For you these from me,
O democracy, to serve you ma
For you, for you I am
thrilling these songs.
These are the words of Walt Whitman often called the poet of America and American democracy. They reflect one of the major concerns of his life as expressed in his
poetry — the equality of man in a democracy. Whitman felt that the strength of the United States was found most in the common people. He believed that the spirit of a poet should respond to the spirit of his country.
Whitman’s life and writing showed the growing importance of the city and of science and industry in American life. Although he had great faith in the equality found in a democratic society, he also believed in the right of the free individual to rebel against the restrictions of any society. He found subjects for his poetry in all kinds and conditions of men. In away. his poems picture America as a nation of free individuals.
This is his story.
Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819. on a farm at West Hills, Long Island, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn. As a boy he attended public school, read constantly, and attended church regularly He was a
Quaker, following the religion of his mother and her family. As a young man, Whitman worked as a printer, a newspaper reporter, and a school teacher. From 1839 to 1848 he served as the editor of various newspapers in
Brooklyn and New York City. Most of his writing during this period was prose. During these early years, Whitman was observing life around him and developing his philosophy. He also enjoyed the theatre, concerts, and operas.
Late in the 1840s, something changed Whitman’s way of thinking, feeling and writing. The change made him a different poet — a great one.
Evidence of the new Whitman showed clearly in the first edition of his book, ‘Leaves of Grass.’ This book, still considered to be his major work, appeared in 1855. The new Whitman also had a new name — Walt Whitman!
The poems of Leaves of Grass were very different from Whitman’s earlier poems. Rhyme had disappeared and the rhythm was not in the old tradition. The poet talked about life as he knew it in the simple language of the
When ‘Leaves of Grass’ first appeared, literary critics did not like it at all. Many people laughed at the “queer” poetry. Today, however, readers of the book see that it demonstrates the birth of Whitman’s poetic powers and a new way of writing poetry. ‘Leaves of Grass’ traces the life of a man, the maturing of a young nation, and the passing of man from youth to old age. One of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems, “Song of Myself’, is often considered the most thoroughly democratic poem ever
written. In it, he proclaims the worth of every individual and identifies himself with each and every possible human creature.
“Song of Myself” gives the impression of reflecting the personal love and concern of the poet for all mankind. It moves from an interest in the present to the more ultimate matters of life, death, eternity, and God. Whitman imagines himself as speaking through the poem for all Americans as he says:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
and what I assume
you shall assume.
For every atom belonging to me
as good belongs to you. “
Walt Whitman possessed an extraordinary ability to identify’ himself with all sorts and conditions of men. He associated with all types of people and their needs and interests became his. For example, after a trip to the West in 1848, his interest was awakened to the problems of western farmers and workmen. As a result, upon his return to Brooklyn, he became a laborer to show his sympathy with laboring people.
Whitman’s journey to the West also inspired him to write a number of poems about the frontier, the best-known being ‘The Song of the Broad Axe” and “Pioneers; О Pioneers.” The latter celebrated the westward movement of
Whitman was deeply affected by the American Civil War (1861-1865), and beginning in 1862 he served in various hospitals and army camps as a male nurse.
Some of Whitman’s best poems came out of his wartime experiences. A very famous poem “0 Captain! My Captain!” was written about the death of President Abraham Lincoln, for whom Whitman had special admiration. In 1873, while working in Washington, Whitman suffered an illness that left him partially lame. He left the city for Camden, New Jersey, where he lived during the final years of his life, dying there in 1892 at the age of 73.
In his last years, another change took place in Walt Whitman. He developed new themes in his poetry: idealism, nationalism, and internationalism. His writing became more thoughtful and serene.
The interdependence of man filled his thinking and is especially reflected in his poem, “Passage to India”. The poem presents hope for the renewing of the human race by uniting the spiritual wisdom of the East with the materialism of the West. In effect, it is a call for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual unity’ of all nations of the world.
Another theme new to Whitman in his later years was that of death and immortality’.No doubt his experiences during the war and his own suffering helped to form his thinking. He came to see that death was a part of the total plan of life. The only true life, he said, must be life and death.
Critics still differ today concerning the greatness of Walt Whitman as a poet. Yet there can be no doubt about his power or his influence on later generations of poets. His verse has a certain magnetic force and a passionate quality that excite the imagination and earn either strong enthusiasm or strong dislike. Whitman had more influence than any other poet on the directions taken by American poetry after the middle of the nineteenth century.
“The proof of a poet,” Whitman said, “is that his country’ absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” One can say that Whitman’s country is still in the process of absorbing him and accepting Whitman’s work with understanding and affection. Out of the problems of the twentieth century, it is possible that Americans are moving to a new understanding of the value of “simple separate persons” in a democratic society.