Whiteman’s Poetry


Whiteman’s Poetry

Whiteman’s Poetry: Whitman envisioned democracy not just as a political system but as a way of experiencing the world. Whiteman’s Poetry In the early nineteenth century, people still harbored many doubts about whether the United States could survive as a country and about whether democracy could thrive as a political system. To allay those fears and to praise democracy, Whitman tried to be democratic in both life and poetry. Whiteman’s Poetry He imagined democracy as a way of interpersonal interaction and as a way for individuals to integrate their beliefs into their everyday lives. “Song of Myself” notes that democracy must include all individuals equally, or else it will fail.

Whiteman’s Poetry: In his poetry, Whitman widened the possibilities of Poeticdiction by including slang, colloquialisms, and regional dialects, rather than employing the stiff, erudite language so often found in nineteenth-century verse. Whiteman’s Poetry Similarly, he broadened the possibilities of subject matter by describing myriad people and places. Like William Wordsworth, Whitman believed that everyday life and everyday people were fit subjects for poetry. Whiteman’s Poetry Although much of Whitman’s work does not explicitly discuss politics, most of it implicitly deals with democracy: it describes communities of people coming together, and it imagines many voices pouring into a unified whole. Whiteman’s Poetry For Whitman, democracy was an idea that could and should permeate the world beyond politics, making itself felt in the ways we think, speak, work, fight, and even make art.

Whiteman’s Poetry: Whitman’s poetry reflects the vitality and growth of the early United States. During the nineteenth century, America expanded at a tremendous rate, and its growth and potential seemed limitless. Whiteman’s Poetry But sectionalism and the violence of the Civil War threatened to break apart and destroy the boundless possibilities of the United States. As a way of dealing with both the population growth and the massive deaths during the Civil War, Whitman focused on the life cycles of individuals: people are born, they age and reproduce, and they die. Whiteman’s Poetry Such poems as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” imagine death as an integral part of life. The Speaker of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” realizes that flowers die in the winter, but they rebloom in the springtime, and he vows to mourn his fallen friends every year just as new buds are appearing. Whiteman’s Poetry Describing the life cycle of nature helped Whitman contextualize the severe injuries and trauma he witnessed during the Civil War—linking death to life helped give the deaths of so many soldiers meaning.

Whiteman’s Poetry

The Beauty of the Individual

Whiteman’s Poetry: Throughout his poetry, Whitman praised the individual. He imagined a democratic nation as a unified whole composed of unique but equal individuals. “Song of Myself” opens in a triumphant paean to the individual: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”. Whiteman’s Poetry Elsewhere the speaker of that exuberant poem identifies himself as Walt Whitman and claims that, through him, the voices of many will speak. In this way, many individuals make up the individual democracy, a single entity composed of myriad parts. Every voice and every part will carry the same weight within the single democracy—and thus every voice and every individual is equally beautiful. Despite this pluralist view, Whitman still singled out specific individuals for praise in his poetry, particularly Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, Lincoln was assassinated, and Whitman began composing several Elegies, including “O Captain! My Captain!” Although all individuals were beautiful and worthy of praise, some individuals merited their own poems because of their contributions to society and democracy.

Whiteman’s Poetry: Whitman celebrates the common man by creating a unified, overarching concept of the self that applies to individuals as well. Whitman often casts himself as the main character in his poems, but the Walt Whitman he refers to is only partially representative of Whitman's own opinions and experiences.Whiteman’s Poetry He also uses "I" (or himself) to represent the archetypal American man. This technique, known as "an all-powerful I," allows Whitman to draw all Americans into a unified identity with the poet himself as the figurehead. Whiteman’s Poetry The idea of the Democratic Self is common in the work of Transcendentalist writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The ideology of individualism is very prevalent in Whitman's work. This concept thrived in America during the early nineteenth century - a democratic response to the new class of industrial wage-workers. Like Whitman, many powerful thinkers, politicians, and writers encouraged everyday Americans to exercise self-ownership and value original thought. Whitman's poetry often addresses the role of the individual within a collective society while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of self expression.

Whitman saw his poems as more than words on a page - he frequently points out the democratic power of poetry. He felt that form called for vocalization and sharing rather than private, silent consumption of the words - he wrote poetry that he intended to be spoken aloud. In addition to writing inherently communal poetry, he used the medium to celebrate the struggles of the common man. He felt that both the form and the content of his work could sow the democratic spirit in his readers' hearts and minds.

Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855, 1891-2), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. This monumental work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, and found beauty and reassurance even in death. Along with Emily Dickinson, Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most significant 19th-century poets and would influence later many poets, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Simon Ortiz, C.K. Williams, and Martín Espada. Born on Long Island, Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and received limited formal education. His occupations during his lifetime included printer, schoolteacher, reporter, and editor. Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass was inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. This important publication underwent eight subsequent editions during his lifetime as Whitman expanded and revised the poetry and added more to the original collection of 12 poems. Emerson himself declared the first edition was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Whitman published his own enthusiastic review of Leaves of Grass. Critics and readers alike, however, found both Whitman’s style and subject matter unnerving. According to The Longman Anthology of Poetry, “Whitman received little public acclaim for his poems during his lifetime for several reasons:  this openness regarding sex, his self-presentation as a rough working man, and his stylistic innovations.” A poet who “abandoned the regular meter and rhyme patterns” of his contemporaries, Whitman was “influenced by the long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry.” Upon publishing Leaves of Grass, Whitman was subsequently fired from his job with the Department of the Interior. Despite his mixed critical reception in the US, he was favorably received in England, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne among the British writers who celebrated his work. During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington, DC. For three years, he visited soldiers during his spare time, dressing wounds and giving solace to the injured. These experiences led to the poems in his 1865 publication, Drum-Taps, which includes, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln. After suffering a serious stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to his brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey. While his poetry failed to garner popular attention from his American readership during his lifetime, over 1,000 people came to view his funeral. And as the first writer of a truly American poetry, Whitman’s legacy endures. You can read and inspect many of Whitman's books, letters, and manuscripts at the Walt Whitman Archive, a digital edition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.

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