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