Walt Whitman<br />I hear America singing…<br />
“I celebrate myself…”<br />Walt Whitman was born May 31, 1819 on South Huntington, Long Island, New York.<br />He was almost entirely self-education, especially admiring the work of Dante, Shakespeare, and Homer.<br />His mother described him as “very good, but very strange.”<br />His brother described him as being “stubborner [sic] than a load of bricks.”<br />
Career<br />Apprenticed to a printer.<br />Taught school at 17.<br />Editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, a respected newspaper, but was fired for his outspoken opposition to slavery.<br />Civil War nurse.<br />
Whitman’s Poetry<br />Whitman declared his poetry would have:<br />Long lines that capture the rhythms of natural speech.<br />Free verse.<br />Vocabulary drawn from everyday speech.<br />A base in reality, not morality.<br />
Leaves of Grass<br />The first version of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, appeared in 1855.<br />Emerson praised Whitman’s poetry as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet to contribute.”<br />Whitman used these words, written by Emerson in a letter to Whitman, in a later introduction to Leaves of Grass. Emerson was not amused.<br />
Leaves of Grass<br />John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy of the book into the fireplace.<br />Another critic dismissed it as “just a barbaric yawp.”<br />Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell were equally unimpressed.<br />Even Thoreau was appalled by Whitman’s poetry, and he was certainly no conformist!<br />
What’s his deal?<br />Why were so many writers shocked by Whitman?<br />His lack of regular rhyme and meter (free verse) and nontraditional poetic style and subject matter shocked more traditional writers.<br />He also wrote poetry with unabashedly sexual imagery and themes, some of them homoerotic. Examples include the Calamus poems and “I Sing the Body Electric.”<br />
O Captain! My Captain!<br />Whitman wrote poetry in praise of Abraham Lincoln <br />“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (an elegy written after Lincoln’s assassination).<br />“O Captain! My Captain!” memorializes Lincoln’s passing as the death of a great man and the death of the era he dominated. It was used to great effect in Dead Poets’ Society.<br />
Whitman’s Influence<br />Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands as one of two giants of American poetry in the nineteenth century.<br />Whitman’s poetry would influence such Harlem Renaissance writers as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.<br />Whitman influenced Beat poets such as Allen Ginsburg.<br />
Whitman’s Influence<br />Chilean writer Pablo Neruda claimed to have been influenced by Whitman.<br />Whitman’s poetry was a model for French symbolists, such as StéphaneMallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud.<br />Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden were also influenced by Whitman.<br />
“Out of the Cradle, endlessly rocking…”<br />Whitman died on March 26, 1892, one year after the final edition of Leaves of Grass was published.<br />His autopsy revealed his cause of death as emphysema.<br />
The Least You Need to Know<br />Whitman created new poetic forms and subjects to fashion a distinctly American type of poetic expression.<br />He rejected conventional themes, traditional literary references, allusions, and rhyme—all the accepted forms of poetry in the 19th century.<br />He uses long lines to capture the rhythms of natural speech, free verse, and vocabulary drawn from everyday speech.<br />
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