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
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
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
, "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
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
. "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
, and Sylvia
. Ask the students to reflect on why it was the poems of Children
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
--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.
(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.