Even two centuries later Walt Whitman’s, the father of the free verse and the most famous author of American poetry, poetry doesn’t lose its originality and morals. He was well known as "The Grey Poet" and the founder of a new movement in poetry which combines Realism with transcendentalism and demanded reader’s full concentration and contemplation of every verse.
His simple poetic expression made his contemporaries perceive as pretentious without realizing the depth of his poems. He was the third out of nine children in his family, and he implemented many religious motives into his works which he took out of Catholicism and Buddhism.
He was consumed with the contemplation of the world around him, and he thought everything material was a manifestation of everything sacred and he gradually introduced the idea of a universal Creator and universal material of which everything was made. Besides religious motives he used nature motives because he thought he was an inseparable part of it and he wrote about the beauties of America. Whitman wanted to make the first American epic, a work which will reconcile the different political beliefs of his contemporaries. His works came to life during the Civil War which affected him as a pacifist. The idea of democracy and American state unity was just starting to develop.
He was a pacifist, and because of his principles he was in front of his time, and he advocated for modern ideas which live in every man today and they are the equality of genders, abolishment of slavery and a single interpretation of religion and appreciation and preservation of nature. It’s no wonder his poems are still being red, appreciated and used by many people as an inspiration for different movements to increase human liberty and to fight off all kind of repressions.
Whitman is often mentioned as a role model for hippies and feminists who developed their art under his influence and often referred to his book of poems “Leaves of Grass.” He published it at his expense, and he caused many reactions. Even though Emerson loved his poetry, he was criticized for using many obscene, sexual and licentious motives. Some even went as far as proclaiming his book is worthless trash but even after many conflicts with his publisher, he managed to publish another edition which contained twenty more poems.
Despite some doubting his role as one of the most influential writers of American literature he owns that title even on a worldwide level. Due to his usage of free verse, he was accused of lacking form and style in his poems and using unconventional poetic structures. With his unconventional writing, he emphasized his democratic ideals which are often linked to the American way of life, and his poems stood out from the poems of his contemporaries such as Longfellow and Whittier who were also important figures in the American literature.
His alleged lack of style is his deviation of common poetic forms. He dared to get out of the frame, toss away rimes and rhythm to prove that poetic style is something completely individual. He broke the rules and developed a whole new way of writing which emphasized the true meaning of literature and his deviation became the main characteristic of his poetic expression by making his lack of style his actual, individual and permanent style.
Whitman’s approach to poetry is a reflection of his thoughts. His thoughts run wild and free in long sentences made of a series of associations which seem to be endless litanies about people and places while he, as a poet, is trying to tame his stream of consciousness.
Just because of the length of his sentences the readers can feel the freedom in his poems and Whitman’s poetry can doubt free be the name of the American sense of democracy. The belief that Whitman lacks style implies that the American society lacked style aginst what he fought alongside some other American writers of that time, including Emerson.
Whitman’s stance on events around him as an indivisible ensemble and his resistance against breaking that ensemble can be linked to the idea of uniting the American states. His idea of unification was probably the reason why he was so affected by the Civil War and why he lived through the war events on a personal level often protesting against the war through his poems.
Whitman’s work can be looked at as a musical composition that has its beginning and end but is composed out of various themes. The best example is his “Song of Myself” in which he interrupts the natural flow of the poem in an unordinary way. To reach the goal of his search he changes his approaches to problems and uses different methods. It seems like his playing with seeds he’s throwing into the ground and lets the grass that grows spread in any way it wants.
First few verses of his "Song of Myself" define the essence of his expression which is simplified. He intentionally puts a part of himself into his work:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."
These verses proof that the reader is trying to create a strong bond with his readers by allowing his work to became a display of himself and everyone and everything else. The idea is especially noticeable when he writes that everything that belongs to him belongs to us. The simplicity and intimacy get even more profound through the poem, and his seriousness is shown in the fact that he didn’t sing this work. He published “Leaves of Grass” with his picture on the front cover where he poses dressed in a simple shirt. Through other poems, we find out his name, his description and the political state of America in those times.
His longing to become universal is a common motive, and it’s again noticeable when he says that all every atom belonging to him belongs to us because he shows his opinion of the world as a profound and spiritualized structure in which he concludes that we are all made out of the same matter.
His style of uncontrolled associations and thoughts is the reflection of wanting to make his work universal, and he tries to implement all sorts of things into his writing by processing many themes using incompatible motives.
Obviously not belonging to any poetic movement established by previous writers, his work establishes its style. The inability of clearly defining him makes his expression ideal to observe questions of the soul and its actions. He didn’t only narrate about the soul in his poems; he gave proofs of its unquestionable existence by considering his writing its physical manifestation. This work isn’t a cycle in which he talks about himself in the beginning and the end. It all begins with him observing grass, and after more than 3000 verses he came back to that same motive.
He concludes that life emerges from life and that one cannot give birth if he has no parents and that one without a mother can’t be a mother. The mystery of life became a motive of all of his poems, and he approaches it in many different ways dedicating many verses to it as well as the seventh part of "Song of Myself."
"Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd0
babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal
and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me, mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and
the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! You are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away."
Here we can see that he approaches the theme of life and mortality in a much serious tone that still isn’t morbid; he wants to emerge himself into the mystery of life in all aspects and, alongside his readers, contemplate about the aspect of being and existing. In these verses, we see the character of God or Creator who Whitman often uses and sometimes identifies with while in other cases he uses this motive as a complete contrast of himself.
It is important to pay attention to his only rimed poem written in verses of the same longitude which is a contrast to all of his other works. It is the extremely popular poem "O Captain! My Captain!". With this work he had proven the strength and variety of his talent showing that he’s more than just a poet-narrator and, if he wanted to, he could write just like all his other contemporaries. The poem is divided into three strophes which have seven verses, and the rime goes AABBCDED and every verse end with the words "cold and dead" which were meant to show his grief because of Lincoln’s death. The rhythm could be adjusted to the rhythm of the drums and military march which magnify even more the elegiac tone.
The poem was written after Lincoln’s murder, and it was written as a reminder of his life’s work. The captain represents the president, and the boat is a metaphor for the Civil War, and the reward is the unification of North and South. The poem perfectly describes the confusion which ruled in America because it was written during a lot of political turbulence. Even though his poems were based on contemplations and inner struggles, in this poem he placed himself in a position opposite to the world where he balanced with his sadness about Lincoln’s death and the relief that the war is over. He recognized the confusion and dissatisfaction of his contemporaries with the outcome of the war, and he decides to be happy because of the unnecessary violence, that he never supported, stopped considering that the war had a high price and destroyed many lives.
Except for these two most famous poems we can also mention "Manhattan," "Sleepers," "Proud Music of the Storm" and many others which found their place whit the audience and became themes of many analyses. Whitman’s sexual orientation was discussed due to the obscenity of some of his poems. Except for such motives he used patriotic motives. Whitman described different American landscape and his poems were often inspired by American’s history figures.
The poem "Children of Adam" published in "Leaves of Grass" in its third edition was the last part of Whitman’s work and it caused many discussions. He played with the motive of something divine in people and laughed out all archetypical displays of sanctity ingrained in people’s minds, and so he pushed his readers to question their opinions and beliefs and, if necessary, have some new ideas more appropriate for their own time. Whitman was aware of his religiously oriented humor, and he was proud of it. He introduced many new ideas like expanding democracy and equality of genders which was scandalous in the 19th century, and he expressed his ideas in "I Sing the Body Electric":
"The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect."
By placing female perfection side to side with men’s, he affected the social range in which the man in the head of the house and above women and his further descriptions of physical union of male’s bodies got his rejected from society and called a homosexual, even though there is no proof of him being homosexual.
Unstructured style of Whitman’s book of poems proclaims its faith because just like leaves of grass his poetry has to find its way without his further promotions. Right, there is the beauty because the author allows every reader to find his conclusions individually and he helped just by putting his thoughts down on a piece of paper without any form and style but filled with harmony and powerful in their description.
The poet keeps on pushing us to question out beliefs and their origins – where they give to us during out upbringing or did we come to them by contemplation and experience? Why do we need to rethink life and its meaning? What do we have in common with other people? Are we immortal? There are numerous questions, but luckily Whitman gives answers and comfort if the reader is armed with patience and intellect in his search of the answers.
His longer poems have to be red slower and demand full contemplation and concentration. They ask of us to immerse ourselves into some meditation. Despite the simplicity of Whitman’s expression, his messages are strong, and to be received and understood, one must make a great effort. Descriptions of nature are so strong that the reader can feel like he’s in America surrounded with warm colors, intensive smell, endless skies…
Whitman successfully made philosophy and religion poetry’s equals, and by showing his education and faith, he reminds people to get rid of the shackles of learned behavior and accept the principle of universality and democracy, which he represents in his poems by bravely putting himself out there. Whitman can without any doubt be called the father of free opinion and a reminder of the ideal all people have and the fact that even though we are built in different beliefs, we are still made out of the same matter which builds souls and dreams. Dreams of freedom, beauty, love, peace and equality are the same for all of us.
Walt Whitman Biography
Walt Whitman is one of the most famous American poets. He was a pacifist and stood up for all the values we have in today’s society: women’s rights, freedom of speech, equality, and freedom for all and all the other ideals which are linked to the American democracy and freedom.
He was born in 1819 in Long Island. He was the second of nine children. His family was relatively poor and due to debts they moved around a lot which was the cause of Whitman stating his childhood was sad. When he was eleven, he stopped going to school because he had to work. He was an assistant in a lawyer’s office and then in a publisher’s office where he learned everything about publishing newspaper. He worked in different publishing offices until he got a job in a library. He got involved in the cultural life of the city by coming to theaters and going to debates. With time he started publishing his first works.
When he was sixteen, he moved to New York, but it was harder to find a job because of the crisis. In 1836 he came back to Long Island and started working as a teacher. He wasn’t satisfied with his job, so he went back to New York where he started his paper called "Long Islander." Soon he sold his rights and started working as a teacher and in some offices.
Along the way, he wrote fiction and poetry. In poetry, he experimented with many different styles. During 1950’s he wrote poetry which ended up in "Leaves of Grass." He will redo and work on that book for the rest of his life. The first publication of this book was paid by Whitman, and he printed it during his breaks at work. His book provoked praises and critics, but this book is still one of the most famous books of poetry in the whole American history.
His other works are: "Franklin Evans" published in 1842, a book of poetry "Drum-Taps" and a book of philosophic works "Democratic Vistas."
Whitman died in 1892.