Walt Whitman: American New World’s Epic Poet

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      Introduction. Whitman has been hailed as a spokesman of democracy, but behind this aspect of his poetry lies his typically American roots. He is, as Richard Chase puts it, “an authentic spokesman for the tendencies of his country”. He was born to be the poet of the American passions and America’s comprehensive interests.

      Spirit of National Pride. In Whitman’s poetry, one finds the spirit of nationalism and patriotism. The life he celebrates is drawn from the America he knew; if he celebrates the “self” that self has a great deal in common with the American people. He was chiefly concerned with America and her people. He believed modern America to be the center of science and democracy and thus the most suitable inspiration for the poetry of the future - just as in the past Europe was the center of feudalism and Asia the center of myth and fable. He visualizes the American nation as the leader of humanity, the true hero of his poetry He writes enthusiastically.

I chant America the mistress
I chant a great supremacy...

      Whitman, indeed, wanted his Leaves of Grass to bear a unique relationship with America. He felt the Americans to have the fullest poetical nature. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.... Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves....” he says in his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass. He found poetry in the American self-esteem and wonderful sympathy, their delight in music, their deathless attachment to freedom, their inherent belief in equality and democracy - “the President’s taking off his hat to them and not they to him”. He regarded himself as the prophet of America which he believed would give the world a free society existing for the mass production of great personalities.

      Myth of America. Whitman believed that America had a great destiny in store for her. Out of the comparatively free environment of America, he expected the emergence of a proud, noble and ambitious race. Thus he sings of the “average” American; but he speaks of the “divine average”. Whitman saw for America a glowing future-not merely of material advancement but as a society based on fraternal love progressing towards spirituality which was to be its final fruition. His ideal America was to adopt a religion which exalted the sense of wonder, the hearty acceptance of the world scheme, zest for life, a haughty freedom from conventions, and the priests of the new America would be the genuinely American poets who would sing songs suited to a new democratic nation.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics....
The carpenter...
The mason....

      He writes, rejoicing in free, materialistic America. But mere freedom and mere materialism would not suffice. The best fruit of democracy, he felt, would be the highest development of the individual. Freedom should develop into rich, luxuriant, and varied personalism, and the crown of free citizenship should be fraternal and spiritual in nature.

      Whitman’s Celebration of Rugged Individualism. Whitman sings of American individuality and celebrates self-reliance and
rugged strength. America was a nation established by the “pioneers” who had braved the climate and the rugged terrain and much adversity to create a society for which Whitman foresaw glory. In his Pioneers! O Pioneers! Whitman speaks as a prophet, because much of what he visualized has been achieved by the Americans who have shown themselves worthy of the program of action and onward march which has been outlined in this poem. The “Modern Man” whom Whitman celebrates in his poetry has to be strong; the modern woman is to be an athlete, not a timid, submissive delicate creature. He considers woman to be man’s equal, but that woman has to be a potential producer of heroes and bards; not impassive but “warm-blooded” and sufficient for the warm-blooded man. From such a union would be born

...fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians and singers. (A Woman Waits for Me)

      The very occupations of the America he celebrates speak for rugged strength and an enviable independence. The image of America, an image of proud healthy individualists, engaged in productive and happy labor comes out best in I Hear America Singing:

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs ....

      ‘Leaves of Grass’: The Song of America. The songs of America, the melody of its common men and women and their daily occupations, the peculiar fragrance of the very soil of America find expression in Whitman’s poetry. It is most befitting to call Leaves of Grass, the epic of America. It embodies America’s first terrible trial in the shape of the Civil War and it prophesied the greatness of America. It is a reflection of America’s character, of America’s soul, and of America’s achievements and aspirations. The hero of this epic is the average American-whom the “I” of Whitman’s poetry reflects. Drum Taps illustrates the victory of the American epic hero “en masse”.

      Panoramic Picture of the American Scene. Leaves of Grass testifies to the Americanness of its poet in the memorable panoramic, processional pictures of the American people and American scenes it contains. Practically all the poems have catalogs of typically American scenes, people or occupations. The blacksmith, the Negro teamster, the butcher, the farmer returning from the fields, the house-building, shingle-dressing, ship-joining, ferrying, mining, iron-smelting, stone-cutting, cotton-loading-all exude a typically American flavor. The whole wide range of the American physical scene is brought before us the northern ocean, Niagara, Georgia marshes, mid-western prairies, arid plateaus, the vast peaks of the Rockies, and the long coastline of the Pacific. “If his grandiose attempt to cram within the covers of a book sometimes betrays him into dreary cataloging he nevertheless succeeds, as no other writer succeeds, in conveying to the reader abroad, panoramic grasp of America’s spaciousness, her opulence, and her varied multitudinous life.”

      Record of Contemporary History. Whitman’s poetry is “American” in another important aspect - it records a vital portion of American history, the Civil War and its effects. In several of his poems from Drum laps, we see the poetic capture of the atmosphere and effects of war. The death of Lincoln resulted in two famous poems - When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and O Captain! My Captain! After the Civil War was over, and America emerged strong and united, Whitman’s sense of peace and harmony is embodied in his later poems such as Passage to India. In this poem, Whitman also celebrates the achievement of science and technology, as he does in Section 23 of Song of Myself. Science played a great role in nineteenth-century America; it was the main aspect of development and material advancement. Whitman is a ready admirer of what he calls “positive science”, though as a stepping stone to “life untold “. Verse Reflects sense of American Life. Whitman’s omnivorous lines convey his sense of the teeming American life, his vocabulary is drawn from the common everyday life of business, trade, commerce and science, the average American usage. His free verse captures the rhythms of American speech and reflects the American freedom and break from tradition. The movement of his verse is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people.

      Conclusion. Leaves of Grass may obviously be regarded as “the embodiment of the American reality and ideal.” Whitman’s poetry encompasses the entire American nation. His poems abound with the picturesque American place-names-Connecticut, California, Manhattan, Maine, Brooklyn. His work has been called a national epic. Thoreau called it “very brave and American”; Rossetti declared it to be “the poem of American nationality”, and W.D.O’ Connor observes: “The nation is in it ... It is distinctively and utterly American. Without model, without imitation, without reminiscence, it is evolved entirely from one polity and popular life.” And the hero of this national epic is a typical American “not a bit tamed ... untranslatable”.


Bring out the elements in Whitman’s poetry which make him a truly “American poet”.
Discuss Whitman as a poet of freedom and rugged individualism.
Whitman’s profoundly American experience is integrally related to his cosmic vision. Discuss.
“Whitman is most self-consciously American.” Illustrate the truth of this statement from his poems.

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