Mannahatta

Walt Whitman

‘Mannahatta’ by Walt Whitman is a stunning poem that marvels over a city deeply admired by the poet, encompassing all the wondrous elements of its populace.

Cite

Walt Whitman

Nationality: American

Walt Whitman is known as the father of free verse poetry.

His deeply emotional, spiritual, and nature-based poems appeal to poetry lovers around the world.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: What makes Manhattan so inspiring is the complex entwinement of so many different elements and people.

Speaker: A resident of Manhattan.

Emotions Evoked: Empathy, Excitement, Pride

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 19th Century

A sprawling poem that captures in image and essence the spirit of a city loved by Whitman. Captured in all its ardent diversity and propulsive zeal for movement.

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‘Mannahatta’ is nothing short of Walt Whitman’s ode to the city he called home for roughly two decades. A sprawling poem that unfolds as a vigorous catalog of all the various elements, forces, and souls that hum to life within it.

With the rapidity of his free verse and his characteristic eye for kaleidoscopic imagery, Whitman offers a truly mesmerizing attempt to consolidate it all in a manner reflective of the city’s multifaceted spirit. Revealing his impassioned love of humankind and life in all its grandiose variety.

Mannahatta
Walt Whitman

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,Rich, hemm'd thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model'd,The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors,The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form'd, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,Trottoirs throng'd, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!City nested in bays! my city!



Summary

‘Mannahatta’ by Walt Whitman is a poem that marvels over the island city of Manhattan through the eyes of a speaker attempting to wrangle all its colossally juxtaposed moving parts.

‘Mannahatta’ begins as a search for a definition: the speaker insinuates they’re looking for a word that’s “specific and perfect” (1) for their city. It’s this line of thought that leads them to the indigenous name for the island from which the title gets its name. Certain they’ve found the right word, what follows is their attempt to convey the many different exemplary visions that “Mannahatta” represents. They then list a sprawling series of images that represent ideal and crucial elements of the city itself: from the environment that surrounds it and the energy of the urban grid that covers it to the beautiful and robust people that call it home.

Structure and Form

‘Mannahatta’ is composed of two stanzas and is written in free verse without rhyme scheme or meter. It opens with a couplet that introduces the poem’s central theme and subject: the plurality contained within the city of Manhattan. At the same time, the second stanza catalogs a series of images that attempt to coalesce for the reader a sense of the abstract sentiments that the speaker is trying to convey.

Because of all the cataloging many of the lines are end-stopped. Yet the commas between images offer only a slight pause that — instead of slowing the reader — seems to launch them with increasing speed into the next series of images. Creating a swift and rushing cadence that appears to mimic the high velocity of urban life.

Literary Devices

‘Mannahatta’ uses a number of literary devices to create Whitman’s breathless visage of the city. There are examples of figurative language in the use of personification in “upsprang the aboriginal name” (2) and metaphor: “Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays” (5); “high growths of iron” (7). Whitman even alludes to William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ with the line: “Now I see what there is in a name” (3).

There are also many examples of cataloging: “a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient” (3), “The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas” (9). As well as visual imagery: “Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long” (6); “The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river” (15). Whitman also employs kinesthetic imagery: “Tides swift and ample” (8), “The flowing sea-currents” (9) “Immigrants arriving” (12). Even auditory imagery is included when the speaker refers to “open voices” (18).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,

‘Mannahatta’ begins with the speaker attempting to condense their appreciation for Manhattan into something “specific and perfect” (1). It’s in this moment of contemplation that epiphany strikes them, and they’re reminded of the borough’s original “aboriginal name” (2) given to it by the indigenous Lenape who lived there: Mannahatta (which translates to “the island of many hills”). It’s this bygone name that ends up being the perfect synthesis of the speaker’s feelings toward the city.

“I see that the word of my city is that word from of old” (4), the speaker asserts. The implication being the name “Mannahatta” has the capacity to embody all the grand (and in some cases contradictory) multiplicity of human life and history that such a sprawling cityscape inspires. Whitman illustrates this through a cataloging of somewhat abstract but impactful images to describe what “is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient” (3). All characteristics of both the name Mannahatta and the city the speaker is in awe of.

Lines 5-17

Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,
Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,

The core of ‘Mannahatta’ seeks to elaborate on the speaker’s views of the city through a breathless catalog of scenes that they see as essential to its soul. The jumble of imagery covers virtually all the senses and attempts to root the reader in the simultaneously chaotic but powerfully distinct flow of movement. The speaker appears to focus on two general settings: the bays of water surrounding the island of Mannahatta and the metropolitan landscape that covers it. Whitman’s choice of imagery and diction highlights a few motifs that represent some of the reasons why the speaker adores this city so much.

For one, there’s its titanic nature: from its “water-bays, superb” (5) that are “rich, hemm’d thick all around”(6); the island itself “sixteen miles long” (6); its “numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron” (7) springing out of them skyward; even it’s mass of “immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week” (12). There’s also a certain vitality and hardiness that’s attributed to many of these scenes. The speaker describes the island as “solid-founded ” (6) and its tides as “swift and ample” (8).

They even parse through the passing seasons (another exertion of speed by Whitman that thrusts the reader into a time-lapse), which supplement the city’s wondrous image with the radiance of summer and the nostalgic wonderland created by “winter snows” and “sleigh-bells” (15). But the most compelling symbol of life offered is that of the city’s people. Whitman catalogs a variety of working-class professions and presents them as the veritable source of Mannahatta’s verve. From the “manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors” (13) to the “mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes” (16).

Lines 18-20

A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!

The final four lines of ‘Mannahatta’ pull away from the rapid catalog of images the speaker has just unfurled to help coalesce their definition of the island around. They emphasize again the city’s colossal variety — “a million people” (18), they seem to say, astounded. The speaker also asserts the inherent liberty of this mass of people whose manners are “free and superb,” wielding “open voices” and “hospitality” (18).

Whitman’s intense humanism and earnest plea for camaraderie are at their most powerful in these final lines as he paints one final, sweeping image of a city united in its diversely passionate pursuits. But it’s the last two verses that drive home the ineffable nature the speaker is trying to wrangle into words, zooming out to focus on just the dominating details of Mannahatta when viewed from a distance. “City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!” (19) they shout in triumphant awe. Reverently declaring: “my city!” (19)

FAQs

What is the theme of ‘Mannahatta?

The poem’s theme boils down to the reason the speaker seems to love their city so much. Which ultimately has to do with its vivacious variety and energy. The speaker praises these as the reason the city is filled with such vitality and has become such an enduring source of inspiration. The poem might be written in awe of Manhattan, but it’s just as enamored with the people and natural elements that make it up as well.

Why did Walt Whitman write ‘Mannahatta?

The poem unfolds as a bold but ardent endeavor to isolate the varying pieces of the city. The purpose? To give a more “specific and perfect” definition of the city. But the poem is also clearly an ode to the varied but intertwined scenes that Whitman had witnessed therein. It’s a celebration of not just what the city represents abstractly to the individual but also all its many parts.

What’s the effect of the cataloging in ‘Mannahatta?

Whitman often used cataloging in his poetry to juxtapose a variety of images in quick succession. In this poem, the cataloging allows the speaker to traverse time and space in its sprawling description of the city. While also accelerating the poem’s rhythm and cadence until it’s somewhat halted by the hyphens found near its end.

What is the significance of the poem’s title?

“Mannahatta” was the name given to the area by the indigenous Lenape who lived there before the arrival of European colonists. In tracing back the history of the island that is now known as “Manhattan,” Whitman seeks to give a far more holistic understanding of this land that he loves so dearly. A Transcendentalist but also an ardent humanist, the poet doesn’t just express adoration for solely modern people or white Americans but rather the kaleidoscope of all who make up the fabric of the world he sees before him. Making his decision to restore what he views as the true name of the city a powerful vindication of indigenous culture as essential.


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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
About
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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