Walt Whitman

Start Free Trial

What is the theme of Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing"?

Quick answer:

The overriding theme of Walt Whitman's poem “I Hear America Singing” is the dignity of work. In what is a highly romanticized view of work, Whitman looks beyond the mindless drudgery that affects most working people in his day to behold instead what he regards as the dignity of their calling.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would argue that there are three themes in this wonderful, uplifting poem of Walt Whitman's. The first is the joy that can be found in one's work, the second is companionship, and the third is satisfaction with one's lot in life.

Singing is almost always a joyous action, and this poem provides numerous illustrations of people singing as they go about their work. Even though it is blue-collar work, and one of the people mentioned is this poem are likely to be fabulously wealthy, they are all happy and content.

The theme of companionship is introduced by the mention of two different professions in several of the lines in the poem. For example, the shoemaker and the hatter are both singing, and the wood-cutter and the ploughboy both have a song.

The theme of satisfaction can be found in the line "Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else." This has a strong implication that every worker is satisfied with his or her lot in life, and that there is no jealousy or ill-feeling between the workers described by Whitman.

The theme of joy pervades the entire poem, and an image is created of a happy society filled with music and melodies. A world free of complaints and full of song is a wonderful place to imagine, and one can feel Whitman's joy as one reads the poem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"I Hear America Singing" can be seen as a celebration of work; to be more specific, it is a paean of praise for blue-collar work. White-collar workers are notable by their absence in Whitman's poem—a sign that, like many middle-class intellectuals, he has a somewhat Romantic conception of the real-life working conditions of ordinary people.

In romanticizing the work of mechanics, carpenters, masons, boatmen, and countless others, Whitman believes that he's celebrating the ordinary Joes of society, the unsung heroes of labor whose work is essential to the running of the American economy.

Yet in romanticizing America's ordinary workers, Whitman conveniently overlooks the appalling, often downright degrading conditions in which many such people were expected to work. Treating working people as heroes in the way that he does can all too easily provide an excuse for not dealing with the many challenges they have to face, such as securing shorter hours, benefits, and decent pay.

To be sure, this isn't Whitman's intention, but in listening to Americans “sing” he seems not to hear the plaintive cries of working men and women in distress. Given what we know of the treatment of working people in Whitman's day, perhaps his song is just a little too happy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The themes of Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" are taking joy in one's work and being productive. Whitman describes the work of people in many different occupations. He identifies some of their tasks. For example, the carpenter measures wood as he works and the girl washes and sews. Whitman gives credit to women's work with a brief mention near the end of the poem. Whitman's poem was written in a time when it was rare for women to work outside the home.

All of the workers in the poem are joyful as they work. One indication of their joy in their productivity is that they all sing as they work. The image of the singing workers is repeated throughout the poem to show the theme of joy and contentment in work. Walt Whitman describes this in the poem:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear...

The workers have different voices and different songs. The poem's narrator describes how all the workers are "singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Remember that Whitman was answering Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for "An American Poet," someone who could best represent the majority of Americans rather than the elite politicians, millionaires or aristrocracy. Looking at the full text of the poem shows Whitman's respect and love for American people in their most basic environment: work. These people are optomistic and joyful in their work, even if the work itself is not glamorous or "special." Whitman adored those who found the joy and happiness in everyday life.

Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This poem is a joyous reflection of the many working people in America, and how they are going about their day, strong, happy, healthy, and good at their jobs.  The theme is productivity, or happiness in one's station in life.  He describes all sorts of people on their jobs-mechanics, carpenters, masons, boatmen, shoemaker, woodcutter, and even mothers, wives, and young men.  Each picture he presents of these people is their "blithe" and happy nature in their station of life.  He uses such optimistic and joyous words to describe them going about their days:  "blithe", "carols", "strong", "delicious", "robust", "friendly".  The entire poem is a celebration of life, a celebration of the many different types of people that make up what America is, and how they find joy and happiness in their every day.

I hope that helps a bit; it's a great poem!  Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” showcases a catalog of Americans singing.  What are these Americans celebrating through their singing?

Throughout Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing," he catalogs various people celebrating their lives as they are engaged in their daily tasks. Whitman showcases carpenters, masons, shoemakers, wood-cutters, mothers, and young people singing throughout the day and night. Whitman believes that the essence of America is in its working-class and glorifies their service throughout the poem. Each person is celebrating "what belongs to him or her and to none else." Although each laborer engages in different tasks, they are each celebrating the joy they feel working towards their individual goals. Whether the goal is a carpenter completing a project, or a mason constructing a wall, each person finds pleasure in their work. Whitman romanticizes the daily lives of working-class Americans by depicting the songs they sing throughout the day and night. They celebrate their productivity and opportunity to earn a living doing work that they enjoy. The collective positive spirit of the various laborers illustrates Whitman's idealized view of America. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” showcases a catalog of Americans singing.  What are these Americans celebrating through their singing?

"I Hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman is a celebration of Americans and the simple tasks or jobs they do every day. In this poem, "singing" is a metaphor for the sounds of each person's daily tasks. He calls these sounds "varied carols" and he lists many of the ordinary professions and the cheerful "singing" which is connected with each. Consider these lines:

The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
 

The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work.

The poem as a whole draws attention to the simplest tasks, many of which are done without pay. A mother, a young wife, a young girl doing laundry or sewing, and a group of young men apparently just enjoying spending time together. This poem celebrates the everyday work of Americans in Whitman's day. Today, of course, there would be a different set of workers, perhaps, with a different set of "songs" (think technology and the sounds of many of today's jobs), and not all would be content with their tasks. The principal, though, is the same--drawing attention to the common man doing his job and enjoying it.

I have included a great eNotes link to Walt Whitman in case you need more information.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the analysis of "I Hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman?

To analyze Walt Whitman's poem “I Hear America Singing,” we need to take a close look at the poem's structure and content to see how well it fulfills its purpose. Let's explore these elements in more depth.

We will start with the poem's purpose. Whitman wants to show both the diversity and the unity of America. He wants to capture the heart of the country, which is its people going about their daily lives and all making a contribution to the nation as a whole.

To fulfill this purpose, Whitman uses the symbol of a song. America is singing, the whole nation all together yet in “varied carols.” Each person sings his or her own song, yet these combine into a strong harmony that makes the country what it is. The song represents the lives and professions, the activities and work, of the people. The carpenter and mason, boatman and shoemaker, and all the rest each contribute a part of the nation's strength simply by doing what belongs to them each day. This is truly a beautiful way to express the unity of America while recognizing its diversity and celebrating each person and profession.

As for the structure of this poem, Whitman writes his single stanza in free verse, which lacks any particular meter or rhyme. His single stanza mirrors the unity of the nation while his choice of free verse allows him room to write about common people doing common things in the everyday language of those people.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on