Walt Whitman (1819-1892), American poet, essayist, and journalist wrote numerous influential poems including “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 too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy
and “I Sing the Body Electric”;
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one,
or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them,
and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.
First appearing in 1855 when he was thirty-six years of age, Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s self-published collection of twelve poems that he would revise and add to many times during his life. Though at first it stirred little interest in the literary world, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of it as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced”.
Whitman was an iconoclast, breaking new ground in abandoning rhyme and meter over the use of free verse, in opposition to the structured rigidity of the European poets of the time. Expressing his philosophy on such issues as democracy, war, politics, race, and slavery, some of his poems are patriotic; some of them celebrations of nature and homosexual love with vivid descriptions of the human form. He was quite confident that what he was doing was important though he caused much controversy; some of his works were banned for a time and he had many critics including D.H. Lawrence and Oliver Wendell Holmes, but he also gained many admirers in North America and Europe including Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos William, Arthur Rimbaud, Allan Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Jack Kerouac. Today Leaves of Grass has been translated to dozens of languages and is read widely the world over.
Whitman would become an icon for socialists, communists, and homosexuals, though ultimately remains one of the most important literary figures to contribute to the Western Canon, even into the 21st century. Walt Whitman was born on 31 May, 1819 in West Hills, a village near Hempstead in Long Island, New York, in the newly formed United States, the son of Louisa van Velsor and Walter Whitman, farmer and carpenter. Walt had nine siblings and was very close to his mother and would remain so for the rest of his life whether living with her or through correspondence.
When the family moved to Brooklyn or “Mannahatta” as he would later call it, young Walt attended public school and loved taking the ferry, which became a theme in many of his later works as did his visits to his grandparents’ farm on Long Island and its shores.
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—“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Largely self-taught, Whitman attended lectures and visited museums and libraries where he studied theatre, history and geography as well as the works of Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, James Fenimore Cooper, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Homer, and Emerson.
By the age of fourteen and living alone, (the rest of the family had moved back to West Hills) Whitman was working at his first job of many in the publishing industry at the newspaper Patriot, learning the trade and getting some of his articles printed. He then turned to teaching at Long Island schools after fires in New York City destroyed a number of publishing companies. He did not especially enjoy it and longed for the big city’s sophisticated vibrancy and intellectual stimulation.
A million people—manners free and superb—
open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!
The beautiful city! the city of hurried and sparkling waters!
the city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
The city of such women, I am mad to be with them!
I will return after death to be with them!
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy,
without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!—“Mannahatta”
It was a time of great change and opportunity in America and Whitman was soon back in New York attending the opera and writing. He was editor of his own paper The Long Islander between 1838 and 1839. He had been writing poems all along and perhaps from years of successful journalism he next decided to try his hand at fiction. His first short story published was “Death in the School Room”. Between 1840 and 1845 he had numerous articles and stories published in newspapers and magazines including American Review and the Sunday Times on various topics such as the public school system and politics.
In 1846 Whitman became the editor for the Brooklyn Eagle, a position he held for three years. The same year he and his brother Jeff traveled to New Orleans, where Whitman came face to face with the inhumane treatment of slaves. He wrote a number of poems inspired by his travels to the south which marked a definite period of evolution in his philosophy and vision as poet.
A woman’s Body at auction!
She too is not only herself—she is the teeming mother of mothers;
She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.—“I Sing the Body Electric”
Vast and starless, the pall of heaven
Laps on the trailing pall below;
And forward, forward, in solemn darkness,
As if to the sea of the lost we go.—“Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight”
Times were changing but not without conflict. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) Whitman’s own brother George was injured. Rushing to his bedside, Whitman soon became a nurse, compassionately assisting in the care and treatment of the multitudes of sick and wounded in Washington D.C. hospitals. He also helped them write letters home;
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.—“Come Up from the Fields, Father”
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)—“The Wound Dresser”
Profoundly affected by so much suffering and death, Whitman wrote many poems during this time included in Drum Taps (1865). Louisa May Alcott had also been a devoted nurse and wrote her Hospital Sketches (1863), while Whitman wrote Memoranda During the War (1875), and a tribute to president Abraham Lincoln upon the news of his death;
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.—“Oh Captain! My Captain!”
Whitman spent most of his free time and money caring for the sick; he was earning modest royalties from his writings and also earned a small income as a clerk in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. It is claimed that he was fired when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, found out he was the author of Leaves of Grass. He then obtained a position as clerk in the Attorney General’s office in Washington. Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and Passage to India, celebrating achievements in engineering, were published in 1870. After suffering a stroke in 1873, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, living with his brother George and his family for a while before buying his own “little old shanty” on Mickle Street.
During the following years Whitman traveled to the West, though suffered increasing problems due to the stroke and failing health. He continued to socialize with his many friends and acquaintances in America and Europe, and set to the massive task of revising and expanding previous works and writing new ones including; Specimen Days and Collect (1882); November Boughs (1888), a collection of his journalistic essays, and Good-bye My Fancy (1892).
Walt Whitman died on 26 March, 1892 in Camden, New Jersey and lies buried in the tomb he designed himself in Harleigh Cemetery, alongside many of his other family members. It is simply inscribed “WALT WHITMAN”. There is now a famous portrait of him c1873, in profile, with flowing beard, wearing a hat and holding a butterfly made of cardboard inscribed under its wings with a poem by John Mason Neale.
Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on,
Ever and ever yet the verses owning--as, first, I here and now
Signing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,—Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass
At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.—“The Last Invocation”
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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