Walt Whitman was a printer, journalist, essayist, teacher, and one of America’s most important poets. Whitman was a free-thinker, as shown by his own words in the preface to Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, on Long Island, New York. He was the second son of Walter Whitman, a house-builder, and Louisa Van Velsor. At the age of twelve, Whitman began to work at printing firms and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read constantly, familiarizing himself with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible (Jeffares).
Walt Whitman was one of the first well-known poets to write free-verse poetry, and to use the universal “I”. As stated by Martin in Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, “Sometimes ‘I’ could be taken simply as Whitman, but this was an outlandishly fluid ‘I’ that switched in an eye blink from male to female and with the greatest of ease assumed various identities: a slave, a witch being burned at the stake, a cholera sufferer, a clock” (Loc. 688). His flowing free verse was more narrative than poetic at times. It often flitted from subject to subject, following no specific pattern, but seemingly fitting together.
Not only did Walt Whitman use this new writing style in his poetry, he also wrote about subjects not usually addressed in American poetry during his lifetime. Subjects of Whitman’s poetry included slavery, race, religion, and sexuality. These were topics that were important to ordinary people, even if his ideas on these subjects were different from commonly held ones, and the fact that he wrote about them in first person made them even more meaningful. He also admired working class people, feeling “a rapport with coach drivers and other workingmen” (Martin, loc. 627). He expressed these ideas many times in his poetry. In his thirties, Whitman began seriously applying himself to writing poetry. He wrote a collection of poems called Leaves of Grass. This collection can be considered his life’s work; he wrote the first edition in his thirties and was releasing revised editions up until his death in 1892. The first two editions of Leaves of Grass sold poorly, but the third edition enjoyed greater success (Martin, loc. 964). Much of Whitman’s work in Leaves of Grass is his answer to the question: What is more important, society or the individual? Throughout many of the poems found in Leaves of Grass, Whitman utilizes literary tools such as the universal “I” and free verse in his poems to emphasize his belief in the importance of the individual.
In his poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman explores the physicality of the human body. Whitman wrote this poem in free verse, separating his words into nine distinct sections of varying lengths. Though this poem could have been just as effective without the numbered, separate verses, the division highlights the specific intent of each verse despite their all being part of the same poem – just like the unique parts of the body comprise a unified whole. Whitman’s use of the list structure is shown prominently in this piece and serves as a tool to draw the reader’s attention to the unique qualities of the human body while also celebrating the body parts’ cumulative significance. These techniques, along with the changing point of view through his use of the universal “I” contributes to Whitman’s themes of freedom and individuality. Ultimately, Whitman makes the point that the body and the soul are almost one in the same and therefore, devaluing the body is also a crime against the soul. This celebration of the body also celebrates each individual portrayed in this poem, and shows the value of the individual. This exemplifies Whitman’s belief in the importance of the individual, as opposed to the group.
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Whitman’s other poems share similar themes of self-determinism and praise of the human body. In the poem “Song of the Open Road,” the speaker of the poem is describing a journey he is taking. He describes himself as being “healthy and free,” and he realizes he is the only person who is in complete control of his life and that he, alone, has the power to control his fate. Due to this realization, he does not have to wish for good fortune. He attests that he, himself, is his own good fortune, and that is all he needs and that the earth will provide him with anything else he needs. This is not to say that the road he is taking is not without its imperfections and burdens. Rather than worry, however, the speaker has decided to take those burdens with him. The poem utilizes free verse; the lines are unrhymed and of varying lengths and the poem is told from a first person point of view. The literal meaning of the poem, as well as the poetic device in use throughout all help illuminate Whitman’s belief in the beauty and significance of the individual.
In one of Whitman’s most famous poems, “I Hear America Singing,” the reader can understand how his views on life and the individual culminate into his lived experience. Though the poem was written on the eve of the Civil War, it presents a vision of America as a harmonious community. As the poem celebrates the diversity and richness of American life, it also tries to find a distinctly American sound. Whitman rejects European poetic traditions like meter and rhyme, which feel too constraining to capture the energy of American life. Instead, the poem is written entirely in free verse, and Whitman turns to other devices to make his poem sound musical. America emerges from the work of diverse individual people: their separate work comes together to form a coherent whole. Despite this pluralist view, Whitman still singled out specific individuals for praise in his poetry, In this way, in the poem’s account, America is a nation where individuality and unity are balanced, each producing and reinforcing the other.
“At the time of his death Whitman was more respected in Europe than in his own country, not as a poet, indeed, but as a symbol of American democracy that he first won recognition. His poems exercised a strong fascination on English readers who found his championing of the common man idealistic and prophetic” (Jeffares).
Walt Whitman positively impacted the world with his poetry. Whitman wrote about subjects society didn’t consider to be important, like railroad workers, slaves, and prostitutes. He used unique tools such as the universal “I”, free verse, and unconventional structure validate and elevate these subjects, answering the question: What is more important, society or the individual? The answer is both, technically, but in a time when focus on the individual was taboo, Whitman was an avid supporter of celebrating the individual.