Facts About Walt Whitman

Whitman is a great self-promoter who refers to himself as the "American Bard at Last."

A bard is merely another way of saying someone is a great poet.

William Shakespeare is the Bard of English Literature.

Walt Whitman feels as if he is just as great as Shakespeare, perhaps even greater.

Although one of America's greatest self-promoters of that era, Walt Whitman was a conceited man. Whitman sees himself as the voice of America. He claims to be a common man who has the same feelings as all Americans. Whitman is the poet of everything American: the good, the bad, the ugly, the cultured east, wild west, south, and the Eskimo in the canoe.

Whitman has a way of identifying with all Americans. Whitman sees himself in terms of others. He sees himself as a representative of America. He sees himself as universal.

One can become universal by writing about himself.

When Walt Whitman sings the Song of Myself, he is singing the song of Americans.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Whitman in 1852. Emerson was embarrassed to find the letter he had written to Whitman in Whitman’s book.

Walt Whitman was much unlike the other authors and poets of this genre, especially Emily Dickinson.

Selections From "Song of Myself"

Selection #1

Notice the first word, I, and the last word in selection #52, you. Here, Whitman reveals a relationship between himself and the readers.

Whitman is celebrating America and her diversity. Diversity is something that causes a great deal of concern among people. The Puritans did not come to America in search of diversity because they were intolerant of anyone who was different. However, America became diverse in later years. There is regional diversity now. The South is diverse from state to state. Even north Louisiana and its people and cultures are much different from that of south Louisiana. Whitman celebrates the idea that we can have diversity in American and still remain our individual selves. Whitman is against conformity.

The grass is characteristic of a tall tree standing in a field. The tree is viewed in the way of a monarch. The ironic symbolism here is that the blades of grass are all equal in height, referring to Americans as being equal to one another.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
By celebrating himself, Whitman is celebrating all of us. The atom is an element of someone else. When we breath atoms in which other people have exhaled.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Contrary to the Puritan ethics, Whitman is going to loafe and be lazy. He is going to contemplate.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
Whitman is a middle-aged man before he begins to print his poetry. His motive for writing poetry will not be the schools of thought as the enlightenment would think. Instead, Whitman says "I am writing what nature tells me to."

Whitman's style of poetry was different from those before him. There is no rhyme or specific meters to his poem, it is dtrictly natural. Whitman writes with the American voice which he calls our barbaric yaw. That is the American style of speaking. He is similar to Twain in that he uses a wide range of lines, short and long.

Selection #4

It is not really know as to what sexual preferences Walt Whitman endured. However, he was never married and he did live with his mother.

The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or    depressions, or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Whitman sounds much like Ralph Waldo Emerson here. We divide the universe between me and not me.

Whitman is calls the civil war a "fratricidal war" because it was brother against brother. Fratricide is the killing of your own brother.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-surved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Here, Whitman states that he has tendencies to be in and out of the game. Whitman confesses there is always that part of him that is separate and distinct. He is not totally in the game; He is at the side observing.

He is not arguing what he believes or what others believe. Whitman is saying, "This is my vision...can you see it? And if you can, come and join with me..."

Selection #5
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Whitman believes that there are two parts to the soul; one is the body, and the other is the soul. Abase means to humble yourself and bow down to others. He believes that the body should not bow down to the soul. Anne Bradstreet believed the soul to be supreme, which is very similar to the "oversoul" concept. Edward Taylor in "Meditation #8" says, "Where the soul ws the bird and the body in the cage." Whitman did not possess this belief. He believes the self is in hemeostasis where the soul is equal to the body. Whitman applies the theory of democracy to the self. If the self is democracy, then everything within that democracy must be equal including the body and soul. "Loafe with me on the grass my soul," is an apostrophe. Normally, one would think of an apostrope as punctuation mark. The punctuation mark shows that there is a missing letter. Here, Whitman is stating that someone of something is missing.
Only the lull I like, the hum of your vavled voice.

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, an plunged your tongue to my bare-striped heart,
And reach’d til you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

Whitman is being intimate with his soul here.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and pokeweed.
This is Whitman's way of saying, "We are all in this together, my soul and the universe."

Selection # 6
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know it is any more than he.
What is the grass? Well, I can't really answer that. So, what’s this book all about? I can't answer that.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
It is my optimism.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name somewhere in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
God has dropped his hankie on the grass so that others will see that he has been there.
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
We are all equal. Here is the poetic form of the expression "All men are created equal."
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

The smallest sprout show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

For Whitman, death is part of the cycle of life. The sprout shows there really is no death; though we might die, life goes on. The grass is part of life enduring.

Selection # 11
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
Whitman is showing how voyeurism is popular. We are watching her watch them. This woman is a spinster who is over the hill, unmarried, and who has no children. She daydreams she is out there with them. The swimmers do not know she is out there because it is only in her mind.

Selection # 12

Whitman is watching the butcher and writing what he sees.

Whitman is the poet of everything. Poets in the past wrote only about great and famous things. Whitman believes not only the butcher and the blacksmith are worthy enough to write about, but also, he beleives we all are worthy enough to write about. Since Whitman is the poet of America and democracy, he writes about us wherever we may be.

Selection # 16
I am of old and young, of the foolish as mush as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same.
Whitman shows here that he thinks about others but he is still separate because of his own diversity.
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
He’s not stuck up; an idiom that is pretty old.

Selection # 20
What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?
Whitman is writing about himself; he is mystical and naked.
Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?

Who would I pray to if I prayed? The universe is writing me a letter; and all I have to figure out is what it is saying.

Selection # 22
I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Whitman writes about both the modern view of good and evil vs. the traditional view, which is to reject evil and cleave to good. He says its all part of life and that we should celebrate it.

Selection # 24

When the book Walt Whitman first came out, there was no name on the front cover. This selection was the only place in the book that it was mentioned.

No more modest than immodest.

Unscrews the locks from the doors!
Unscrews the doors themselves from their jambs!

Whitman is saying that he does not need a door. You can watch him do whatever he pleases.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
This is not a secret to society. Whitman is giving voice to democracy.
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling in balls of dung.
Whitman is thinking of other things that people do not usually think about. He says that he will take the indecent ideas that other people will not write about and make them decent with his own poetic ability.
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, felling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

In Whitman's generation, people would talk about death but not sex. However, in our generation, we talk about sex and not death. Sex has become a taboo.

One can find divinity in himself through his own experiences, not in someone else's words, practices, or creeds.

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,
I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.
Whitman dotes on himself, not on something else.

Selection # 25

Whitman is frustrated at his inability to express himself.

Selection # 32

Whitman is studying nature and finding what he wants to find there.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Here Whitman is saying that he wants to be like the animals who you never hear whine or groan. He does not want to bow and scrape to others or to be unhappy.

Selection # 41

Whitman gives a critique of all the old religions.

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,
Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix engraved,
With Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image,
Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days,
(They bore mites as for unfledg’d birds who have now to rise and fly and sing for themselves.)
Whitman is stating that all of these gods had their place in the past. He mixes Christianity in with all the religions.
Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation.
A special revelation is a burning bush, whereas a general revelation is just simply a bush.

Whitman belived that the hair on the back of his hand was just as special as the burning bush.

Selection # 45
My lovers suffocate me,
Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin,
Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night,
Crying by day Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head.
Whitman is filled with much agony. Once again, he sees himself as one of everything.

Selection # 48
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.
Here, Whitman is stating that one's self is greater than anything. He reitterates the point that the soul and the body are equal.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Whitman is stating that he believes in pantheism, the idea that God is a part of everyone and everything.

Whitman believes that you do not have to hold on to the revelation because the next step will bring a new revelation.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Here Whitman is on a ferry writing to us a letter in the past.

In poetry, a sunset is incorporated as a strong symbol for death. He is returning home a hundred year journey, realizing that people will still enjoy the sunset and the tide.

Selection # 2

People are similar to Whitman in that we can indentify with everyone. It is hard for many to realize that previous generations were similar to us today.

Selection # 5

Where do we get our identity? The Puritans believed that the real identity is in the soul; once we die, our identity, or soul, will return to heaven or somewhere else. Our identity will continue and not be limited to the body. Whitman believes that our identity comes from within. If you change the body, you change the identity. If you destroy the body, you destroy the soul.

Selection # 6

Whitman questions what he is doing in this selection.

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The chearing look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighnest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.
Whitman beleives the ulitmate sin is not speaking to and not being with the ones you love. This is what he celebrates, and he says he fell short of it.

Selection # 9
You necessary film, continue to envelop my soul,
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinist aromas,
Thrive, cities--bring your freight, bring your show, ample and sufficient rivers,
Expand, being than which none else is pehaps more spiritual,
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.
Whitman does not mind the odors which people carry due to a lack of bathing.

Whitman also states that the cities are the most spiritual things of all.

He is arguing about the existance of God. Whitman believes God to be an unreal person which nothing greater can be imagined. Howver, Whitman believes himself to be greater because he is real.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a poem about Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s name is not mentioned; there is only an image of Lincoln which revolves around the Trinity. We normally think of the Trinity as it is used in church. The Trinity refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which is from the Eastern Orthodox Christian theology.

Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, by John Willkes Booth. Lincoln died saving his people, as did Jesus. This is why many view Lincoln as a Christ-like figure.

In the poem, the Trinity is symbolized by are star, lilacs, and thrush, which replaces thought as the third symbol of the Trinity. The star represents Abraham Lincoln. The lilacs represent the continuation of life after death. The thrush represents Whitman and his poetic attempt at dealing with death.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Whitman states in his writing that he could never smell lilacs again without remembering Lincoln’s death.

Neither Whitman nor his mother could eat due to sadness. This was also the feeling across the nation.Whitman believes that there are five stages of grief:

  1. Grief
  2. Denial
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance.

Selection # 3

Whitman breaks of a sprig of the lilac. When Whitman refers to the star in the Trinity he is referring to Venus, the evening star. He is identifying Lincoln with the evening star which symbolizes death.

Elevating the dead to the level of divinity is called stellification. Deification or apothesis is the process of becoming a god.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
Without the ability to express grief, you will die. Grief is noted as a song which pains you to sing, one which if do not sing you will die. One's who express greif will get over it quicker than those who do not.

Stanza #5 is all one sentence. A coffin is the subject of this sentence and journeying is the verb.

Imagine seeing a movie. At the opening of the movie, what do you see? Where is the camera? Where is the camera when he starts this first line in this stanza? You are way up in the sky looking down, and slowly you are zooming in on something, the coffin.

Lincoln was carried across the country in a coffin. Cities along the funeral procession were draped in black.

Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
Whitman broke off a sprig of lilac and put it on the coffin.

An affirmation of the continuation of life

In lines 119-125, Whitman begins talking about the knowledge of death.

He states that holding hands with death is a way of accepting it. At first you are sad and upset, but then you begin to understand.

Death is the always ready to receive us dark mother--always waiting to receive us, which will embrace us last.

In stanza #15, Whitman talks about the suffering in death, and how there are worse things than that. Whitman believes the dead do not suffer; only the living suffer.

I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee, O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.
Once again, the star is in its rightful place, the sky. The star, Lincoln, is now looking down upon us.
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands--and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
Whitman ends on a note which is one of acceptance. One can see the sorrow of this occurance unlike the other poems by Whitman where he dotes on himself.

"The Wound-Dresser"

Children asks Whitman what he did in the war and he answers them by saying he was a medic. He watches over and soothes the dying. By recollecting upon this, he reexeperiences this traumatic event.

In stanza #2, Whitman is changing the dressing on the wounds, filling bucket after bucket

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes--poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
You must be firm with these men to change their wounds or dressings; Hopefully, you can save their lives, and save them pain in the mean time.

In stanza #3, death is the only thing that will heal this poor man who has not been able to bring himself to look at the stump where his hand once was.

Whitman feels a burning sensation inside, but outside, he must remain calm and comfort these people.

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
Whitman experiences flashbacks in the final stanza.