Thursday, May 19, 2011

Required Poet: Walt Whitman

Okay, so as expected I did not take to Mr. Whitman as I did to Emily Dickinson. I do understand why they share an item number of the M.A. exam list, but I cannot say that I appreciate them both the same amount. Dickinson thought his poetry was “disgraceful,” and while I do not necessarily agree with that, I can see where she is coming from. I get why he is so well-loved, and I can definitely see the influence he had on Allen Ginsberg. But overall, even after struggling through every line of “Song of Myself,” I have to conclude that this guy is just not for me.


Poetry…or maybe more accurately poetry that often closely resembles prose. And definitely American poetry, however that may be defined. The long (and often rambling) lines did remind me of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Also, much like Ginsberg later on, Whitman’s work was blasted in its time for its overt sexuality and was often labeled as “obscene.”

Whitman was a humanist (reason, ethics, and justice as opposed to supernatural and religious dogma as a basis for morality and decision-making) and was part of the transition between transcendentalism (which some say Dickinson was a part of) and realism, and he incorporated both in his works. He believed in a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society, a connection he emphasized greatly in “Song of Myself” with the all-powerful first-person narrator.

The genres of each of the poems can also be discussed in terms of which section they were placed under in Leaves of Grass, which I will talk about later.


There is a lot of nature in Whitman’s poetry: birds, greenery, water, etc. He also openly writes about death (much like Dickinson) and sexuality, including his own. It is believed by many biographers that he was at least bisexual according to some of his poetry. He openly employs free verse and, as far as I could tell, rarely, if ever, uses rhyme scheme.

Also, as mentioned before, his realism and transcendentalism are represented in his poetry. Instead of romanticizing, Whitman depicted ordinary everyday experiences, activities, and people as they were. Another common theme in the same vein as realism was his assumption of the identity of everyday common people on “Song of Myself.” Whitman decided to go against the common trend of using an elevated hero, although I have conflicting feelings about this because the narrator is obviously pretty powerful and not a common person, so I am not quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps he was supposed to represent everybody by being all-powerful? I have no clue… The transcendentalism influence can also be seen in multiple passages of “Song of Myself” and Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the first edition for it.

Whitman was also a deist (no one more faith is more important than the other and he embraced all religions equally), and the one place I can clearly see that coming through is in the following lines of “Song of Myself,” although I am sure there are many other examples elsewhere that were simply lost on me:

“I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,

My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,

Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between

ancient and modern,

Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five

thousand years…”

From here Whitman goes on to mention Shastas, Vedas, the Koran, the Gospels, “him that was crucified,” and even puritans. The point is made that he wishes to include all faiths and not hold any one of them above the rest.

Of course, there will be more discussion regarding themes when I explore the actual poems.


Whitman began writing Leaves of Grass (which contains all of the works included on the M.A. exam list) around 1850 and continued to revise and edit it until his death. He wanted to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a Bible-based cadence.

Upon its publication, other transcendentalist such as Emerson and Thoreau loved it, while many critics decided to label it as offensive and focus on what they saw as its problematic sexual themes. As mentioned before, Whitman fell somewhere between transcendentalist and realism, so many believe his work actually anticipated realism instead of becoming a product of it. He is also often referred to as the “Father of Free Verse,” even though he was not the one who invented it.

Whitman was a strong supporter of temperance and sometimes argued for prohibition, and while he at first opposed abolition (he felt it was bad for democracy), eventually opposed the extension of slavery in America and criticized the south for not thinking of the greater good of the nation. However, he did not believe African-Americans should be allowed to vote and was concerned with the growing number of them in the legislature.

And now I will turn to the actual poems, and hopefully my interpretations won’t lead anyone astray. Unfortunately, with Whitman I do not have the benefit of working with short poems like I did with Dickinson, but I will try to make this as quick and painless as possible.

Song of Myself

For me, this poem embodies the idea of an American epic. The narrator is an all-powerful everyman who is attempting to relate to the common people of America. Several themes are explored here, and not just Whitman’s usual suspects such as nature, death, religion, and sexuality. There is a strong presence of affirmative images of American culture. And I find the narrative voice especially interesting because he just seems so triumphant and exultant, although I suppose that is kind of the point. The “I” in the poem is both the ideal and the commoner. He is a relatable hero.

In Paths Untrodden

Here the poet wishes to travel the paths that were denied him before – paths of unknown and unpredictable human behavior. He wants to take a journey of self-discovery, commune with nature, and explore his formerly suppressed spirituality. This poem falls under the heading of Calamus, which grows in a secluded place near a pond, which suggests serenity and even peace.

When I Heard at the Close of the Day

And this is one of the poems that cause critics and biographer to assert that Whitman was at least bisexual, if not gay. The poem describes that even after a day of career success, the narrator is only fully happy when he realizes his lover is on his way to see him. After this realization the narrator asserts that food would nourish him better, breathing was sweeter, and the “beautiful day pass’d well.” And when the two finally lay together in bed that night, then the narrator proclaims “I was happy.” This poem also falls under the Calamus heading.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

We are still under Calamus with this poem. Originally titled “Sun-Down Poem,” the major image in the poem is that of the ferry, which symbolizes continual movement. The ferry moves from land to land via water, which could make water the spiritual and land the physical. The movement is also associated with the people who are riding the ferry, have ridden it, or who will ride it in the future. The narrator contemplates his place in this continual movement, as well as that of everyone riding with him, and even the reader at some points as the ferry steadily moves toward its destination. At the end, the two shores can be seen to represent mortality and immortality, and the water is man’s journey from one to the other.

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

This poem falls under the Sea-Drift section of Leaves of Grass and once again has a theme of water. From the constantly rocking cradle of the waves the poet remembers when as a child he left his bed in search of the mystery of life and death. What he encounters, and then proceeds to tell the story of, is two mockingbirds. One day the female is gone and the male sits and sings to the wind how he will wait for his mate. The bird is the young boy’s consciousness, and the sea is what gives him his answer. The title itself is an image of birth, and the sun, moon, land, sea, bird, and wind lend to the dramatic structure.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

These last two poems fall under the Memories of President Lincoln heading. This particular one is an elegy on the death of the former president. It moves from the personal, to the impersonal, to grief, and then finally to reconciliation on the truth of life and death. It is a symbolic dramatization of the narrator’s grief, yet there are many symbols used and none of them appear to stay fixed. He uses lilacs, a star, a bird, the planet Venus, and many other images to talk about his grief. It ends with the narrator’s realization of immortality after confronting his personal loss.

O Captain! My Captain!

This is also an elegy for President Lincoln, although it isn’t nearly as touching or as long. Personally I like this poem, but it is probably because I can actually link it to something I know a little more about, and that is Starbuck’s plea to Captain Ahab during some of the final moments in Moby Dick before all hell breaks loose. The poem begins on a happy note, as the “prize we sought is won,” but the celebration is short-lived as it appears the captain is now dead. Whitman repeats phrases such as “fallen cold and dead,” while still urging the hero to rise up and celebrate the momentous victory. I will go ahead and assume that the victory was the North finally triumphing over the South at the end of the Civil War, but now President Lincoln has been shot and can’t even see the true result of his efforts. The narrator then continues to urge the masses to celebrate, while he will choose to mourn the death of his Captain.

So, not that painful actually. There were some rough moments, but overall, not that bad at all. I believe next week I will go ahead and tackle Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy and the selections from Astrophil and Stella. Eventually I will get to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but for now, I will knock out some of the “smaller” stuff before attacking yet another door-stop of a book.

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