Walt Whitman’s Concept or Theory of Poetry

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      A Revolutionary Poet. Walt Whitman had no schooling of worth, he did not attend college, he was more or less ‘unlearned’. But he has now come to be regarded as not only one of the greatest of American poets, but as one of the foremost poets of the world. His major action as a poet was to refuse to tread the beaten track. He was a rebel, with his own theory of literature and poetry. He wanted a new poetry to meet the needs of the New World which was evolving in America. The New World had no place for feudalism, aristocracy and nobility the subjects of the Old World. The new realities were democracy and science. In the political sphere, democracy had overthrown certain concepts; in poetry, too, Whitman felt that there was need to be free of the restraint imposed by time-honored theories. Poetry was to adjust to its new surroundings. Whitman took courageous steps to break with the past and forge ahead into the unchartered arena of the poetry of the future, a poetry which would express the ideas and feelings of the common man who had been enslaved in the past. Whitman’s concept of the New Poetry finds expression in many essays but mainly in three documents - Preface to the Leaves of Grass (1855), Democratic Vistas and A Backward Glance. The Preface (1855) is, perhaps, the most daring expression of a new theory of poetry in America just as Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads was in England.

      Poetry Compared to a Mirror: Its Relationship to Reality. Decrying contemporary American poetry, as being a pale imitation of English poetry, Whitman called for a closer look at Nature. He wanted poetry to discard the ‘foreign’ elements of aristocracy and feudalism-alien to the American soil which nurtured democracy. Poetry had to shed its rich dress and jewelry and come close to reality. In the 1855 Preface, he compares poetry to a mirror reflecting life in its true sense. The new poet should sing about real men and women, the common mass of humanity, their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows and day-to-day problems. It was the poet’s business to vivify facts with imaginative faculty. (One cannot help recalling Wordsworth’s poetic theory here). Poetry’s reality, of course, was not to be confined to the merely superficial; it was closely connected to the spiritual reality beyond the external sensuous world. Leaves of Grass reflects this “reality “and life. The quality of the poems may be uneven, but they are all born out of an experience of life, and they abound in pictures and people of contemporary America. But beyond this they reflect a universal reality.

      Democratic and Scientific Impulse Inform the Poetry. The subjects for the new poetry were to be drawn from the contemporary life, and not from the past. The present was the new poet’s area. Since 19th century America had two major aspects, democracy and scientific development, poetry too should conform to the spirit evolved by these two aspects. Reality consisted of democracy and science which were now to take the position of feudalism and myth and fable in the past - to provide the poet with his frame of reference and background. Leaves of Grass is informed by the spirit of democracy and science. In many of his poems including Song of Myself, lines are based on scientific thought. The passion for concrete realities forms the very texture of his poetry. The replacement of myth and fable with science is certainly an original and daring proposition by Whitman. Of course, he did not mean that scientific subjects should be taken up as such by poets; he did not intend poets to choose astronomy or biology as subjects, but merely that scientific knowledge should provide the poet with background.

      Poet to Illuminate Reality. The poet was not merely to represent outward reality. His concern was to “shower over” facts with light - “inner” light or spirituality. In Whitman’s own words,

Daylight is lit with more volatile light, .....also the deep between the setting and the rising sun goes deeper manyfold...

      Leaves of Grass has this sense of spiritual reality. The concrete facts, the open road, the river, the grass, the bird, the flowers, the people - all are invested with deeper meaning than what they have on a superficial level.

      Concept of Poet. Walt Whitman is a seer and priest. This concept had already been put forward by English Romantic poets, but not by an American poet. Whitman broke with rationalistic tendencies and spoke of the poet’s insights which came from “the float of the brain of the world”. It is this insight which enables the poet to perceive the “oneness of nature” or as Wordsworth put it “to see into the heart of things”. In the 1855 Preface Whitman writes: “Of all mankind, the great poet is the equable man .... He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land.... he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking.” He is more - he is the one complete lover of the known universe. He is the individual, complete in himself. He is different from others only in that he “sees” and they do not. If the poet prophesies about the future, it is not through supernatural gift, but through a sensitive perception. In Passage to India, the poet is elevated to divine-status - “the true son of God.” Such a high concept of the poet is bold if not entirely original.

      Inner Compulsion to Create. The poet, according to Whitman, feels a terrific urge to create. Leaves of Grass is full of images of the
overflowing container and smoldering fire-signifying the turbulence of creation. Strong emotions are important in the creative activity.

      All Embracing Self. Poetry, however, is not to be a purely personal expression according to Whitman. The “Complete Lover” of the universe talks of “self” but this self embraces all selves in the world. The great poet has a cosmic vision; he is cosmos and hence when he speaks of self he speaks of all. Leaves of Grass is conceived to be “the song of a great composite democratic individual, male or female”. Thus the greatest poetry is seen to be dramatic and cosmopolitan, expressing not merely the self of the poet but the very spirit of the country and age in which it is written. The “I” in Whitman’s poetry is not so much a personal reference as a fusion of several characters. The poet being the lover of the universe does not exclude anything from his poetry. The most trivial object has importance in poetry because of the significance given to it by the poet.

      Disregard for Ornament. The new poetry, in Whitman’s opinion, had to be simple. Its form would be decided by its contents - the meaning, argument or subject. The poet’s vocation was to mirror reality and this inevitably demanded unvarnished language. Even slang was to be used if its use contributed to vivifying the poet’s meaning. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent but dependent. In other words, form and language grow from the meaning and subject and intensity of emotion of the poem.

      Function of Poetry. The poet, according to Whitman, is a “maker” (a concept close to the modern as well as classical concept of a poet), and he influences the life not only of individuals but of the nation as a whole-such a high concept of the poet had Whitman. His one hope was that his own poetry, embodying the ideals of democratic America, the New World, would help make those ideals prevail. The effect of poetry was not to be immediate and short-lived enjoyment, but of a slow intensely fortifying and lasting nature. It was to “cheer up slaves and horrify tyrants.”

      The Reader’s Role. Whitman, however, felt that the poet was not to be fully explanatory. He was to be suggestive, and it was the reader’s duty to make an effort to understand. Whitman considers the reading of the poem as a sort of “gymnastic struggle”. The reader must cooperate with care and attention.

      Conclusion. Whitman’s conception of the poet and poetry of the future is significant. Revolutionary in many aspects, it is a key to the understanding of his poetry. He tries to achieve what he sets as one of the prime principles of his poetics-indicating “the path between reality and their souls.”


Whitman’s Concept of Poetry and the Poet
Poetry for the New World: Whitman - the Revolutionary Innovator
Write a short note on the concept of Poetry and Poet held by Whitman and practiced in his Leaves of Grass.
What is the significance of Whitman’s theory of poetry?

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