Walt Whitman, who later became known as American bard and since is forever a part of the world classical literature, was born in West Hills, Long Island in New York on 31rd of May, 1819. His family were immigrants - his mother Louisa came from Holland and his father Walter, after whom Whitman Jr. was named, immigrated to United States from England. Louisa was a housekeeper while Walter Sr. earned the money for the family as a carpenter and builder.
With the birth of the son the family decided to move to Brooklyn and Whitman Jr. enrolled the school. As a teenager he used to help his father with carpentry and building, but later he found a job as a schoolteacher and as an office worker. During his job he understood that writing amazes him and chose the path of a journalist to practice it. His reports for several newspapers were successful but even at that time he has already started thinking about writing poetry and “Leaves of Grass” in particular. Bettina Knapp recalls that Walt Whitman finished 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.”
Whitman uses as a source of inspiration his memories from his childhood, especially from the trip all over America he had in 1848 and the things seen there. He was impressed so much with the people, places and the variety of landscapes all over the country from New York to Louisiana that this experience gave him countless ideas to write about. The “Leaves of Grass” took a lot of time to compose, but when it was finished it became a true masterpiece of literature.
The “Leaves of Grass” was revised and edited countless times in course of thirty-seven years. Whitman was determined to achieve perfection and the perfect connection between his poems he decided to include into the “Leaves of Grass” as a “single poem”. The work was published for the first time in 1855, only containing a dozen poems in it. But with later editions the volume grew and expanded, finally turning to the text that is well-known and studied all over the world.
The first three editions that saw the world in 1855, 1856 and 1860 were met with awe and surprise. Whitman’s poetry was unconditional; refusing to follow the routes of classical poetry he experimented with form and sense, creating a completely new image of poetry. He even deliberately avoided major poetic gatherings to not let his vision be blurred by theirs. Whitman was determined to create something really revolutionary in American poetry tradition. Sometimes he ignored a patterned rhyme scheme and regular meter, that was considered very and very unusual at that time. Writing in free verse was the form that suited his intention and the meaning of his poems the most.
The three later edition that were published in 1867, 1871 and 1881 can also serve as a biography of sort. We see how his personal experience is reflected through the latest verses. Whitman endured the Civil War caring for wounded soldiers and was deeply affected by the sudden murder of President Lincoln. All his struggles and grief he put into his poetry as much as he did it with his joy and awe. The “Leaves of Grass” continued changing: Whitman revised and rewrote his previous verses, shifting the order, adding new pieces, deleting the lines and writing new ones. Even the punctuation was shifted to bring the work closer to perfection. Whitman specifically describes this period in his own biographical essay “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”:
“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 enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future!”
He addresses the book more like a family member or a friend than his work. And it is true in a way: the book has its own biography that is tightly interwoven with Whitman’s own and the history of America. The daily life and the high politics, the landscapes and urban pictures - everything is reflected in the “Leaves of Grass” in a most beautiful way possibly. Whitman wasn’t only a talented poet, he had another talent - to spot and remember everything even in slightest details.
Whitman chose his role in America for himself - being a poet of love who experiences it at its fullest - and dedicated himself to this role. A spiritualist, a prophet of the new poetry and a lover, he could be considered too self-obsessed, but Whitman himself stated that the declaration of self-love isn’t something shameful or reserved for him only - it is a healthy thing that he wants everyone to understand and accept. Whitman explains this eloquently, speaking about himself in a third person:
“His whole work, his life, manners, friendships, writings, all have among their leading purposes an evident purpose to stamp a new type of character, namely his own, and indelibly fix it and publish it, not for a model but an illustration, for the present and future of American letters and American young men.”
Whitman was a living illustration, an example of what every American could be if they chose to enjoy life and to embrace it. His poetry can be compared to any invention that moved the science forward at that time - just it wasn’t the science but literature in Whitman’s case. The “Leaves of Grass” is the best known work of his but through the numerous other poems and essays Whitman was shaping a new national character, accumulating the ideals of American society and reflecting them through his own worldview. The Whitman-type person is strong, lacks false shame, proud of themselves and the others, always learns, is opened to something and someone new and isn’t afraid to be honest. These traits are defining for the image of ideal (or even stereotypical) American all over the world even now.
Returning to the “Leaves of Grass”: the final work has more than four hundred poems in it. Despite the author claims that it is a single poem, all the poems are connected very loosely if connected at all. But the main theme in every one of them is the praising of humanity and human life - the philosophy Whitman was faithful to for all his life. The classical poems of that time used mostly religious and symbolic images of pleasure, not daring to go past allegories, but Whitman openly and beautifully described sensual delights. The “Leaves of Grass” praises the material world, not the metaphorical Heaven. Influenced by Transcendentalism teachings and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman exalts the human mind and body to the incredible heights. He experiments with poetry radically, changing the meter and line length from poem to poem still making them look like a single well-composed text. The explicit depiction of sexual desires and images was almost scandalous at that time and the “Leaves of Grass” was highly criticized for it, but nevertheless the success of the poetry was overwhelming right after it was published and stays the same in modern days.
The text is divided into sections. The first one is called “Inscriptions” and is a kind of short summary of the overall work and the author’s explanations of it. Whitman emphasizes that the work is dedicated to the “one’s self” that can be deciphered as Whitman’s own self, the self of the reader or the uniting nation-wide image of self. This segment is mostly nation-oriented, referring to the political issues, personal relationship, sexual encounters and society in general. Whitman gives the audience a brief glimpse of this matters, describing them more explicitly in the further sections. The second section is called “Starting from Paumanok” and is more like a description of places the author saw in his life and the feelings and experience connected with them. Whitman starts from the first place he spent his childhood - his house on Long Island. During this poetic journey he shows the reader how much the places and the people met there influenced him and describes an impact they have on him in his present life. The third section is called “Song of Myself”. Chronologically it was the first one written, but it appeared to be in the middle of the book after the multiple editions. In this section Whitman describes himself as a character, an image, showing through this description his dreams about the quintessential American person of modern time. He has only his own experience to tell and his own soul to experiment, so “Song of Myself” isn’t a hymn of egoism, it is deeply philosophical self-discovery.
The next section “Calamus” was criticized the most for its openly sexual subtext, autoerotics and homoerotic themes. The section is dedicated to love in all its manifestations. Whitman claims that the relationships between the people can’t be fully satisfying unless they open up to each other fully, experiencing love of all levels of intensity, from friendship and innocent admiration to brotherhood to sexual intimacy. Despite all the harsh critics Whitman never removed this section, staying faithful to his ideals.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” returns from personal level to the level of society. Whitman praises the unity of the society as a collective being. He portrays it through his depiction of people crossing the river that divides Brooklyn and Manhattan. Their actions seen from above follow the strict pattern that looks very organized and well-planned. Though Whitman talks about the plan, he avoids talking about God or Universe as the author of the plan, just leaving the reader with the feeling of deep internal connection with the rest of the humanity.
The impact of Civil War on Whitman is clearly seen in his “Drum-Taps”, an upbeat text that starts like call to arms but gradually descends into grim depiction of the real horrors and tragedy of war where democratic ideals are shattered just because of the nature of it. “Memories of President Lincoln” is less straightforward, but still we feel how much the war theme influences the things Whitman wants to say in memoriam. One of his most famous poems called “O Captain! My Captain!” is also connected to Lincoln, where the fallen president is compared to the captain of the ship, who died, but brought the ship to victory after a harsh and long journey.
The last segment, as the opening one, again briefly repeats all the topics that were touched in the text, but now, with all the experience the readers have already shared with him, Whitman does it more explicitly. He emphasizes the theme of self-discovery, of loving and developing one’s own soul and the aspects of life and death. In the final poem of the “Leaves of Grass” named “Songs of Parting” he interweaves the theme of saying his farewells to the reader to the death as parting with physical life. Whitman claims that death is only the part of the cycle of life and wishes the readers to live well and enjoy their cycle even after the physical body passes away. He hopes he will manage to do the same.