American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was born two-hundred years ago today. Alongside Emily Dickinson, Whitman is probably the most influential poet in American history. As Dickinson discovered new possibilities in concision, density, and depth of linguistic meaning, Whitman explored expansive new vistas in structure and subject matter. He composed long lines to devour every topic under the sun—and then some.
His poetic project took the appropriate form of a single ever-expanding book, Leaves of Grass, which he first published in 1855 and then altered and augmented until his death nearly four decades later. Whitman is difficult to classify as a poet because he constantly resisted definitions and boundaries. Was he a poet of the personal lyric? Sometimes. A political poet? At other times, yes. A war poet? Undoubtedly. A poet of metaphysics? When the urge struck him. A sensual poet? Often.
An early passage from Leaves of Grass, drawn from the annunciatory poem “Starting from Paumanok,” illustrates Whitman’s tendency to gather every sphere of human interest:
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.
This stanza illustrates Whitman’s signature approach to both substance and style. Rather than training his lens on a single detail or image, as Dickinson would, Whitman draws a circle around, well, everything. In his world, the grand and timeless rubs shoulders with the local and immediate: “the kosmos, and the modern reports,” as he puts it. His fluid but controlled verse style expresses the character of his thoughts. Three lines of pentameter list off the subjects of life, followed by the terse, breathless dimeter of “This then is life” and finally concluded by the elongated octameter of the last line. The range of his mind resounds in the rhythmic range of his lines.
Whitman’s contribution is key to understanding the last century of poetry, both in the United States and abroad. He unbuttoned the strictures of formal poetry, allowing his language to unfurl in flowing free verse. Ever since, countless poets have walked in his path, opting for free verse and the versatility it affords. Whitman also gave the United States its national epic in Leaves of Grass, whose ethos of expansiveness and inclusivity and democracy reflects the best values of the young nation. Consider this passage from the poem “Our Old Feuillage,” a dizzying geographic tour through the United States:
O lands! all so dear to me—what you are, (whatever it is,) I
putting it at random in these songs, become a part of that,
whatever it is,
Southward there, I screaming, with wings slow flapping, with the
myriads of gulls wintering along the coasts of Florida,
Otherways there atwixt the banks of the Arkansaw, the Rio
Grande, the Nueces, the Brazos, the Tombigbee, the Red
River, the Saskatchawan or the Osage, I with the spring
waters laughing and skipping and running,
Northward, on the sands, on some shallow bay of Paumanok, I
with parties of snowy herons wading in the wet to seek
worms and aquatic plants…
Whitman’s charm here lies in his combination of the vast and grand (“O lands!”) with the minute and matter-of-fact (“snowy herons wading in the wet”). This passage also shows the full breath of Whitman’s lines, which can reach the scale of paragraphs.
Finally, these lines reveal that Whitman is fundamentally a poet of praise. His work gravitates towards all that is beautiful and awe-inspiring about the experience of life. His great power is to find the words, phrases, and lines which evoke beauty and awe in us. On that note, we’ll end with one of Whitman’s masterpieces, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.