Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work
When having to think about the philosophy of Americanness, who else
could come to one’s mind other than Walt Whitman. One of the most read,
most enjoyable writers of American Literature so much debated and
gossiped about, preceding his own folk’s and the world’s age by
light-years ahead, throwing himself in the face of his contemporary
readers, at last knocking down all the remains of the long-suffered
puritan establishments and values that the country has carried as a
burden for far too long. One simply cannot exclude Whitman without
having to make a comment about his poetry – his art – he simply cannot
be ignored, for he and his art does not allow that.
The aim of our work is to analyze features of Walt Whitman’s style. We
will study his literary techniques, such as alliteration, anaphora,
«free» verse etc. In our work we will try to show philosophical basics
of his works.
Our tasks are:
– To investigate the uniqueness of his style
– To analyze some of his works in order to characterize his poetic
– To conduct a detailed analysis of philosophical basics of his works
We will also propose some of his poems because we wanted to show
peculiarities of his style.
«Leaves of Grass»
If we want to talk about philosophical basics of Walt Whitman, we should
analyze them all in common because they are all connected and you can
find several of them in one poem at the same time.
First of all we will start our investigation with one of his greatest
poems «Leaves of Grass».
The title «Leaves of Grass» is used by Whitman to symbolize the
immortality of the soul, the mechanical universe, and that all things
are in a state of flux Whitman says in the last chapter:
«I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love»
He loves the grass so much as part of nature, assimilates himself to
nature, and considers the immortality of the soul in nature because of
his belief and his own inspiration and individuality.
Whitman’s idea of nature can be accepted concerning the world of death
since nature is inextricably linked with mortal beings and in harmony
with the mind. That greatest harmony is thought to be the immortality of
the soul in nature. In other words, its harmonization is based on the
medieval idea that «The will of God creates nature».
He thought that this is a dark mysterious world, and that human beings
contribute to the world of death by their domination of nature. The
world of human being is a lonely creature in a chaotic universe. Firm in
this belief, Whitman in his philosophical approach to Nihilism described
himself as the immortality of the soul in the great universe. He said in
his first chapter:
«I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as God belongs to you.» (P. 1).
This is the liberation of the mind from the philosophy of a controlling
God, which was current in the plantation period of J. Edwards
(1703–1758). To expound this theme, Whitman wrote his poem, in which he
propounded his ideas.
«The atmosphere is not a perfume,
It has no taste of the distillation, and it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.» (P. 2).
Whitman’s nature is good, not evil. The stream of this idea is accepted
by J. Rousseau (1712–1778) «As a human nature is good in nature» which
is an absolutely optimistic and ever frontier spirit.
Whitman pursues each personal develop – meant by showing how people
relate. For example: looking forth on pavement and land, or outside of
pavement and land, «Belonging to the winders of the circuit of
circuits.» (P. 78).
From this point of view, he looks over the natural phenomenon of
circuits, and God is defined by the relationship of human nature to the
Whitman thought that inspiration was equal to the dualism of the soul
and the personality, and wrote:
«Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stand amused, complacent, compassionating, idea, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest.
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next.
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists
I have no mocking or arguments, I witness and wait.» (P. 6).
Whitman considered the relation of phenomenon and the personality. His
mind was not closed to the realities in which his personality asserted
the method of the audience and passive state condition and tried to
contact the refusing phenomenon.
«Leaves of grass» belongs to no particular accepted form of poetry.
Whitman described its form as «a new and national declamatory
expression.» Whitman was a poet bubbling with energy and burdened with
sensations, and his poetic utterances reveal his innovations. His poetry
seems to grow organically, like a tree. It has the tremendous vitality
of an oak. Its growth follows no regular pattern: «Song of Myself», for
example, seems at first almost recklessly written, without any attention
to form. Whitman’s poetry, like that of most prophetic writers, is
unplanned, disorganized, sometimes abortive, but nevertheless
distinctively his own.
Walt Whitman’s Poetical Techniques
In his poems he used some special poetical techniques.
«Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking»: «’And thenceforward all summer in
the sound of the sea.’ This use of alliteration of the creates a sound
of the sea… which is very effective. This is by no means the only use of
alliteration in the poem. Other groupings such as ‘sterile sands,’
‘briers and blackberries, ‘ ‘Listened long and long,’ ‘sweetest song and
songs,’ and ‘singer solitary’ occur throughout the poem» (Kimmel
Anaphora: repetition of words or phrases at beginnings of lines.
«Crossing Brooklyn Ferry»: «’Others will enter… / Others will watch… /
Others will see’ and also ‘Just as you feel… / Just as you are
refresh’d… / Just as you stand… / Just as you look…’» (Barham 9/17/96).
«One of the first cases in which he uses anaphora extensively in
Drum-Taps is in the section titled «Poet,» in which the first four lines
begin with ‘I hear, ‘ and lines 8–12 begin with ‘I see, ‘ while the
entire first 13 lines begin with ‘I.’ He is creating one large audio and
visual image in those lines, with each line being a separate image, but
all tied together by their common beginning. In this case, lines all
beginning with the same word also help to set up a rhythm, as the reader
is inclined to read all of the ‘I’s with the same amount of stress, like
reading off items on a list. Through the use of anaphora in this way,
Whitman can express one theme in several different lines, with several
different ideas, while having a definite link between each thought. In
the first section of ‘Give Me the Splendid Sun, ’ Whitman begins the
first eleven lines with ‘Give me.’ Although in each line he is asking
for a different thing, the entire thought expressed in the lines
together is his desire for ‘nature’s primal sanities.’ With the common
beginning in these lines, he is expressing all of his values at once in
eleven lines, with eleven different ideas» (Minis 9/17/96).
Definition: verse that, while free of rhyme and a consistent rhythm, may
employ other structural and sound elements, such as anaphora and
Whitman may have picked up on Emerson’s line in «The Poet»: «For it is
not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem.»
But he also may have found models in «Proverbial Philosophy,» a free
verse poem that Tupper published in 1838, and in a poem by George
«In many of Whitman’s poems, like Children of Adam, he lists many things
at once. In Children of Adam, section 9, he lists over 80 parts of the
body, both male and female. He does this listing technique again in Song
of the Open Road, when he tells of all the things he passes and sees on
his journey» (Baldwin 9/17/96)
They show a childish joy in naming things (Matthiessen 518).
Perhaps they also betray a desire to incorporate everything in a poem,
as Melville tried to do in Moby-Dick.
Whitman may have borrowed the idea from contemporary travel literature,
including books called Mississippi in Gobs and New York in Chunks
«In ‘Drum-Taps’ the smaller passages which make up the whole poem seem
to give all different perspectives of the war. The perspective of the
mother, father, child, wound dresser, slave woman, and even a banner are
all given. In turn, the reader is fed a catalog of various feelings
about war. Also, in ‘Drum-Taps’ and particularly in the passage ‘First O
Songs for a Prelude, ‘ there is a catalog. Whitman lists and lists all
different people with varying occupations and how they are getting ready
for war. Thy lawyer, the mechanic, and salesman are all mentioned. It
would be easy to see Whitman’s use of the catalog as simply ‘show[ing]
childish joy in naming things’ (Matthiessen 518). However, I see it as
Whitman’s way of presenting universality. Everyone is going through this
same event, and everyone is feeling emotions about the war. The catalog
shows common links among humans» (Plonk 9/19/96).
Definition: a mirror pattern in words, sounds, or other elements.
See «Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,» lines 71–74: «SOOTHE! Soothe!
Soothe!» / CLOSE on its wave soothes the wave BEHIND / And again another
BEHIND embracing and lapping, everyone CLOSE, / But my love SOOTHES not
me, not me.»
See «By the Bivouac’s fitful flame»: «By the Bivouac’s fitful flame… / A
procession… / A solemn and slow procession… / By the Bivouac’s fitful
flame» (Daigneault 9/20/96).
See Psalm 124:7: «Our soul is ESCAPED as a bird out of the SNARE of the
fowlers: the SNARE is broken, and we are ESCAPED.»
Circles and Cycles
Drum-Taps: «He begins the poem with a short prelude and then begins
telling of the year 1861 and how all the men were having to leave their
jobs and wives to go fight in the war. Then he starts telling about the
war itself. He describes cavalries crossing fords and army corps
marching to battle. In one section, he speaks of a soldier who watches
his friend get fatally wounded. The soldier holds a vigil all night for
his friend and then buries him when he dies. In another section, he
describes a soldier’s family–his mother, father, and sister–when they
receive a letter telling them that he has been injured in battle.
Whitman brings out the true emotion of the families during this time.
After describing all of the different parts to the war, at the end of
the poem, Whitman comes full circle as he does in all his works by
declaring that the war is over and that there is peace throughout the
country. In this manner, Whitman completes his poetic story, and the
reader is fulfilled» (Jake man 9/19/96).
«Passage to India»: «O…Of you…Of you…Of you…O»
Psalm 70:1–5: «Make haste…. Let… Let… Let… Make haste.»
Whitman had written sensational stories; visionary works, nationalistic
works, biblical stories, and works on social issues.
«If Leaves of Grass was the era’s most expansive poem, continuing the
largest variety of voices and topics, it was largely because it was
written by one who had unabashedly tried his hand at virtually every
genre that had been popularized by previous American writers» (Reynolds
Section 9 of «Crossing Brooklyn Ferry» is a mirror image of Section 3,
except that mood of Section 9 is imperative, and that of Section 3 is
Still pictures suggest immortality of images, as on Grecian Urn, and may
reflect interest in photography. Whitman uses unpoetic objects and makes
He also uses outrageous analogies: «the cow crunching with depressed
head surpasses any statue» resembles Thoreau’s description of the «cheap
and natural music of the cow» in Walden.
Drum-Taps:» Whitman uses [phrases] like ‘the young men falling in and
arming, / The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the
blacksmith’s hammer, toast aside with precipitation).’ This use of
imagery allows Whitman to make descriptive scenes that the reader can
attach himself to and see» (Aron 9/19/96).
«Another technique Whitman makes use of is that of imagery: ‘We primeval
forests felling, we the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the
mines within… we the virgin soil up heaving…’ The extensive use of
imagery serves to widen the reader’s scope of comprehension for the
picture that Whitman is painting. The content is driven by the images
like still photographs coming together to form a film» (Premakumar
Lines in «Crossing Brooklyn Ferry» suggest tides.
Length of lines in Section 1 suggests flood tide because each is longer
than the one preceding it.
Sections also suggest flood tide because they grow longer in groups of
three: a, a+b, a+b+c, d, d+e, d+e+f, g, g+h, g+h+i
Elsewhere, Whitman often achieves an aural effect by writing
increasingly longer lines, suggesting expansion of thought.
«In most of Whitman’s poems, the pattern is not rhythmic, yet the
pattern lies in the length of the lines. In one verse, the first line is
of typical length, and the second line is extended a little longer than
the first. The pattern continues with the third and fourth lines each
becoming longer than their predecessor. The reason seems to be to build
up a climax in each of Whitman’s verses, and the fifth and final line is
the conclusion of the verse. This style puts a greater emphasis on each
verse and provides the reader with various miniature climaxes» (Atkinson
Whitman was inspired by opera.
He portrays himself as a bard, singing for the common people.
«Beat! Beat! Drums!»: «Throughout the poem, he not only repeats, ‘Beat!
Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!’ but he uses the words in the stanzas
that incorporate some kind of sound. He uses words like ‘burst, ‘
‘pound, ‘ ‘rumble, ‘ ‘rattle, ‘ and ‘thump.’ I can associate sounds with
each of these words. I can hear the drums drumming and the bugles
blowing» (Patterson 9/17/96).
«One example of this can be seen in ‘Song of the Banner at Daybreak’
when the flag expresses its voice by ‘Flapping, flapping, flapping,
flapping…’» (Daugherty 9/19/96).
Whitman lived at a time of great orators, such as Daniel Webster.
He may have been influenced by grass-roots reformers’ oratory
Definition: variations on a theme, often linked by anaphora (the
repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of lines).
«Song of Myself»: «Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? have you
reckoned the earth much? Have you…»
«Crossing Brooklyn Ferry»: «I see… I see… I see…»
See Ecclesiastes 3:2 – …: «A time to be born, and a time to die: a time
to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…»
«’Persona, ‘ as defined by A Handbook to Literature, is a mask created
by an author and through which a narrative is told. Intrinsic in the
concept of persona is that the author’s own views are masked by the
implied author through which he/she speaks (385). Another interpretation
of ‘persona, ‘ the Jungian view, is that persona is a set of attitudes
adopted by an individual to fit himself for the social roles he sees as
his (Simpson 598)…. Both of these explanations of persona are applicable
to Whitman’s works» (Hundley 1).
«Section 9 of «Passage to India» includes 29 lines. Twenty-five of these
lines end either in a question or exclamation mark. The effect of this
punctuation is that Whitman depicts the deep emotion that he pours into
his writing» (Lasher 9/17/96).
Whitman «uses exclamation points frequently, creating extra emphasis on
lines. The beautiful things in life become magnificent, and sad become
tragic» (Minis 9/17/96).
Whitman believed that poetry should be spoken, not written, and this
basic criterion governed the concept and form of his poetry. He used
repetition and reiterative devices (as, for example, in «Out of the
Cradle Endlessly rocking,» the lines «Loud! Loud! Loud!» and «Blow!
Blow! Blow!») He also employed elements of the opera (the aria and the
recitative) in his poems.
He also was a master of exuberant phrases and images: «The beautiful
uncut hair of graves» («Song of Myself,» section 6) is extraordinarily
descriptive. Conversely, another description of the grass in the same
section of the same poem, where it is described as «the handkerchief of
the Lord,» is trivial.
Whitman brought vitality and picturesqueness to his descriptions of the
physical world. He was particularly sensitive to sounds and described
them with acute awareness. His view of the world was dominated by its
change and fluidity, and this accounts for his frequent use of «ing»
forms, either present participle or gerund.
Whitman’s language is full of his eccentricities: he used the word
«presidential» for presidency, «pave» for pavement, and he spelled
Canada with a K.
«Leaves of grass» contains archaic expressions – for example, betimes,
betwixt, methinks, haply, and list (for listen). Whitman also employs
many colloquial expressions and technical and commercial terms. Words
from foreign languages add color and variety to his style.
Peculiarities in Whitman’s Rhythm and Verse
Whitman’s use of rhythms is notable. A line of his verse, if scanned in
the routine way, seems like a prose sentence, or an advancing wave of
prose rhythm. Yet his work is composed in lines, not in sentences as
prose would be. The line is the unit of sense in Whitman.
Whitman experimented with meter, rhythm, and form because he thought
that experimentation was the law of the changing times, and that
innovation was the gospel of the modern world. Whitman’s fondness for
trochaic movement rather than iambic movement shows the distinctive
quality of his use of meter. An iamb is a metrical foot of two
syllables, the second of which is accented. A trochee is a metrical foot
consisting of an accented syllable followed by an unaccepted one. The
iambic is the most commonly used meter in English poetry, partly because
of the structure of English speech. English phrases normally begin with
an article, preposition, or conjunction which merges into the word that
follows it, thus creating the rising inflection which is iambic. Why,
then, did Whitman prefer the trochaic to the iambic meter? It was partly
due to the poet’s desire for declamatory expression and oratorical
style, since the trochee is more suitable for eloquent expression than
the iambic meter. Whitman also liked to do things that were unusual and
Imagery – a Special Technique of Walt Whitman’s
Imagery means a figurative use of language. Whitman’s use of imagery
shows his imaginative power, the depth of his sensory perceptions, and
his capacity to capture reality instantaneously. He expresses his
impressions of the world in language which mirrors the present. He makes
the past come alive in his images and makes the future seem immediate.
Whitman’s imagery has some logical order on the conscious level, but it
also delves into the subconscious, into the world of memories, producing
a stream-of-consciousness of images. These images seem like parts of a
dream, pictures of fragments of a world. On the other hand, they have
solidity; they build the structure of the poems.
The Use of Symbols in Whitman’s Works
A symbol is an emblem, a concrete object that stands for something
abstract; for example, the dove is a symbol of peace; the cross,
Christianity. Literary symbols, however, have a more particular
connotation. They sometimes signify the total meaning, or the different
levels of meaning, which emerge from the work of art in which they
appear. A white whale is just an animal–but in Melville’s Moby Dick it
is a god to some characters, evil incarnate to others, and a mystery to
others. In other words, it has an extended connotation which is
In the mid1880s, the Symbolist movement began in France, and the
conscious use of symbols became the favorite practice of poets. The
symbolists and Whitman had much in common; both tried to interpret the
universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from
traditional forms and methods. But the symbols of the French symbolists
were highly personal, whereas in Whitman the use of the symbol was
governed by the objects he observed: the sea, the birds, the lilacs, the
Calamus plant, the sky, and so on. Nevertheless, Whitman did have an
affinity with the symbolists; they even translated some of his poems
Whitman’s major concern was to explore, discuss, and celebrate his own
self, his individuality and his personality. Second, he wanted to
eulogize democracy and the American nation with its achievements and
potential. Third, he wanted to give poetical expression to his thoughts
on life’s great, enduring mysteries–birth, death, rebirth or
resurrection, and reincarnation.
To Whitman, the complete self is both physical and spiritual. The self
is man’s individual identity, his distinct quality and being, which is
different from the selves of other men, although it can identify with
them. The self is a portion of the one Divine Soul. Whitman’s critics
have sometimes confused the concept of self with egotism, but this is
not valid. Whitman is constantly talking about «I,» but the «I» is
universal, a part of the Divine, and therefore not egotistic.
The Body and the Soul
Whitman is a poet of these elements in man, the body and the soul. He
thought that we could comprehend the soul only through the medium of the
body. To Whitman, all matter is as divine as the soul; since the body is
as sacred and as spiritual as the soul, when he sings of the body or its
performances, he is singing a spiritual chant.
Whitman shares the Romantic poet’s relationship with nature. To him, as
to Emerson, nature is divine and an emblem of God. The universe is not
dead matter, but full of life and meaning. He loves the earth, the flora
and fauna of the earth, the moon and stars, the sea, and all other
elements of nature. He believes that man is nature’s child and that man
and nature must never be disjoined.
Whitman’s concept of the ideal poet is, in a way, related to his ideas
on time. He conceives of the poet as a time-binder, one who realizes
that the past, present, and future are «not disjoined, but joined,» that
they are all stages in a continuous flow and cannot be considered as
separate and distinct. These modem ideas of time have given rise to new
techniques of literary expression–for example, the
Whitman believed that the cosmos, or the universe, does not consist
merely of lifeless matter; it has awareness. It is full of life and
filled with the spirit of God. The cosmos is God and God is the cosmos;
death and decay are unreal. This cosmic consciousness is, indeed, one
aspect of Whitman’s mysticism.
Mysticism is an experience that has a spiritual meaning which is not
apparent to the senses nor to the intellect. Thus mysticism, an insight
into the real nature of man, God, and the universe, is attained through
one’s intuition. The mystic believes in the unity of God and man, man
and nature, God and the universe. To a mystic, time and space are
unreal, since both can be overcome by man by spiritual conquest. Evil,
too, is unreal, since God is present everywhere. Man communicates with
his soul in a mystical experience, and Whitman amply expresses his
responses to the soul in Leaves of Grass, especially in «Song of
Myself.» He also expresses his mystical experience of his body or
personality being permeated by the supernatural. Whitman’s poetry is his
artistic expression of various aspects of his mystical experience.
No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what
the «Bardic Symbols» symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and
addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to
force from them, by his frantic outcry, the the [sic] true solution of
the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the
august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain
that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or
what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like
this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that
art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:
O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands
untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.
If indeed, we were compelled to guess the meaning of the poem, we should
say it all lay in the compass of these lines of Tennyson–the saddest and
profoundest that ever were written:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me! 1
An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute
signification, and full of «divine despair 2 .»
We think it has been an error in Whitman to discard forms and laws, for
without them the poet diffuses. He may hurry forward with impulses, but
he is spent before he reaches the reader’s heart through his bewildered
understanding. Steam subject, is a mighty force; steam free, is an
impalpable vapor, only capable of delicate hues and beauty with the sun
upon it. But O, poet! there is not a sun in every sky.
The theme of love
Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very
beginning and have shaped the course of the book’s reception. The first
edition in 1855 contained what were to be called «Song of Myself,» «The
Sleepers,» and «I Sing the Body Electric,» which are «about» sexuality
(though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning,
Whitman wove together themes of «manly love» and «sexual love,» with
great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as
well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in
sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined
sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early
adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two
relationships: «amativeness» for man-woman love «adhesiveness» for
«manly love.» Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct
attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews
of his book («Walt Whitman and His Poems,» 1855) he wrote of himself and
the 1855 Leaves: «The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also
beautiful…. Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the
universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the
female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by
deliberate intention and effort» (Poetry and Prose 535).
Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including «Poem of
Procreation» (now «A Woman Waits for Me») and «Bunch Poem» («Spontaneous
Me»). At the end of the volume he included, without permission,
Emerson’s letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its «great power,» and «free
and brave thought»), and alongside it he published his own letter in
reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson’s praise to
emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness:
«As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not
the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man
or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the
body is to be expressed, and sex is» (Poetry and Prose 529).
It was not until the 1860 edition of Leaves that Whitman gathered the
poems celebrating sexuality into the cluster «Enfans d’Adam» («Children
of Adam») and the poems celebrating «manly love» into «Calamus.» When
Whitman came to Boston to see his book through the press there, Emerson
tried to persuade him to withdraw the sex poems, but Whitman refused. He
probably understood that if he really desexed Leaves it would be like
self-castration. Although Emerson never publicly withdrew his
endorsement of Whitman, he passed up opportunities to repeat it.
Emerson’s silence together with Whitman’s loss of his job at the
Interior Department in 1865, charged with writing «indecent poems,» were
early warning signs that he and his Leaves were embarked on a difficult
In subsequent editions of Leaves, Whitman revised and shifted his poems
of amativeness and adhesiveness, but by and large his dominant themes
became not the body but the soul, not youth but old age–and death. His
experience in the Civil War hospitals seems to have provided a turning
point for Whitman’s focus. He even claimed, in «A Backward Glance O’er
Travel’d Roads» (1888), that the war revealed to him, «as by flashes of
lightning,» the «final reasons-for-being» of his «passionate song»
(Poetry and Prose 516). In his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (1865, later
included in the 1867 Leaves), the «Calamus» theme runs throughout –
«cropping out» as Whitman himself said of it in his 1876 Preface to Two
Rivulets (Prose Works 2:471). Whitman critics have not failed to notice
in «Drum-Taps» the poet’s theme of adhesiveness–the joy in the physical
transmuted by the war into pain and anguish–in such poems as «The
Wound-Dresser,» «Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,» and «A
March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.»
In 1868 W.M. Rossetti published a British edition of Whitman’s poetry,
Poems by Walt Whitman. In effect, this was an expurgated Leaves, with
«Song of Myself,» «Children of Adam,» and «Calamus» omitted, except for
a few poems of the «Calamus» cluster placed in a section entitled «Walt
Whitman.» In spite of Rossetti’s gutting of the book, it established
Whitman’s reputation in England and attracted many ardent admirers.
Some, when they became familiar with the poems purged by Rossetti,
became even more ardent, while others turned hostile. The former
included Anne Gilchrist, who fell in love with Whitman and wrote an
article «An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman» (Boston 1870),
especially praising Whitman’s sex poems. Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem
in praise of Walt Whitman in Song Before Sunrise (1871), but loudly
reversed himself in his 1887 essay, «Whitmania,» after encountering all
of Leaves. John Addington Symonds read Whitman’s poems as a young man,
and, bowled over, found his way to the whole of «Calamus.» He would
later strike up a correspondence with Whitman in Camden, pressing him on
the real meaning of his «Calamus» poems, leading Whitman ultimately to
reply in a notorious letter in 1890 claiming to have had six
illegitimate children during his «jolly» «times south» (Poetry and Prose
Although in the fifth edition (1871–1872) of Leaves, Whitman seemed
temporarily to lose his way in shaping Leaves to contain his new work
(«Passage to India» and related poems), some ten years later, in the
sixth edition (1881–1882), he adopted his earlier practice of
integrating the poems of a lifetime into a single structure. Before the
book could be distributed by its publisher in Boston, however, it was
found to be immoral by the Society for the Suppression of Vice; because
Whitman refused to remove the offensive parts, the book was withdrawn
and published in Philadelphia. The Boston censors found offensive not
only the whole of «A Woman Waits for Me,» «The Dalliance of the Eagles,»
and «To a Common Prostitute,» but also passages vital to the life of a
number of Whitman’s greatest works, including «Song of Myself.» But the
«Calamus» cluster with its songs of «manly love» was left intact!
In «A Backward Glance,» Whitman made his final assessment of the sex
poems that had given him so many problems. Writing a bit after the most
recent attempt to censor his book, whitman affirms boldly–» Leaves of
Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality….
Of this feature… I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines
so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces
might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted» (Poetry
and Prose 518). A similar claim might have been made for the «Calamus»
poems of adhesiveness; that no such claim was made was attributable,
surely, to the fact that they had never inspired public controversy as
had the sex poems.
The theme of death.
Whitman deals with death as a fact of life. Death in life is a fact, but
life in death is a truth for Whitman; he is thus a poet of matter and of
Whitman’s view on death is reflective of his belief in
Transcendentalism. In «Song of Myself», Whitman uses the scientific
principle of Thermodynamics to assert that there is life after death,
because energy cannot be destroyed; only transformed. In stanza six, he
writes «And what do you think has become of the women and children? /
they are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprouts shows there is
really no death». Death contends that life remains long after death, and
to find him now all one must do is look «under your boot-soles».
Lincoln’s death influenced Whitman’s works a lot too.
The death of Abraham Lincoln had a profound impact on Walt Whitman and
his writing. It is the subject of one of his most highly regarded and
critically examined pieces, «When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed»
(1865–1866) and one of his best-known poems, «O Captain! My Captain!»
(1865–1866). Whitman also delivered (sporadically) annual public
lectures commemorating Lincoln’s death beginning in April 1879. Although
the two never met, Whitman and Lincoln, both deeply committed to the
Union, remain intertwined in Whitman’s writing and in American
Whitman intensely admired Lincoln from the late 1850s onward, remarking
at one point, «After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost
nearer me than anybody else» (Traubel 38). On the Friday of 14 April
1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in
Washington, D.C., Whitman was in New York and read about the
assassination in the daily newspapers and extras.
His first poem responding to Lincoln’s death came only a couple of days
later when he added to Drum-Taps (1865), already in press, a short piece
titled «Hushed Be the Camps To-day» (1865). Although it ends solemnly
with «the heavy hearts of soldiers,» this public commemoration of
Lincoln’s funeral–spoken to the poet by and for Union soldiers–asks us
to «celebrate» his death as it remembers «the love we bore him.» «Hushed
Be the Camps To-day» is not one of Whitman’s best-known poems, but it is
significant not merely because it was his first poetic word on Lincoln’s
death, but also because it exemplifies the primary features that
generally characterize Whitman’s poetic treatment of Lincoln’s death: as
in «Lilacs,» the poem mourns for the dead but celebrates death; it
identifies Lincoln’s death with the coming of peace; and it remembers
Lincoln not because he was a great leader or conqueror but because he
was well-loved. The poem also associates Lincoln with the war’s ordinary
soldiers, an association that prefigures «Lilacs» and its treatment of
Lincoln’s death as a metonymy for all the war dead.
«Hushed Be the Camps To-day» and the other Lincoln poems («Lilacs,» «O
Captain!,» and «This Dust Was Once the Man» ) never mention
Lincoln by name. As some critics have noted, Whitman had no need in the
postbellum era to refer directly to Lincoln because his readers would
easily recognize these poems as elegies for President Lincoln. Later,
after the immediacy of Lincoln’s death had faded into historical memory,
Whitman identified the subject of these poems by grouping the four of
them together, first in a cluster titled «President Lincoln’s Burial
Hymn» in an annex to Passage to India (1871) and later in the «Memories
of President Lincoln» cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Other critics believe that the lack of direct reference to Lincoln
indicates the poet’s attempt to address universal themes.
Whitman does, of course, use Lincoln’s death to talk about subjects
beyond the events at Ford’s Theater, including the subject of death
itself. In «Lilacs,» Whitman reconciles himself and the nation to
Lincoln’s death and death in general by fashioning the historical fact
of the assassination and burial into a spiritual embrace of death in
which death becomes both a personal and a national regeneration and
cleansing. The treatment of Lincoln’s death in «Lilacs» is famous for
its symbolism and its formal, musical qualities. Indeed the poem
relentlessly transforms its historical content into symbols. Lincoln as
a person disappears only to reappear as a «western fallen star» and as
the evoked metonymic associations of the poems other symbols and
images–coffin, lilacs, cloud, and the hermit thrush’s song.
Whitman’s handling of Lincoln’s death in the lectures diametrically
reverses the musical, ethereal, often abstract, heavily symbolized style
of «Lilacs.» In his lecture on the» death of Abraham Lincoln» (1879),
Whitman depicts the scene of the murder with dramatic immediacy, as if
he were an eyewitness. The narration is suspenseful, detailed, and
focuses on specifics (sometimes minutiae). Although Whitman was not an
eyewitness, his close companion, Peter Doyle, was at Ford’s Theater, and
Whitman made impressive use of Doyle’s story in his imaginative
retelling. In the lecture, the president’s murder is not a bizarre
denouement to an inevitable war but rather the culmination of and
solution to all the historic, national conflicts of the Civil War era.
Lincoln’s death becomes a metaphor for the bloody war itself and the
climax of a lofty tragic drama that redeems the Union. Whitman’s lecture
turns Lincoln’s assassination into the ceremonial sacrifice that gives
new life to the nation.
Whitman’s Lincoln possessed an undeniably heroic stature. Whitman called
him «the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the
Nineteenth Century» (Prose Works 2:604). Still, the poet did not merely
apotheosize the dead president; he also transformed Lincoln and his
death into a symbolic referent for thoughts on the war, comradeship,
democracy, union, and death. Perhaps best exemplified by the «Lilacs»
elegy, Lincoln’s death became the event around which Whitman twined so
sadly and beautifully his understanding of death’s affiliation with
The theme of war
If to begin discussion of the war poems, we should see how the
experience of fratricidal war might affect Whitman as the poet of
national union. This will lead to reflections on the tragedy of the
Civil War. The poems of Drum-Taps – which proceed from militant
exultation, to the actual experience of war, to demobilization and
reconciliation–might be read as an attempt to place the butchery of the
war within a poetic and ultimately regenerative design. Ask the students
to compare Whitman’s war poems with his earlier poems. They are at once
more formally controlled and more realistic–stylistic changes that are
linked with the war context. «A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the
Road Unknown» and «The Artilleryman’s Vision» are proto-modern poems in
which the individual appears as an actor in a drama of history he no
longer understands nor controls. Whitman’s ambivalence about black
emancipation is evident in «Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.» «Vigil
Strange I Kept on the Field One Night» and «As I Lay with My Head in
Your Lap Camerado» are particularly effective in suggesting the ways the
wartime context of male bonding and comradeship gave Whitman a
legitimate language and social frame within which to express his love
Transcendentalism, which originated with German philosophers, became a
powerful movement in New England between 1815 and 1836. Emerson’s Nature
(1836) was a manifesto of American transcendental thought. It implied
that the true reality is the spirit and that it lies beyond the reach or
realm of the senses. The area of sensory perceptions must be transcended
to reach the spiritual reality. American transcendentalism accepted the
findings of contemporary science as materialistic counterparts of
spiritual achievement. Whitman’s «Passage to India» demonstrates this
approach. The romanticist in Whitman is combined with the
transcendentalist in him. His quest for transcendental truths is highly
individualistic and therefore his thought, like Emerson’s, is often
unsystematic and prophetic.
Whitman used the term «personalism» to indicate the fusion of the
individual with the community in an ideal democracy. He believed that
every man at the time of his birth receives an identity, and this
identity is his «soul.» The soul, finding its abode in man, is
individualized, and man begins to develop his personality. The main idea
of personalism is that the person is the be-all of all things; it is the
source of consciousness and the senses. One is because God is;
therefore, man and God are one–one personality. Man’s personality craves
immortality because it desires to follow the personality of God. This
idea is in accord with Whitman’s notion of the self. Man should first
become himself, which is also the way of coming closer to God. Man
should comprehend the divine soul within him and realize his identity
and the true relationship between himself and God. This is the doctrine
Walt Whitman’s achievement as a poet and prophet is truly monumental. He
exercised a deep influence on his immediate successors in American
letters, and even on modern poets, although he himself was a highly
individualistic poet. As a symbolist, his influence was felt in Europe,
where he was considered the greatest poet America had yet produced. His
high style and elevated expression found echoes in Emily Dickinson, Hart
Crane, Marianne Moore, and others. Whitman as a stylist is the
culmination of the sublime tradition in America, and even Allen
Ginsberg, so different from Whitman in so many respects, follows the
Whitman tradition of using invocative language. Whitman, though a man of
his age, an essentially nineteenth-century poet, exercised a profound
influence on twentieth-century poets and modern poetry in the use of
language, in the processes of symbol and image-making, in exercising
great freedom in meter and form, and in cultivating the individualistic
mode. In many ways Whitman is modern because he is prophetic; he is a
poet not only of America but of the whole of mankind. He has achieved
the Olympian stature and the rare distinction of a world poet.
In our work we analyzed features of Walt Whitman’s style. We tried to
study his literary techniques and also showed philosophical basics of
We think that we have done all our tasks rather well. We achieved a deep
analyze of some of his works and viewed the poetical techniques of Walt
Whitman and the uniqueness of his style.
List of Literature
1. Allen, Gay W. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman 1970.
2. Kinnell, Galway. «Introduction.» The Essential Whitman New York: The
Ecco Press, 1987. 3–12.
3. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. USA 1961
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