Language, Diction & Style in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Walt Whitman was no follower of Convention and Custom. He was a bold experimenter and this is evident in his language, style and diction. He called Leaves of Grass “only a language experiment”. True, it is more than that, but language is an important aspect of his poetry.

      Language Free of Ornamentation. That is obvious of the language used by Whitman in his poems. No “nice” conceits or ornamental similes are used. Being a conscious artist, but not a practitioner of “art for art’s sake”, Whitman resorted to clarity, truth and “sanity” in the use of language. Thus the basis of Whitman’s language is simplicity.

      True to Life and Close to Humanity. Whitman’s language incorporates the native American speech including the slang. Slang, in Whitman’s opinion, was common man’s experiment with language, and by its very nature a kind of poetry. The poetic idiom he uses is distinctly American. He uses words and phrases of everyday speech, the native American idiom. These common words are used in his poetry. He likened language to “some vast living body” which was fed by slang. Further, the use of slang kept his idiom “informal, relaxed, closer to the common people”. Colloquial words, he felt, best united the “natural” and the “spiritual”, and also had mythic significance besides a racy freshness.

      Mastery over Diction. Whitman was a master craftsman with words and phrases. He had a sensitive ear for the right word in the right place. He rejected the traditional idea of a special vocabulary for poetry. His use of a varied vocabulary gives richness to his poetry. He took words from practically every sphere of knowledge - phrenology, astrology, astronomy, chemistry, biology. He freely used words of foreign origin, even from Sanskrit. He showed a special aptitude for coining new words in order to achieve his artistic ends. To quote just a few examples - “camerado”, “habitaus”, “eclaircise”, “promulge”, “harbinge”, “allons”, “libertad”. He is not free of using archaisms such as “betwixt” for “between” and “nigh” for “near”. He makes free use of “haply” “anon” “nay”, “ye” and “lo” or the Elizabethan “methinks”, “beseems”, etc.

      Vigorous Living Style. Whitman’s style is not coldly intellectual; it bubbles and seethes with life and strength. It is individualistic, distinctly his own in its fusion of words and ideas and strong emotions. Whitman has a fine descriptive faculty which he uses with ease. He is able to convey to us the scene or circumstance that impressed him and not merely the impression itself. His style is lyrical, not narrative. His poems are patterns of skillful descriptions woven according to a unifying theme.

      There is a “prose” element in Whitman’s poetic style which lends a touch of “immediacy” to the experience described. He sought “to break” down the barriers of form between prose and poetry”.

      A noteworthy aspect of Whitman’s poetic style is the use of “catalogs”. These catalogs create a sense of reality just as they represent Whitman’s love for detail. Further, they show Whitman’s instinct for democracy - the tendency towards equalizing. “No single person is the subject of Whitman’s song, the individual suggests a group, and the group a multitude, each unit of which is as interesting as every other unit, and possesses equal claims to recognition. Hence the recurring tendency of his poems to become catalogs of persons and things”. The catalog in Whitman’s poetry is analogous to the Homeric simile, but it not only enriches, it has symbolic purposes, too. These catalogs express a movement from the lyric to the epic vision, from the material to the spiritual. “Every particular has its place in the list, every list its place in the whole poem, and every whole poem its place in geography and the universe”.

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