Walt Whitman

W alt Whitman, who was born in 1819, is known today as the father of free verse poetry. His deeply emotional, spiritual, and nature-based poems appeal to poetry loves around the world. Throughout his work, he explores themes of life, the self, sexuality, nature, and spirituality.


Life Facts

  • He was born in Long Island, New York, and was one of nine children.
  • Whitman’s best-known work is the collection of personal poems, ‘Leaves of Grass’.
  • He was part of the American Renaissance movement.
  • Whitman worked as a missionary in a hospital during the Civil War.
  • Whitman died on March 26, 1892.

Interesting Facts

  • Before his death, Whitman designed his granite mausoleum (it’s shaped like a house).
  • ‘Leaves of Grass’, when published in 1855, was only 12 poems long.
  • Whitman got his first job at 11 years old.
  • He and Oscar Wilde briefly met and might have kissed.
  • Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) was a huge fan of Whitman’s writing.


Famous Poems by Walt Whitman

Oh Captain! My Captain! is an elegy devoted to a deceased “Captain.” This unnamed man 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 expresses his desire that the captain was there to see and feel the excitement of the people onshore. It is a well-known fact that this poem was written soon after Abraham Lincoln’s death, making Lincoln the beloved and deceased captain.

 

‘Song of Myself” is one of the most popular poems Whitman’s volume 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.

 

Me Imperturbe 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 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.

 

‘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.

 

I Sing the Body Electric‘ compares the body and the soul. Whitman 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.

 


Early Life

Whitman was born in 1819 and lived with his parents and eight other siblings in New York City. By the time that Whitman was twelve, he had started to become interested in the written word as he learned the printer’s trade. He would work in this trade until he became a teacher at the age of seventeen in 1836. His teaching career would continue until 1841 when he turned to journalism.


Literary Career

In 1855 Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass with his own money. This was far from the last version of the volume. It expanded from 12 poems out into the long and winding volume that we know today. This volume was the first major literary accomplishment of Whitman’s career. He spent the previous years working as a journalist, writing columns, and a serialized novel lengthily titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography: A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters in six installments of New York’s The Sunday Dispatch.

 

Famously, Leaves of Grass was met with suspicion and scandal. Sexuality played a major part in the volume (increasingly so as it grew). His publisher contemplated not releasing the second edition but ended up doing so. It contained 20 new poems and was continually revised and rereleased throughout Whitman’s life.

 

After spending time work in hospitals during the Civil War, Whitman wrote: “The Great Army of the Sick” which was published in 1863, detailing his experiences.

 

The final version of Leaves of Grass, known as the “Deathbed Edition”. It was published before his death in 1892 of bronchial pneumonia.


Writing Career and Relationships

Today, Whitman’s work is considered groundbreaking. It moves beyond the normal categories, utilizes strange, surprising, and unusual images, and touches on topics and themes that other writers were too conservative or afraid to go near. Whitman bravely explored sexuality, prostitution, death,  and decay.

 

Today, although he was not the inventor of the form, he is known as the father of free verse poetry. this is a style of writing that does not employ a single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.

 

Whitman believed that it was important for the poet and their audience to have a relationship with one another. A writer cannot operate in a vacuum. This is seen most prominently in ‘Song of Myself,’ the most popular poem in Leaves of Grass. Many writers and historians consider Whitman as an integral part of American history.


Influence from other Poets

Walt Whitman was notably influenced by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Frances Wright, and Homer. It should also be mentioned that Whitman took inspiration from figures such as Thomas Paine.

 

His influence has been felt on many more writers. His pioneering style of poetry touched Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and many more.


Poems by Walt Whitman

Explore poetry by Walt Whitman below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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