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Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

Published 1855

Formative period 1850

Related historical events

  1. Mexican War ,1846-48
  2. Fugitive Slave Act, 1850
  3. Melville publishes Moby Dick, 1851
  4. Kansas-Nebraska Controversy, 1854

Poems are expressive, lyrical and imaginative use of language evocatively moving the reader to share in the author's visions of the world revealed in the pattern, beneath the surface and around the outer jagged edges of the language used in crafting the work of art.

Whitman captures a vision of New York City and Brooklyn in a period of expansive triumph in the nation's history when the country expanded from the Atlantic seaboard and Mississippi Valley across the desert southwest to the Pacific. This was done by seizing half of Mexico as a condition for settling the War with Mexico in 1848. In just a short period of time Whitman reveals that his vision of himself and the city incorporates all of humankind and the entire nation.


As a poet, he does this by reformulating his verse, breaking out of the sonnet and rhyme formula of poetry and fashioning a Greek chorus of voices that speak -- not in unison -- but in the full panoply of all the confusion and cacophony inherent in 30 million different voices. The poem cascades from image to image and from the personal to the common qualities of all humankind. Lost amidst the multiplicity of visions is the conventional construct of stanzas and verses. Instead Whitman is experimenting using the actual form of the poem to convey the relentless "urge" to unite with all the disparate elements of the world, to sensuously express the emotional power of inherent in human longing and to underscore the human responsibility for caring about the world we create. We share what the universe has bequeathed to us: the driving desire to freely give of ourselves to another. He reminds us in Song of Myself that the "kelson of creation is love." By that he means that the keel of a ship (kelson) is the craft that represents the cosmos what love is to physical and biological existence. ( l , 86. )


By rejecting the formal rhyme and meter of poetry, Whitman's voice is not the stately rhythm of Longfellow, or Blake, or Dickinson but the wild yawp of the street where the common person by heroically living their lives becomes everyman. The rejection bears a peculiarly American stamp -- not just because it is the voices of the common street people he is a part of but because the very structure and style of the poem forces us to be aware of the overriding importance of experience in shaping who we are, and how we feel, think, act and love. Whitman imagines a nation in the voices of the city as he descends the streets of Manhattan to the edges of the sea on Long Island. Whitman recognizes in his flesh at once the flesh of all humankind and the cosmic collision of matter in the heart of stars. He is at once the child and the person, the patient and the nurse, the apprentice and the journeyman because he deliberately rejects the conventional boundaries of race, gender, class or ethnicity in favor of a new -- as yet unformed and still formative -- personhood. There is a hope in the lyric of this newfound freedom. He recognizes that belonging to something as wide as the sea of humanity and as deep as the evolution of the cosmos is the essential responsibility of human sensibility. Articulating the as yet stillborn vision of liberality in a country torn by racial and religious strife, Whitman writes of his doubts and hopes when he says that "I know it is in me." ( l. 1299)


Whitman's abandonment of the self

As I see you in my eyes and I see my soul in the press of your flesh against the palm of my hand I may be witnessing that inestimable rapture expressed by Whitman in Leaves of Grass. It is this poet who says to me that it is ok to participate in a brotherhood and sisterhood of loving relations with others. Whitman frees the imagination in a way similar to Denis Diderot liberates the spirit in Dalembert's Dream. Both writers express the evolving nature of living matter as a protean process whose quality is known by its engagement of the world. Unhinging the doors, like liberating verse from rhyme and imagery from stylistically strict form, Whitman is freeing our spirit as a people of the new republic whose boundaries are not delimited by space any more than our lives are tethered by time. His faith in human encounter to build trust and forge common goals is based on Whitman's belief in the capacity for people to move from empathy to love through encouragement. By assisting the fugitive slave to sanctuary in Canada or answering a child's inquiry about the character of grass when opening himself up to the world in a Brahmanistic sense Whitman finds his identity in his sublimation of that very encrusted and ego centered identity.


In many ways this loss of an easily recognizable personality separate from other personalities is Whitman's most disturbing message. His Song of Myself is actually an ironic dirge for the loss of conventional boundaries and an ode to our real identity. That real identity is understandable, if and only if, we conceive of this as a relational understanding of how our freedom is contingent on the freedom of all others. "I am he and we are he and we are all together, right now" was the lyric John Lennon fashioned that embodies what I think Whitman is telling me. He tells me it is completely normal and human to love you because we are of the same flesh, the same pulse the same atoms of a dancing cosmos. We become other as other becomes us in an endless dance of engagement and revelry with the very common stuff of life and stars and the very soil that nourishes the "blade of grass" that transpires the water, generating oxygen, thus endlessly representing the "journeywork of the stars."

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