Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
American poet, journalist and essayist, best known for LEAVES OF GRASS (1855), which was occasionally banned, and the poems 'I Sing the Body Electric' and 'Song of Myself.' Whitman incorporated natural speech rhythms into poetry. He disregarded metre, but the overall effect has a melodic character. Harold Bloom has stated in The Western Canon (1994) that "no Western poet, in the past century and half, not even Browning, or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson."
"Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and
Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, the son of a Quaker carpenter. Whitman's mother was descended from Dutch farmers. In Whitman's childhood there were slaves employed on the farm. Whitman was early on filled with a love of nature. He read classics in his youth and was inspired by writers such as Goethe, Hegel, Carlyle and Emerson. He left school early to become a printer's apprentice. He also in 1835 worked as a teacher and journeyman printer. After that he held a great variety of jobs while writing and editing for several periodicals, The Brooklyn Eagle from 1846 to 1848 and The Brooklyn Times from 1857 to 1858. In between he spent three months on a New Orleans paper, working for his father, and earning his living from undistinguished hack-work.
In New York Whitman witnessed the rapid growth of the city and wanted to write a new kind of poetry in tune with mankind's new faith, hopeful expectations and energy of his days. Another theme in 'Song of Myself' is suffering and death - he identified with Jesus and his fate:
The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in July 1855 at Whitman's own expense - he also personally had set the type for it - and the poem was about the writer himself. In the same year there also appeared Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, another great American epic. The third edition of Leaves was published during Whitman's wandering years in 1860. It was greeted with warm appreciation, although at first his work was not hugely popular. Ralph Waldo Emerson was among his early admirers and wrote in 1855: "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."
When Whitman wrote the first edition, he knew little or nothing about Indian philosophy, but later critics have recognized Indian ideas expressed in the poems - words from the Sanskrit are used correctly in some of the poems written after 1858. Leaves of Grass also includes a group of poems entitled 'Calamus', which has been taken as reflection of the poet's homosexuality, although according to Whitman they celebrated the 'beautiful and sane affection of man for man'. According to some sources, Whitman had only one abortive attempt at a sexual relationship, presumably homosexual, in the winter of 1859-60.
During the Civil War Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington. When his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman went there to care for him and also for other Union and Confederate soldiers. The Civil War had its effect on the writer, which is shown in his prose MEMORANDA DURING THE WAR (1875) and in the poems published under the title of DRUM-TAPS in 1865. In SEQUEL TO DRUM.TAPS (1865-66) appeared the great elegy on President Abraham Lincoln, 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd'. Another famous poem published about the death of Lincoln is 'O Captain! My Captain!'.
"Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
On the basis of his services Whitman was given a clerkship in the Department of the Interior. He transferred then to the attorney general's office, when his chief labeled Leaves of Grass an indecent book. In England Whitman's work was better received - among his admirers were Alfred Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A paralytic attack in 1873 forced Whitman to give up his work. At the age of sixty-four he settled in a little house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent almost the rest of his life. He was taken care of by a widow he had befriended. His reputation, which was shadowed by his outspokenness on sexual matters, began to rise after recognition in England by Swinburne, Mrs Gilchrist, and E. Carpenter.
A story of Whitman's later years, told by a publisher, reveals that the author did not lose his self-esteem during his last years. Whitman had entered with his ruffled beard and sombrero the lobby of the Hotel Albert in New York and every man in it raised his newspaper to hide his face from the author. He turned and went out. The publisher, for some reason, followed him and asked who he was. The man said: "I am Walt Whitman. If you'll lend me a dollar, you will be helping immortality to stumble on." (from The March of Literature by Ford Madox Ford, 1938) Jorge Luis Borges has seen Whitman as the hero of his epic, a character he yearned to be: "Thus, on one page of the work, Whitman is born on Long Island; on others, in the South. Thus, in one of the mostly authentic sections of "Song of Myself," he relates a heroic episode of the Mexican War and says he heard the story told in Texas, a place he never went." (from The Total Library, 1999)
In 1881 there appeared a newly augmented edition of Leaves of Grass. The following year Whitman published SPECIMEN DAYS AND COLLECT, and in 1888 a collection of his newspaper pieces, NOVEMBER BOUGHS, was published. His final volume was the 'Deathbed' edition of Leaves of Grass, which he prepared in 1891-92. It concludes with the prose piece 'A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads', in which he attempts to explain his life and work. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, in Camden.
Whitman's wavelike verse and his fresh use of language helped to liberate American poetry. He wanted to be a national bard, his prophetic note echoed, among other books, the Bible, but his erotic candor separated him from conventionally romantic poets. He also boasted that he was 'non-literary and non-decorous' - which perhaps was not really true. When he urged the Muse to forget the matter of Troy and develop new themes, he knew what the matter of Troy was.
Leaves of Grass was first presented as a group of 12 poems, and followed by five revised and three reissued editions during the author's lifetime. Whitman maintained that a poet's style should be simple and natural, without orthodox meter or rhyme. The poems were written to be spoken, but they have great variety in rhythm and tonal volume. The central theme arises from Whitman's pantheistic view of life, from symbolic identification of regeneration in nature. - Whitman's use of free verse had a deep influence on poetry. He was a great inspiring example for the beat-generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac etc.) .In the introduction of the work Whitman wrote: "The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity... nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subjects their articulations are powers neither common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art."
For further reading: Reader's Guide by G.W. Allen (1970); Critical Essays on Walt Whitman, ed. by J. Woodress (1983); Language and Style by C.C.Hollis (1983); Walt Whitman by James E. Miller Jr., Helen Regenstein (1990); From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman by Philip Callow (1992); Masculine Landscapes by Byrne R.S. Fone (1992); The Growth of Leaves of Grass by M. Jimmie Killingsworth (1993); Walt Whitman; The Centennial Essays, ed. by Ed Folsom (1994); The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. by Ezra Greenspan (1995); Walt Whitman by Catherine Reef (1995); Walt Whitman & the World, ed. by Gay Wilson Allen, Ed Folsom (1995); Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall (1997); Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. by J.R. Lemaster, Donald D. Kummings (1998); Walt Whitman: A Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, ed. by Harold Bloom (1999); A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, ed. by David S. Reynolds (1999); Walt Whitman, ed. by Jim Perlman (1999); Walt Whitman by Jerome Loving (1999) - other studies among others by J. Kaplan (1980); H. Aspiz (1980); W.H. Eitner (1981); P. Zweig (1984); D. Cavitch (1985); M.W. Thomas (1987) - Museums: Walt Whitman's birthplace, 246 Old Whitman Road, Huntington Station, Suffolk - Note: Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote Spoon River Anthology, published a biography of Walt Whitmanin in 1937.