantic, and the vast majority of his written work may be categorized as Romantic poetry or literature. One such poem is "A Noiseless Patient Spider." Essentially, the speaker of this poem observes a spider (an element of nature) and identifies with it. Just as the spider "launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself," so too does the speaker's soul continually reach out into the world to establish connections.

The speaker describes how his soul is "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them." Here we see a celebration of expression and the efforts of the individual. Both the speaker and the spider make earnest efforts to connect with the world around them, thereby establishing their individual roles in the grand scheme of things. Though the spider is small and silent, it too is part of the fabric of the universe—the connectivity of all things to all other things. This potent emotion of togetherness and oneness with other living things is a common theme in Whitman's work.

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Choose a poem from Whitman, and explain how it reveals Romantic thinking. Cite examples from the poem as your support.

The Romantic movement privileged intense human emotion and experience over logic and reason, as they believed that our emotions are more authentically "us"; we do not have to be taught to feel strongly. On the other hand, we must cultivate logic—it is not as immediately knowable to us as emotion. We see this prioritizing in "What think You I take my Pen in Hand?" In this poem, the speaker discusses what he sees that makes him pick up his pen to write: it is a personal interaction between two men while they are preparing to part from one another. It is an emotional scene as the men clearly feel very deeply attached to each other:

The one to remain hung on the other's neck, and passionately kiss'ed him, / While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

The fact that it is this moment of intense emotion that so arrests the speaker's attention helps to position poem this firmly in the Romantic tradition. The sight of these two men experiencing such intense emotion beats out a "perfect-model'd, majestic" battle ship, as well as "The splendors of the past day" as well as night, and the "great city spread around" the speaker. Instead of any of these "majestic," "splen[did]," and "great" sights, he is most affected by the deep display of passion he witnesses.

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Choose a poem from Whitman, and explain how it reveals Romantic thinking. Cite examples from the poem as your support.

There are plenty of poems that you could look at in order to answer this question. Whitman is of course recognised as being one of the most famous American Romantics, and so it follows that the vast majority of his works bear this stamp of being Romantic works of art.

One of my favourite Romantic poems, however, is entitled "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." This poem is Romantic because of the contrast that is created through comparing a view of the night sky and the stars and planets in it that is strictly rational and based on "charts," "diagrams" and dividing and measuring them with a view that is much more mystical and instrinsic. The poem presents the speaker as attending a lecture on the universe by the "learn'd astronomer" who is clearly an expert in his field. What is strange however is how this lecture leaves the speaker feeling ill-at-ease and rather depressed. It is only when he goes outside and looks at the night sky from his non-expert point of view that he feels better:

I wander'd off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

A key element of Romanticism is the way that it depends on intuition and feelings rather than on scientific formulaes and equations. These two aspects are contrasted in this poem, and the way in which the speaker finds peace and tranquility in the night sky by himself indicates the Romantic force of this poem.

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