Poetic Style of Walt Whitman's Poetry

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      Whitman was a rebel in subject as well as style. He brought innovations into the sphere of language, diction and prosody or versification to suit the expression of his perception of new scenes, new kind of life, culture and ideals. Whitman’s style, new in many ways, is composed of discordant elements, giving rise to extreme reactions from ecstatic praise to vehement condemnation. Whitman himself regarded Leaves of Grass as a ‘language experiment’ and an experiment naturally involves bad as well as good patches.

      Simplicity: The Core of Whitman’s Style. The poetry of Whitman is simple, its style is free of ornament. Whitman felt that to “speak with perfect rectitude is the flawless triumph of art” Language is closely related to life and poetic language is developed through an immersion in life.

      Language Drawn from Native American Speech. Whitman made full use of native American idiom in his poetry. The vernacular mode conveys an extraordinary sense of immediacy. Being consciously a poet for the people - a poet-spokesman of democracy, he strove to create a native poetic medium. He makes use of slang which he considered the common man’s experiment with language. Thus in his poems we find phrases such as “Bully for you”. Whitman borrowed words from practically all spheres of knowledge; from phrenology, he took words such as ‘a mative’ and ‘adhesive’; astronomy provided terms such as ‘rotate’,’ revolve’, ‘crescent’, ‘retrograde’; chemistry contributed ‘distil’, ‘filter’, etc.

      Coining Words and Improvising Words from Foreign Languages was also common to Whitman. He gave a Spanish touch to words such as ‘Camerado’, ‘Americana’. In a way his free borrowing from foreign languages reflects the American situation, for the American people are a conglomerate of nationalities. Whitman coined words, to suit his purpose ‘promulge’ ‘harbinge,’ ‘lumine’, ‘edaircise’, ‘libertad’ which have a slight foreign flavor. Though unconventional in many ways, Whitman also resorted to the use of archaic and Elizabethan origin - ‘betwixt’, ‘ope’, ‘nay’ ‘beseems’, ‘methink’, ‘haply’, etc. Thus in his vocabulary, we find a refreshing mixture of the contemporary living American speech and the conventional terms borrowed from Shakespearean English and Biblical prose.

      Biblical Prose Indeed Inspired Whitman’s Poetic Style. The bowing rhythms of the Old Testament are echoed in Whitman’s poems. Discarding meter and rhyme, he adopted a rhythmical, irregular chant that, in its cadences repetitions and parallelisms, is similar to the harmonies of the Biblical “psalms”. However, in utilizing Biblical sources, Whitman absorbs and transforms them. By and large, Whitman’s “poetry” does not differ from “prose”, and there is a persistent prose element in his lyrical style. Whitman’s diction enabled him to make a voice for multitudes. It enabled him to put into poetry what current fashion regarded as prosaic. It was flexible and it lent itself as a fit medium for expressing what had not been expressed in American literature earlier. Most of all, it enabled him to express his ego, his soul - the symbol of the inner life of Whitman and also of his times and environment as he felt them.

      Whitman’s ‘’speaking” Style. Whitman’s poetry is marked for its “flowing, strong, appropriate, speaking composition style”. We find many oratorical turns of expression such as “come my children”, “Gentlemen I receive you.” He addresses the reader directly - You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.... Whitman’s style is oral and conversational, and its obvious characteristics are identity and Suggestion. The frequent use of parentheses is also characteristic of the “vocal style”.

      Whitman’s Style is Functional. It is an admirable medium for describing the American on the move, the still unshaped continent, the energy and the romance of pioneering, the dreams of a nation sure of an illimitable future, and the revolutionary idea of the modem civilization finding their greatest release in this same America. It was also an excellent medium for his passionate nature, so often uncontrolled, and with a tilt toward the sublime when he wrote of religion and of death.

      The “omnivorous lines” in Whitman’s poetry convey a sense of the teeming multitudinous life of America. Whitman’s lines are not devoid of rhythm, they have the rhythm of the sea-elastic, intricate and fluid - the rhythm of the advancing and retreating wave. The image created by the omnivorous lines is one of crowding till there is room for no more, and this is the image that the poet wished to create.

      Use of Catalogues. The illusion of multiplicity, teeming life and endless diversity of objects is aptly conveyed through a multitude of concrete images-such as those in the catalogs. The individual line in Whitman’s poetry tends to be an independent entity, complete in itself. The independence is especially noticeable in the catalogs where image follows image as line follows line. Let us take an illustration from Song of Myself:

Where the she-whale swims with her calf and never forsakes it,
Where the steam-ship trails hind-ways its long penant of smoke,
Where the fur of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water....

Or take the lines from Song of the Open Road,

You air that serves me with breath to speak
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!

      Each line constitutes a picture sharply focused and then quickly dropped. The rapid flow of distinct and vivid scenes or pictures give the sense of diversity and multiplicity.

      The catalogs create a sense of reality, even as they evince Whitman’s love and delight in detail. Furthermore, in the catalogs, we see the stylistic embodiment of Whitman’s democratic impulse. Regarding everyone and everything on an equal footing Whitman simply had to include all in his poetry; he could not discriminate by selecting. His catalogs are the result of his conviction that the individual is part of a group, part of the multitude, each unit of which is as interesting as every other unit, and possesses equal claims to recognition. The catalogs, however, are seldom mere lists of items; the essential function of the catalog is to create a sense of unity by bringing together many items into a whole. The catalogs help the reader to discover similarities. The catalogs not only replace the Homeric simile of the conventional verse, but also possess illustrative and symbolic significance.

      Use of Vivid and Concrete Imagery, Whitman’s poetry gains brilliance from the apt use of vivid and concrete imagery and details:

The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul....

      Such a line makes use of vivid, visual and sensuous image to express the poet’s somber emotional state.

I see the sparkles of star shine on the icy and pallid earth....

      He beautifully captures the image of a round globe reflecting the glittering stars on its pale glassy surface. Whitman’s ear is as sensitive as his eye, both sense and sound combine to evoke and vivify a scene -

The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping....
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank'd wharves, the huge crossing at the ferries....
The blab of the pave, tires of the carts, stuff of boot-soles, talk of promenaders....

      Symbols are an integral Part of Whitman’s Poetic Expression. Whitman sought to express in his poetry the divine reality which he perceived behind the concrete and physical. In his mystical apprehension, he found matter dissolving and trees becoming liquid. He felt himself transformed into a comet traveling round the universe at the speed of light:

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, drift it in lacy jags....

      The boldest and the most unexpected images occur from Whitman’s consciousness of the “shimmeriness” of the world. By means of these images, he transcends to the world beyond physical reality. The spear of grass is thus not some inert substance but the flag of his disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. Conveying his own perception of divine reality to the reader was Whitman’s aim. The aim was difficult to realize by means of the ordinary resources of language. Thus he resorts to indirection and symbolism. The concrete “seen” and “heard” images acquire a symbolic significance in the communication of the “unseen”. Grass, sea, river, earth, birds, and the heavenly bodies are symbols used to convey the poet’s perception of transcendental mystery.

      Form and Organisation. Coming to the structural aspects of Whitman’s poetic style, we meet with a great deal of unconventionality. Many of his poems are organized with subtle structural skill-Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, When lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom”d, I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing and Noiseless Patient Spider to name just a few instances. But many other pieces have no discoverable organization not even if we look at them from Whitman’s point of view.

      Verification in Whitman’s Poetry. Indeed, one of the major hurdles in the appreciation of Whitman’s poetry is its ‘form’ (or lack of any conventional form). As a poet of democracy, he broke conventional strangleholds in stylistic matters. He rebelled against discipline. Unfortunately, the form Whitman evolved was least effective in reaching the average man’s ear which is so used to rhythm, rhyme and meter.

      Father of Free Verse. Whitman may be regarded as the father of free verse. He generally discards rhyme, and gives greater importance to cadence than to regular meter. He took the line rather than the sentence as a unit. He uses end-stopped lines. He uses the caesura or pause to give rhetorical emphasis to the lines. His form and themes have a rare compatibility - the long flowing lines capturing in their very form the spirit of democracy and freedom. But the free verse has the rhythm of life - the rhythm of American speech, reflecting freedom. “The movement of his verse is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people.” A Whitmanian line, according to F.E. Scott, consists...of an advancing and retreating wave. He varied the length of these waves, varied the speech rhythm to coincide or conflict with the routine scansion introduced minor waves and impulses and used alliteration and refrain. His verse has rhythms but they are speech rhythms.

      Traditional Elements of Alliteration, Assonance, Parallelism and Rhyme are not totally absent in Whitman’s poetry. He may have used rhyme rarely, but he does use it, as in O Captain! My Captain! Prayer of Columbus is metrical. Pioneers! O Pioneers! makes use of the four-line stanzas and regular metrical pattern. Indeed, the successive editions of Leaves of Grass show a gradual evolution toward a greater rhythmical regularity. The use of parallel structure is frequent in Whitman’s poetry. The device of parallelism gives Whitman the possibility of rendering the vastness and limitlessness of his vision and his inclusiveness. Verbal repetition is frequently used by Whitman. Whole paragraphs begin with the same word or group of words. The technique is devised both for the eye and the ear. Repetitions often lend rhythmical motion to his poetry. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Whitman makes use of recurring phrases, words and themes to communicate poetic exaltation. Alliteration is common in Whitman’s poems:

Down-hearted doubters dull and deluded ....
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul....

      In these lines, one cannot miss the repetition of the ‘d’ sound. Alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme are employed with great skill in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (rocking-mocking, beyond-wandered, bare-headed-barefoot.)

      Musical Element in Whitman’s Style. The alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme are part of the musical aspect of Whitman’s style. Of all the musical genres the one that had the greatest impact on Whitman was the opera. Besides the musical terminology-cadenza, aria, recitative, bravura, for instance-occurring in his poems, the very progress of Whitman’s verse has much in common with that of a musical composition. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking develops on the lines of an opera with the lyric passages functioning as the arias and narrative sections as recitative. The aria is the moment of great spiritual excitement expressed in words of rare lyric grace. When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the passage describing the carol of the hermit thrush - the hymn to the beauty of death is characterized by a verbal melody created by the pattern of vowels, sibilants and liquid consonants. The trochaic accent is a notable feature of music in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Indeed, much of Whitman’s poetry evinces his preference for trochaic and dactylic rhythm. The music in his poetry is capable of the widest orchestral effects. lt is a music echoing the Hebraic ‘balance’ brought to perfection in the Book of Job and the Psalms by the long and extraordinarily flexible line suddenly whipped taut, by repetitions and the beginning of the lines and reiterations within, by following his recitatives with a soaring aria. Thus in the midst of the elaborate piling up in Song of Myself, there are such sheer lyrical outbursts as the passages beginning

Press dose, bare-bosom'd night...
Smile voluptuous-breath’d earth....
A child said what is grass....

      The mechanism of the music is not always easy to discover, but the music is there.

      Whitman’s Craftsmanship: His Gift of Phrasing. Though Whitman has often been accused of lacking in poetic art, it is difficult to concur with such a view. He was given to revising and polishing his work as is proved by his notebooks. Furthermore, he shows a
fresh power of phrasing. The first lines of many poems in Leaves of Grass show this gift of phrasing:

(i) I celebrate myself
(ii) I sing the Body Electric
(iii) Aloof and light-hearted, I take the open road
(vi) Out of the Cradle endlessly rocking
(v) I hear America singing

      He could use words with the greatest and oddest delicacy, originality and sensitivity. The power of words are clearly illustrated in:

Blind, loving wrestling touch, sheath'd, hooded, sharp tooth’d touch (Song of Myself Section 29)
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the
(Song of tire Open Road)

      He is the poet who saw the “sharp-peak’d farm-house with its scallop’d scum and slender shoots from the gutters”, who heard a plane’s “wild ascending lisp” and who perceived at the amputation “what is removed drops horrible in a pail”. He saw the sea as “howler and scooper of storms” reaching out to us with “crooked inviting fingers”. His originality is striking:

I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg....
(Song of Myself Section 57)
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake
(Song of Myself Section 58)

      An unusual subject is often treated with unexpected tenderness and subtlety and understanding-such is the passage in Song of Myself describing the lonely woman watching twenty-eight young men bathing. Perhaps only he could have spoken of God:

As the hugging and loving Bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the break of day with stealthy tread....

      Fusion of Discordant Elements. Whitman’s style has a complex heterogeneity, a mixture of discordant elements. A poet of body as well as soul, the physical as well as the spiritual, the scientific as well as the mystical, his style fuses, as Emerson put it, Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. Lyrical flights exist side by side with prosaic banalities, mystical effusions coexist with the most familiar expressions from the spoken language. Too often there is a juxtaposition of loose, pretentious language and rapid, precise evocation of concrete detail. He is at his best when the abstract and the concrete are kept in balance. The same contradictions which mark his personality are evident in his style. The homeliness of his style is not always racy; sometimes it is corrupted by linguistic bad taste and polyglot phrasing as absurd as “the tangl’d long-deferr’d eclaircissement of human life” or See my cantabile - You Libertad”.

      Conclusion. Whitman sought a style which could express satisfactorily the expansive soul and the expansive mind and body of democratic man developing in a new continent. He needed a fresh idiom. He did not do away with outworn poetic diction, but he rejuvenated it with the bold frankness and realism of his speech. There are echoes in Whitman’s style of the flowing rhythms of the Old Testament, the oratory of Shakespeare’s blank verse and the rhythms of the French and Italian opera. Whitman’s message could not have been communicated in the form of the neatly turned heroic couplet of Pope, or the rapid octasyllabic verse of Scott, or, even the majestic organ verse of Milton. It required Whitman’s own free and sonorous chants.

University Questions

Whitman's Poetic Style
Technique of Language, Diction
and Versification
Point out the stylistic peculiarities of Whitman with special reference to the poems you have read.
Write a note on Whitman’s poetic style.
Write a note on the technical aspects of Whitman’s poetry

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