Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Contributing Editor: Betsy Eikkila
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
I use the 1855 versions of "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers" because I think these poems represent Whitman at his unrevised best. I begin with a biographical introduction, stressing Whitman's active engagement as radical Democrat and party journalist in the major political conflicts of pre-Civil War America. The inscription poem "One's-Self I Sing" and his vision of the poet balanced between pride and sympathy in the 1855 Preface serve as a good introduction to "Song of Myself." I usually begin by asking the students to talk about Whitman's free verse technique. What ordering devices does he use in the opening lines to achieve his poetic design: these include repetition, biblical parallelism, rhythmic recurrence, assonance, and consonance.
Section 15 is a good illustration of the ways Whitman's catalog technique serves as a democratizing device, inscribing the pattern of many and one. By basing his verse in the single, end-stopped line at the same time that he fuses this line--through various linking devices--with the larger structure of the whole, Whitman weaves an overall pattern of unity in diversity. This pattern of many and one--the e pluribus unum that was the revolutionary seal of the American republic--is the overarching figure of Leaves of Grass.
I present "Song of Myself" as a drama of democratic identity in which the poet seeks to balance and reconcile major conflicts in the body politic of America: the conflict between "separate person" and "en masse," individualism and equality, liberty and union, the South and the North, the farm and the city, labor and capital, black and white, female and male, religion and science. One can discuss any of the individual sections of the poem in relation to this conflict. Moments of particular conflict and crisis occur in sections 28 and 38. I ask the students to discuss the specific nature of the crisis in each of these sections. Both involve a loss of balance.
In section 28, the protagonist loses bodily balance as he is swept away by an erotic, masturbatory urge. Ask the students to think about why a masturbation fantasy occurs in a poem about democracy. Ask them to think about why the masturbatory fit is represented in the language of political insurrection. These questions lead to interesting observations about the relation between political power and power over the body. Masturbation is, in effect, the political ground on which Whitman tests the theory of democracy. Within the democratic economy of his poem, the turbulence of the body, like the turbulence of the masses, is part of a natural regenerative order.
If section 28 involves a loss of bodily balance, section 38 involves a loss of self in empathetic identification with others. In discussing the crisis in section 38, ask the students what Whitman means by the lines: "I find myself on the verge of a usual mistake." This will usually lead back to the end of section 3, where the poet begins identifying with scenes of suffering, carnage, and death. Some of these scenes are linked with the nation's history: the hounded slave, the Texas war, the American Revolution. The poet appears to be on the verge of losing faith in the divine potency of the individual and the regenerative pattern of the whole. He resolves the crisis by remembering the divinity of Christ as a living power existing within rather than outside of every individual.
The resolution of this crisis leads to the emergence of the divinely empowered poet who presides over the final passages of the poem, declaring his ultimate faith in the "form, union, plan" of the universe. Here you might want to discuss the relation between this poetic affirmation of democratic faith and union and the fact of an American Union that was in the throes of dissolution.
Since Whitman's poetic development corresponds with stages in his own and the nation's history, a chronological presentation works well in the classroom. After discussing "Song of Myself," you might want to discuss other 1855 poems such as "The Sleepers" and "There Was a Child Went Forth." "The Sleepers," which was toned down in later versions, represents in both its form and its content the half-formed, erotically charged, and anxiety-ridden fantasies of the dream state. The poem anticipates Freud's "unconscious" and the literary experiments of the surrealists. But the poem is revolutionary not only in its psychosexual dimension. The poet also descends into a kind of political unconscious of the nation, dredging up images of regeneration through violence associated with Washington and the battle for American independence, the slave as black Lucifer, and the Indian squaw.
If you have time to do later work by Whitman, the 1860 poems might be grouped together since they correspond with a period of both personal and national crisis. This crisis is most effectively represented in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life"; within the context of Leaves of Grass, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" appears to respond to this crisis. Ask the students to comment on the differences between the "amative" poems of Children of Adam and the "adhesive" poems of Calamus. This will lead to a discussion of Whitman's sexual politics.
Women students have particularly strong and mixed reactions to "A Woman Waits for Me": they are attracted by Whitman's celebration of an erotically charged female body, yet are repelled by the fact that she seems rhetorically prone. The students will usually note that Whitman's poems to men seem more immediate and personal than the poems of Children of Adam. "In Paths Untrodden" reflects Whitman's split at this time between the public culture of democracy and his desire to tell secrets, to "come out" poetically by naming his hitherto unspeakable passion for men. You might want to remind the students that the term "homosexual" did not yet exist, and thus Whitman was breaking the path toward a language of male love. His invention is particularly evident in "When I Heard at the Close of the Day," where the power and tenderness of his feelings for his lover are linked with the rhythms of a completely natural order. The "confessional" note in the poems anticipates the later work of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. Ask the students to reflect on why it was the poems of Children of Adam and not Calamus that most shocked the literary establishment. It was really not until Allen Ginsberg wrote his comic tribute to Whitman, "In a Supermarket in California," that Whitman, the homosexual poet, came fully out of the closet--at least in America.
I usually begin discussion of the war poems by asking how the experience of fratricidal war might affect Whitman as the poet of national union. This will lead to reflections on the tragedy of the Civil War. The poems of Drum-Taps --which proceed from militant exultation, to the actual experience of war, to demobilization and reconciliation--might be read as an attempt to place the butchery of the war within a poetic and ultimately regenerative design. Ask the students to compare Whitman's war poems with his earlier poems. They are at once more formally controlled and more realistic--stylistic changes that are linked with the war context. "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown" and "The Artilleryman's Vision" are proto-modern poems in which the individual appears as an actor in a drama of history he no longer understands nor controls. Whitman's ambivalence about black emancipation is evident in "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors." "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" and "As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado" are particularly effective in suggesting the ways the wartime context of male bonding and comradeship gave Whitman a legitimate language and social frame within which to express his love for men.
In discussing Whitman's famous elegy on the death of President Lincoln, it is interesting to begin by asking what remains unsaid in the poem. For one thing, Lincoln is never named as the subject within the context of the poem; his death becomes representative of all the war dead. By placing Lincoln's death within a timeless regenerative order of nature, Whitman's "Lilacs" also "covers over" the fact of Lincoln's unnatural and violent assassination. Although the vision of battle in section 15 is often passed over in critical considerations of the poem, this bloody sight of "battle-corpses" and the "debris" of war is, I believe, the unspeakable honor and real subject of the poem.
Democratic Vistas (1871) might be read either as an introduction to or a conclusion to the study of Whitman. In the essay, he struggles with the central tensions and paradoxes of American, New World experience. These conflicts intensify and are more urgently addressed in the post-Civil War period as the unleashed force of market capitalism and the dynamic of modem civilization appear to spin out of control. "Who bridles Leviathan?" Whitman asks in Democratic Vistas. It is a fitting question with which to conclude the study of Whitman and to begin the study of the modern world.