Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and thought has found words. Walt Whitman is one of the most famous American poets worldwide. With his innovative free verse and celebration of the American landscape, Walt Whitman made his poetry a kind of literary declaration of independence. His poems seek to move away from the Old World’s literary tradition and forge a new, distinctly American literature.
“He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.” — George Sand
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills on Long Island, New York, United States. His father was of English descent, and his mother was Dutch. He was the second of eight children. However, in later life, he used to refer to his ancestors as having been early settlers of Long Island.
In 1822, when Walt was two years old, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn, which was still a small town. Whitman spent the next 40 years of his life in Brooklyn, which grew into a thriving city during that time.
After completing his schooling in Brooklyn, Whitman began working at the age of 11. He worked as an office boy for a law office before becoming an apprentice printer at a newspaper. In his late teens, Whitman worked as a schoolteacher in rural Long Island for several years. In 1838, he founded a weekly newspaper on Long Island. He reported and wrote stories, printed the paper, and sometimes even delivered it on horseback. However, by the early 1840s, he stepped into professional journalism, writing articles for magazines and newspapers in New York.
By the early 1850s, he was still writing for newspapers, yet his interest had turned to poetry. He used to jot down notes for poems inspired by the busy city life around him.
‘Leaves of Grass’
Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. This book was unusual because of the 12 poems is included. These poems were untitled and were in a way that looked more like prose than poetry.
Whitman had written a lengthy and remarkable preface, essentially introducing himself as an “American bard.” For the frontispiece, he selected an engraving of himself dressed as a typical worker. The green covers of the book emboss the title “Leaves of Grass.” Curiously, the book’s title page, perhaps because of an oversight, did not contain the author’s name.
However, the poems in the original edition of “Leaves of Grass” were inspired by Whitman’s fascinating things. It included the raucous politics of the 1850s, the modern inventions the public marveled over, and the crowds of New York. While Whitman hoped to become the poet of the common man, his book went mostly unnoticed.
Whitman produced approximately 800 copies of the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” However, in the following year, he published a second edition, which contained 20 additional poems.
Evolution of ‘Leaves of Grass’
Whitman saw “Leaves of Grass” as his life’s work. Rather than publishing new books of poems, he began revising the poems and adding new ones in successive editions.
However, a Boston publishing house, Thayer and Eldridge, issued the third edition of the book. Whitman traveled to Boston and spent three months preparing the book, which contained more than 400 pages of poetry. Various poems in the 1860 edition referred to homosexuality. While the poems were not explicit, they were no less controversial.
Note that Whitman does not deny these workers’ individuality who are grouped by their jobs. Instead, each is ‘singing what belongs to him or her and none else.’ The poem blends essence with commonality and collective belongingness. There is also an emphasis on ‘I Hear America Singing’ on the strength of the songs the American people sing and the voices that sing them and the American people themselves. The songs are not just ‘melodious’ but ‘strong’ in the poem’s last line.
When Whitman’s 1855 volume “Leaves of Grass” was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition contained just a dozen untitled poems. Although he would continue to expand and develop the collection for the rest of his life – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection.
The poem’s structure changed slightly over time. The final version is divided into 16 sections. Although initially, it had 21; People knew Whitman for revising his work after its initial publication. Although, this poem was not considered one of Whitman’s best poems by Whitman himself. However, many of his readers have disagreed and think this among his finest.
Like ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ Whitman wrote this poem in the wake of Lincoln’s death in 1865. Although it is slightly different from Whitman’s best-known poetry, it has a more regular rhyme scheme. However, the poem became among his most famous, to the extent that Whitman almost regretted writing it later.
This is perhaps Whitman’s one of the best-known poems and featured in the original 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass.” It does what its title depicts, with Whitman writing about his own body and its various components. Yet, concluding that these are also part of his soul since soul and body are one.
Walt Whitman’s poetry was revolutionary in both subject and style. Although they are considered eccentric and controversial, he was eventually known as “America’s good gray poet.” When he died in 1892 at the age of 72, his death was front-page news across America. Whitman is now celebrated as one of the country’s greatest poets, and selections from “Leaves of Grass” are widely taught in schools and universities.