Walt Whitman was an American poet and a son of Long Island. His collection of poems, "Leaves of Grass" was a continuing endeavor, growing from the original volume of 12 works first published in 1855 to an edition of over 300 works at the time of his death in 1892. The collection is considered one of the world's major literary works and stands as a revolutionary development in poetry: Walt's free verse and rhythmic innovations stand in marked contrast to the rigid rhyming and structural patterns formerly considered so essential to poetic expression.
Whitman's expressive art was complex and multifaceted. There are really several aspects to Walt and his work can be interpreted on many levels: democrat, egalitarian, patriot, metaphysicist, nature poet, lover, free spirit and exponent of spiritual values, of moderation, balance and tolerance. The subject material of "Leaves of Grass" is all inclusive and wide ranging, from the particular to the universal, from the intimate to the cosmic. Walt sings a "Song of Myself", but really speaks for the human race and universal harmony through his own experiences. In "Drum Taps", Whitman's reaction to the nation's traumatic Civil War, he speaks of the ultimate pointlessness and futility of war in the poem "Reconciliation": "For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead". In "Sea Drift" Whitman rises to perhaps his most transcendent and touching moments, for here the subject matter includes the universal theme of love and separation. In the opening poem, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking", the mighty ocean is the instrument of parting, and a gull's loss of its mate reflects a tragedy of life: first love and first loss played out on a cosmic scale. In "Passage to India", a sailing voyage becomes a metaphor for the journey of the soul through time and place: "O we can wait no longer! We too take ship, O soul!" In "Song of the Open Road" we get a clear picture of Whitman's sense of values: "Henceforth I ask not good-fortune; Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Strong and content, I travel the open road."
Walt was a firm believer in democracy and much in "Leaves of Grass" gives us a clear vision of his belief that American ideals might serve as an example to the world. He greatly admired Abraham Lincoln as an exponent of these ideals, and upon Lincoln's death he wrote, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". Lincoln died in April, and the blooming lilacs would not only remind him of the death of Lincoln, but also would serve as a metaphor for the eternal renewal of life. Although in the post Civil War period, he became somewhat disillusioned with the aggressive materialism and corruption of a rapidly changing, industrializing society, he maintained a firm belief that eventually ideals would triumph over greed.
Whitman was a gregarious man who loved life, knew how to have a good time, and loved children and good company. His work is less a logical discourse than it is a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. It is from emotion that it derives its power. At times, Whitman reached not for cosmic, transcendental levels, but dealt with the elemental and intimate on a purely emotional level. His bold feelings about love and sexuality as evidenced in such poems as "A Woman Waits for Me" and "Once I Walked Through a Populous City" found in "Children of Adam" are absolutely remarkable in the context of the Victorian society in which he lived.
Whitman wrote in a form similar to "thought-rhythm". This form is found in Old Testament poetry and in sacred books of India such as the Bhagavad-Gita, which Whitman knew in translation. His rhythms and cadences are also heavily influenced by the music he heard as a regular devotee of the opera in New York City. In "Proud Music of the Storm" Walt sings: "Composers! Mighty maestros! And you, sweet singers of old lands-Sopani! Tenori! Bassi! To you a new bard, caroling free in the west, Obeisant, sends his love." These influences are combined with nature's influence in the form of the rise and fall of the sea that he loved so much.
The musical nature of Whitman's poetry is evident in the fact that no poetry has been set to music more often than his. From Vaughan Williams to Delius and Holst, Hindemith to Sessions and Rorem, the catalog is extremely rich and varied. The universal appeal of this warm hearted, idealistic and romantic creative genius is powerful and undeniable. "Leaves of Grass" transcends time and place and has something to say to all people, for all time.
Poems - 20 in all
To Foreign Lands.
Come, Said My Soul
In Paths Untrodden.
From My Last Years.
Now Finale to the Shore.
Darest Thou Now, O Soul
Spirit That Form'd This Scene.
O Captain! My Captain!
A noiseless patient spider
Sometimes with One I Love
Spirit that Form'd this Scene
When I Heard the Learned Astronomer