Walt Whitman was born 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 is seen as a turning point in American poetry. His work is situated between Transcendentalism and Realism. He died at the age of 72 in Camden, New Jersey. Today, Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the most popular and influential poets of all time.
Out of the Rolling Ocean
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.
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, 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 is greeted by a celebrating crowd. The speaker wishes the captain were there to see and feel the excited people on shore, 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 and that he is intended to be the dead captain.
I Sing the Body Electric
Walt Whitman’s speaker compare 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 though 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.
Song of Myself
‘Song of Myself’ is one of the most well-loved in Leaves of Grass, it is also the longest. It is an incredibly complicated poem, and impossible to sum up in just a few lines. At its simplest though, the poem is a celebration of life. It is a “song” about the speaker’s transcendent self. It is about becoming one with nature, and understanding and accepting the truths of oneself and meditating on what those truths mean.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
This piece makes use of natural symbols to speak on life and sorrow. For example, the speaker sees a lilac flower and it reminds him of the “one he loved.” It is quickly made clear that the person the speaker is describing is Lincoln. Everyone around the country is mourning the President, and the lilac is in the scene on his coffin. The poem continues on, with the speaker talking the reader into a swamp with a singing bird. It is there that he is able to fully consider death. The images of a hermit bird and the lilac flowers, along with the “western star” are combined in the end. They all appear in the swamp together.
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
This poem was published in 1860 and describes what seems to be a simple scene. A young boy observes nature and takes note of how a pair of birds acts. The female partner disappears at one point, and the male cries out for her. The bird’s emotional distress is so clear to the speaker that he is brought to tears. It is through this experience that the young boy comes to know death, and first engages with the poetic topics which fill Walt Whitman’s verse.
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.
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
This piece was published in Leaves of Grass in 1865 and is considered to be a tribute to the pioneers of the American West. The poet spends a great deal of time in the poem speaking about how courageous these men and women were and the perseverance it took to survive. An interesting element of this piece is the fact that Whitman chose to refer to the pioneers as “we.” He includes himself, and the reader, in the text. This creates a sense of unity that runs throughout the poem and connects everyone together as pioneers in one way or another.
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 weakness.