Walt Whitman was born to parents Louisa Van Veslor and Walter Whitman Sr., in West Hills, Long Island, New York. Throughout his early life, he jumped from different jobs, learning about the American experience. His best-known work is the collection of personal poems, Leaves of Grass. Its publication in 1855, while he was living in Brooklyn, New York, is seen as a turning point in American poetry. (It was eventually published in six editions.) His work is situated between Transcendentalism and Realism. He died at the age of 72 in Camden, New Jersey, and was buried at Harleigh Cemetery. Today, Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the most popular and influential poets of all time, especially within America.
When writing about Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, fellow American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to the collection as “the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Although this list covers ten of the best Whitman poems, there are many others that readers may find themselves interested in. These include individual poems like ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and groups of poems like the ‘Calamus’ poems and the collection of forty-three Civil War poems known as Drum-Taps.
Best Walt Whitman Poems
Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travell’d a long way merely to look on you to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look’d on you,
For I fear’d I might afterward lose you.
In this lesser-known piece, Walt Whitman describes the last words of a narrator’s dying lover and his assurances they will find one another again in the rolling ocean. The poem begins with the speaker telling his reader that someone, like a single drop from the ocean, “came” to him. This is something that seems miraculous to the speaker. He is grateful to have found someone to spend his last moments with. He is part of the circle of life and death, and by the end of the poem, the fear associated with entering into the afterlife has dissipated.
Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all—aplomb in the midst
of irrational things,
Imbued as they—passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles,
crimes, less important than I thought;
This poem is about a speaker’s dedication to maintaining his current mental and emotional state of being in the face of the challenges the world throws at him. As is common within his poetry, it is through nature that Walt Whitman’s speaker finds himself. The natural world allows him to shake off some of the clutter of his everyday life and free his mind. The experience also opens his mind enough so that he realizes that nothing he does, in the way of jobs or careers, would put his true self at risk.
This piece is perhaps Whitman’s most popular and well-analyzed. It is an elegy devoted to a deceased “Captain.” He was a great leader and someone, the speaker, knows the world will miss. At the beginning of the poem, the captain-less ship sails home to port and are greeted by a celebrating crowd. Here are a few lines:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The speaker wishes the captain were there to see and feel the excited people onshore and wills his body to rise up from under the deck. It is well known that this piece was written soon after Abraham Lincoln’s death (near the end of the American Civil War) and that he is intended to be the dead captain.
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Walt Whitman’s speaker compares the body and the soul in this piece. He comes to the conclusion that they are much more similar than they are different. He moves through different images of various kinds of bodies. There is a dense and thrilling list of images in the second part of the poem that outlines why the body is a beautiful thing. He speaks on both male and female bodies as well. The poem gets more specific towards the end when Whitman talks about one man, a farmer, who has five sons. He also places himself in the body of a slave auctioneer, whose job it is to sell black bodies. All parts of these bodies he speaks on are parts of the soul.
I dream’d in a dream
I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth,
I dream’d that was the new city of Friends,
This short, lesser-known poem is a depiction of the world as it might be. It explores themes of love, human nature, and the future of humanity. The speaker describes, in eight short lines, a dream he had. In this dream, he saw a city that was based entirely on the principles of love. Every decision the men and women within its bounds made was with love in mind. Nothing could disrupt the functioning of this place, nor was there anyone within it that expressed selfish needs or wants.
Lo, the unbounded sea,
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even
In this six-line poem, Whitman creates an image of a ship starting out to see dangerous waters. He uses personification to describe the waves and the sea. It feels competitive, as though it is fighting back against the ship to show its strength. At the same time, it pushes the ship forward and allows the ship to fly its moonsail and pennant. Whitman emphasizes the movement of the waves in the last lines of ‘The Ship Starting.’ They twist and turn, seen through the repetition of words starting with “s.”
Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another,
This short and powerful love poem speaks on the benefits that one can get from simply being in love, even if that love is not returned. The speaker of ‘Sometimes with One I Love’ is aware that his relationship to a “certain” person may not advance any further, but that does not stop him from loving them. The love he has carried for this person has allowed him other benefits, such as “these songs.” This is a reference to the poem the reader is engaged with in that moment as well as to all other poems the speaker, who is likely Whitman, wrote.
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 ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider,’ the speaker spends the poem watching a spider. It is on a rock overlooking the ocean. Although it is small, the impact on the area and the speaker is clear. It weaves a complex, beautiful web. The speaker pays close attention to how, string by string, the spider completes its task. By the end of the poem, the larger importance of the text as a metaphor is made clear. The final lines conclude the poem, but they are very open-ended. He says that he sees the spider and its web as a metaphor for his soul, but what exactly he means by this isn’t clear.
Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
In this short six-line poem, Whitman’s speaker describes his experience upon stepping outside to begin his “studies.” when looking around, he was overwhelmed with joy by the most uncomplicated and most complicated of natural forms. He knew that he would not have to travel any further than one step in order to find what he was looking for. This poem explores themes of nature, interconnectivity, and joy.
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
The final poem on this list speaks about a solitary oak tree that thrives without companionship or support. The speaker comes upon the tree and takes note of its position. It is alone in the landscape and is covered with moss. Rather than being depressing, this scene is an uplifting and beautiful one. The speaker is amazed by the tree’s ability to live on its own, without companionship. He realizes that he would not be able to do the same. By the end of the poem, the speaker’s dependence on other people is seen as both a strength and a weakness.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 by Whitman himself.
He worked as a journalist for a Brooklyn newspaper (a job he was fired from) and then as a journalist for a paper in New Orleans. He also worked as an essayist, and later in Washington where he worked in hospitals caring for the injured.
There are many events from Whitman’s life that could be cited as an important inspiration. These include the wounding of his brother at the Fredericksburg. Whitman rushed to Virginia to see him when he found out. Events like this likely influenced his opinions on war and relationships.
He is one of the most influential American poets of all time. He’s often cited as the “father” of free-verse poetry and was constantly breaking down walls with his writing in his lifetime. His poetry is still popular to this day.
He is best known for his collection Leaves of Grass which includes the vast majority of his writing. Many of these poems have been cited by poets around the world as sources of inspiration.