Influence of Existing Literary Trends on Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Whitman’s poetry grew partly from the literary trends in nineteenth-century America and partly from his personal convictions on the nature and function of poetry. Before we consider the different features of Whitman’s poetry, we may here go briefly into the characteristics of American Romanticism which developed in the nineteenth century It will be noticeable that several facets of Whitman’s poetry are coincident with the Romantic and other trends which are:

      (i) emphasis on emotional appeal and inclusion in poetry of the entire range of human emotions-joy, love, pity, fear, pain, hope, faith; (ii) liberation of Imagination from the fetters of Reason, for it is imagination which is capable of bridging the gap between the transient and the permanent, the apparent and the ideal which lies beyond the surface reality; (iii) belief in the individual and the essential goodness of human nature, and the glorification of common man; (iv) Nationalism and democratic inclinations (which are closely related to the pride in individualism); (v) deep interest in Nature-not merely for its beautiful scenes but as a spiritual influence on life; (vi) transcendentalism which emphasised faith in man’s capacity for knowing truth intuitively (by transcending the reach of the senses); (vii) heightened awareness of life and its problems; (curious as it may seem American Romanticism was not. totally cut off from realism); (viii) subjectivism, and constant emphasis on the personal (Whitman’s “I”, of course, is more than mere subjectivism, for it is all-inclusive); (ix) greater freedom and experimentation in versification and poetic form, with a preference for the lyric to other stricter genres; (x) symbolism and suggestiveness in language, which is a tendency towards twentieth century poetry and the Imagist School.

      Whitman was denied the status of being a poet at all by many of his contemporaries, who judged poetry by the traditional yardstick. These critics could not appreciate the simplicity and frankness of the poetry written by Whitman. Obviously uneasy at the bold treatment of sex, they denounced the poetry as obscene. But it has now been understood that in the best of his poems, sex is treated as a life force which escaping from suppressive effects of “false” morality, revitalizes love, and makes an enduring democratic society possible. He found appreciation in Europe before his native land.

      True, his poetry is not uniformly good, but much of it is. fine and massive. He renders many varieties of romantic mood in poetry - its sense of wonder, its mystical elevation, its spontaneous response to nature, its love of beauty; and he expresses them in a language that produces new effects of freedom and resourcefulness. His poetry is expressive of ideas and feelings which tend to unite human beings. His effort to liberate poetry from the restraints of the feudal aristocratic past cannot but be appreciated. He discarded traditional meter and rhyme and brought into poetry a new vigor and vitality.

      The strength of Whitman lies in his courage, his simplicity, his universality and his healthy, life-giving joy in the whole varied pageant of animate and inanimate things. His irregular unrhymed rhythms are too loose and undisciplined to be a suitable instrument for great poetic art, but they are full of suggestions for a new prosody descending from the large free rhythms of English poetic prose.

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