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7.7: Walt Whitman

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    Walt Whitman

    The second of nine children and born in 1819 to a Long Island farmer and carpenter, Walt Whitman is both the journeyman poet of American-ness and its champion. A journalist and newspaper editor throughout his life, Whitman worked as a law clerk, a schoolteacher, a printer, a civil servant, and a hospital aide, but he was always writing; from his teenage years until his death, his byline was on constant view. Contemporary reports suggest that Whitman was an industrious worker but that he was often accused of idleness because his habit of long midday walks contrasted sharply with nineteenth-century attitudes toward work. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman addressed these critics directly by writing, “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (45). For Whitman, too much industry dulled the ability to celebrate the ordinary. In the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman expounds on his love for the common: “Other states indicate themselves in their deputies...but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislators, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors...but always most in the common people.”1 Whitman’s love for the common people that he encountered and observed in the urban centers of the north is expressed in all of his poetry; if his British contemporary Alfred Lord Tennyson is the national poet of mourning, then Whitman is the national poet of celebration.

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    Many readers feel confused and disoriented when reading Whitman for the first time. Without using the aid of rhyme and meter as a guide, Whitman’s poetry may initially appear disjointed and meandering, but at the same time readers often take great comfort in the simplicity of the language, the clarity of the images, and the deep cadences, or rhythms, of the verse. Such contradictions are at the heart of Whitman’s work. Much of Whitman’s success and endurance as a poet comes from his ability to marry embedded cultural forms to the needs of a growing and rapidly modernizing nation. Whitman first came to wide public attention with the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 when he was just twentyfive years old. Grand in scope if not in size, the first edition established Whitman as a poet who loved wordplay and common images; by the time of his death in 1892, Whitman had expanded the initial collection of just twelve poems over the course of six editions to one that ultimately included more than 400 poems. The selection included here largely samples Whitman’s early poetry up through the Civil War. In the selections from Song of Myself and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” we see Whitman at his most iconic: sweeping views of everyday life that freely mingle high and low culture. Yet the poet of the common man did not spend all of his days gazing at his fellow Americans. In the final selection from Whitman, we see Whitman rising as a national poet with “O Captain! My Captain!” one of two poems on the death of Abraham Lincoln. An urban poet who lived almost his entire life in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, the enduring appeal of his works testifies to his ability to connect the great and the common through language.

    1.3.1 Song of Myself


    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.
    My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
    Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
    I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
    Hoping to cease not till death.
    Creeds and schools in abeyance,
    Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
    I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
    Nature without check with original energy.


    Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
    I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
    The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
    The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
    It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
    I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
    I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
    The smoke of my own breath,
    Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
    My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
    The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d searocks, and of hay in the barn,
    The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
    A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
    The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
    The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
    The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
    Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
    Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
    Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
    Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
    You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
    You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
    You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.


    I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
    But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
    There was never any more inception than there is now,
    Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
    And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
    Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
    Urge and urge and urge,
    Always the procreant urge of the world.
    Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
    Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
    To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
    Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
    Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
    I and this mystery here we stand.
    Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
    Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
    Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
    Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
    Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
    Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
    Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest. I am satisfied I see, dance, laugh, sing;
    As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
    Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
    Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
    That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
    And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
    Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?


    Trippers and askers surround me,
    People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
    The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
    My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
    The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
    The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
    Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
    These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
    But they are not the Me myself.
    Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
    Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
    Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
    Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
    Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
    Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
    I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.


    I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
    And you must not be abased to the other.
    Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
    Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
    Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
    I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
    How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
    And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare stript heart,
    And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
    Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
    And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
    And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
    And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
    And that a kelson of the creation is love, And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
    And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
    And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.

    “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

    O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
    The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
    The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
    While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
    But O heart! heart! heart!
    O the bleeding drops of red,
    Where on the deck my Captain lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.

    O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
    Rise up for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
    For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
    For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
    Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head!
    It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.

    My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
    My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
    The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
    From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
    Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread,
    Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

    “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”


    Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
    Clouds of the west sun there half an hour high I see you also face to face.

    Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
    On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
    And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


    The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
    The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
    The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
    The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
    The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
    The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
    The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

    Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
    Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
    Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of
    Brooklyn to the south and east,
    Others will see the islands large and small;
    Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
    A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
    Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


    It avails not, time nor place distance avails not,
    I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
    Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you is one of a living crowd,
    I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
    I was refresh’d, Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current,
    I stood yet was hurried,
    Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

    I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
    Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
    Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
    Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
    Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
    Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
    Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
    Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
    Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
    Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
    Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
    Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
    The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
    The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
    The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
    The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
    The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,
    The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
    The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite storehouses by the docks,
    On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
    On the neighboring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
    Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.


    These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
    I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
    The men and women I saw were all near to me,
    Others the same others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
    (The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)
    What it is then between us?
    What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

    Whatever it is, it avails not distance avails not, and place avails not,
    I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
    I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
    I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
    In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
    In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
    I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
    I too had receiv’d identity by my body, That I was
    I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.


    It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
    The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
    The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
    My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
    Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
    I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
    I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
    Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
    Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
    Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
    The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
    The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
    Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
    Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
    Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
    Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
    Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
    Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

    Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
    The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
    Or as small as we like, or both great and small.


    Closer yet I approach you,
    What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you I laid in my stores in advance,
    I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

    Who was to know what should come home to me?
    Who knows but I am enjoying this?
    Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?


    Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?
    River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide?
    The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter?

    What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices
    I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach?
    What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
    Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?

    We understand then do we not?
    What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
    What the study could not teach what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?


    Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
    Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
    Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me!
    Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
    Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
    Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
    Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
    Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!

    Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
    Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
    Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one makes it!
    Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
    Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
    Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
    Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
    Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sunlit water!
    Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
    Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset!
    Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!

    Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
    You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul,
    About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung out divinest aromas,
    Thrive, cities bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,
    Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,
    Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

    You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
    We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
    Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
    We use you, and do not cast you aside we plant you permanently within us,
    We fathom you not we love you there is perfection in you also,
    You furnish your parts toward eternity,
    Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

    Exercise 7.7.1

    Reading and Review Questions

    1. How does Whitman’s use of free verse challenge readers? What features and/or elements of Whitman’s poetry help us to understand how to read it?
    2. How does Whitman’s use of natural elements compare to his use of manmade or urban elements in his poetry?
    3. How would you describe the voice of Whitman’s poetry?
    4. How does Whitman’s poetry engage with the Civil War?

    I Hear America Singing

    I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
    Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be
    blithe and strong,
    The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam
    The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,
    or leaves off work,
    The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,
    the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
    The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter
    singing as he stands,
    The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in
    the morning, or at noon intermission at sundown,
    The delicious singing of the mother, or the young wife at work,
    or of the girl sewing or washing,
    Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
    The day what belongs to the day – at night the party of
    young fellows, robust, friendly,
    Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

    Exercise 7.7.1

    A Closer Look at the Poem

    1. Is this poem really about singing?
    2. What do all the professions mentioned represent?
    3. In what way does this poem reflect Whitman’s ideals of democracy and individualism?
    4. In the first line the poet uses the word “carols” instead of “songs” – what is the difference, and what is the effect?
    5. Comment on the line, “Each singing what belongs to him and her and to none else”.
    6. How would you describe the mood of the poem?
    7. Comment on the structure of the poem.
    8. Do you see any traces of traditional poetic elements (rhythm, rhyme, meter, poetic language)?
    9. What makes this a poem rather than a prose text?
    10. In what way does this poem bear resemblance to a modernist text?

    Beat! Beat! Drums!

    By Walt Whitman

    Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!

    Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,

    Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,

    Into the school where the scholar is studying,

    Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,

    Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,

    So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

    Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!

    Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;

    Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,

    No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue?

    Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?

    Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?

    Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.

    Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!

    Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,

    Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,

    Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,

    Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,

    Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,

    So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Adapted from Walt Whitman: I Hear America Singing, Writer: Jan-Louis Nagel, Provided by NDLA, license: CC CC-BY-SA-4.0
    • Adapted from Writing the Nation, provided by Libretexts, license: CC-BY-SA

    7.7: Walt Whitman is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap.

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