Abstract: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass represents a poetic perspective of the cultural changes that were taking place in America at the end of the century. Whitman’s collection of poems are more than poetry, can be read as a cultural biography, a celebration of one of the first publications of free verse poetry, and the insights of an openly passionate man who lived nowhere, but everywhere in the shifting culture of America.
Walt Whitman began writing free verse poetry which he published in increasingly larger volumes for approximately 40 years. The first publication of Leaves of Grass was issued by Whitman himself in 1855, and he continued writing, and expanding on this edition, until 1892, only a few months before his death at the age of seventy-two.
It is a personal biography of his own personal changes, from young adulthood to old age, and it is a cultural biography of a nation, as Whitman was enamored with the world around him. Whitman was unabashedly passionate about his experiences, and openly expressive about his impressions as he traveled around the United States, served as a nurse during the Civil War, and mourned, with the country, when Lincoln was assassinated.
Leaves of Grass represent a life of both a man and a culture, expressing the inextricable social and political character of life, and the unlimited emotions of a life lived widely and openly.
Whatever might be said about Walt Whitman, he desired more than anything to exist through his poetry. Many of his poems are written to an ubiquitous “you,” as a direct reference to the reader.
Poirier writes, “… he tells us that Walt Whitman is his book, and that you hold him in your hand - though only for a moment.” (33)
… this is no book, Who touches this touches a man, (Is it night? are we together alone?) It is I you hold and who holds you, I spring from the pages into your arms… (Whitman, in Poirier, 33)
Whitman wrote relentlessly of the common man, the working man, the farmers, the soldiers who fought in the civil war, and the strangers on the street. In effect, Whitman wrote to everyone, women, men, children, known and unknown, identified at times, and at other times contained by the simple direction of his words, to “You.” For example,
To You Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, Why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you? (Whitman, 10) In “Thou Reader,” Whitman declares, Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, Therefore for thee the following chants. (Whitman, 11) and, again, in Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand (Whitman, 94).
These direct confrontations with the reader reveal a man in his creative writing, writing is his living, living in his poetry, desiring, more than writing, to be read. This is the aspect of Whitman’s writing that separates his work of poetry from other poets of his time, indeed of any other time. Whitman was a chronicler of events, a traveler, a participant, a visionary, and a prolific writer in composing every thought or impression that occurred in his life-travels.
The collection of verse in Leaves of Grass are divided in sections, each of which mark an age in Whitman’s own life, and an age of a nation. The first poem indeed sets the tone for the collection, In the beginning section “Inscriptions,” Whitman begins with One’s-Self I Sing:
…a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. Of Physiology from top to toe I sing, …I say the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing… (1)
In this verse, Whitman identifies himself as upholding particular ideals of democracy, of sociality, of physicality, and sexuality, equality, and all, “en-masse.” This effectively sets the tone for the entire volume, a theme that Whitman returns to again and again, a desire to communicate his own identity, and to commune with his readers as part of this identity.
Whitman then begins a journey that covers every aspect of American culture, from labor to leisure, clothing, habits, buildings, streets, and in the alleys where the outcasts of society lived. Many of his impressions of people are written in the lengthier section, Song of Myself (22). This verse is not so egocentric as it is descriptive of a philosophy through which Whitman understands America as a community of difference. Much of this revolves back to, and through the human body, the pleasures, passions, the pains and joys of being a feeling-human being.
Certainly, at the time of his writing, such expressions were considered nearly pornographic (Valiunas, 35, and his writing was scandalous for years, read in secret, while praised by philosophers such as Emerson and Thoreau (Poirier, 34). Many of Whitman’s verses confront this rejection as something that does not reflect the interests of the people, but something that is controlled by the state, the libraries who would not accept his books, and the religious leaders who publicly banned his book.
None of this prevented Whitman from writing, or from gaining a reputation and a devoted following. As a chronology of existence, Whitman includes every breath of existence as a metaphor worth exploring. For example, there is an entire section devoted to his ocean poems, Sea-Drift (200), just as there are poems devoted to the earth itself, in A Song of the Rolling Earth (177).
In each section, it is Whitman, the man, who lives through his poems, and his poems live through his experiences, his dreams, desires, where he as much a witness of life as he is alive. Blurring these into the free-verse style of writing was the passion of his writing, and explains why Leaves of Grass persisted in Whitman until his old age.
As Whitman aged, the poetry of his elder years reflect more on death, change, loss, and the memories of youth, as with the memories of American culture, Lincoln, old loves, and new appreciations of his body as it changes, ages, and continues to write.
In a verse titled “Songs at Sunset,” Whitman begins expressing his life as one with the history of the culture he has witnessed,
Splendor of ended day floating and filling me, Hour prophetic, hour resuming the past, Inflating my throat, you divine average, You earth and life till the last ray gleams I sing. (393)
Olsen and Valiunas agree that Whitman’s free-verse writing was a method of infusing language with culture, as much as a writer’s desire to express culture. Valiunas notes, “Whitman's ambition was to fill his poetry with as much life as it could possibly hold, but doing so required a poetic form more elastic and accommodating than traditional verse.” (26).
Whitman's blatant identification with those who were considered to be the despised classes (laborers, prostitutes, tramps, slaves, and so on) won him praise with some of his history’s leading reformers and other “free-thinkers,” (Olsen, 264). Whitman, as a homosexual, lived a life of being an exile, and so easily found refuge with the masses of other social outcasts, and thus directed his poems about them towards to classes who were in the positions to make change. As such, he was a revolutionary poet, both in style, and in philosophical ambition.
There is no denying the devastating effect of the American Civil War on society, and on Whitman himself, as he had witnessed multitudes of casualties of the war, and none of the chaos of battling.
As a writer in the midst of this, the war that claimed more American lives than all other American wars combined, Whitman indeed lost much of his naïve faith in the ambitions of American men and women; that change would come slowly, and at a great cost. The lyric of his later poetry thus droops slightly, with age, and with the grief of witnessing so much death and destruction in such grotesque masses of lives. He continued to believe in the common people, and continued to believe that these were the representatives of democracy because of their difference, uniqueness, and perseverance.
In one his final verses, he alludes to the future hopes he holds in “Unseen Buds:”
Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well, Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square Or cubic inch, Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic,. Unborn, Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping, Billions of billions, and trillions and trillions of the waiting… Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless…(441)
Having witnessed and described so much of the past, of his own life, and the changes that took place during his time, Whitman leaves his reader with the vision of a future yet unstained by griefs and pains, the future always present in its inevitable arrival.
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