Walt Whitman (1819-1892), today considered one of America’s most significant 19th-century poets, was born on Long Island. He dropped out of the schooling system relatively early, at age 12, to work in a printing house. Other jobs he held in the early years of his life include editing and teaching. Around this time, he began publishing some prose and poetry in local magazines but didn't get much recognition.
In the quote above, Whitman communicates his views of nature, a view reflected in many of his poems. Whitman was fascinated with the fluid, ever-changing nature of the natural world. He could find beauty even in death and decay.
Leaves of Grass
His most well-known work is Leaves of Grass. This is a collection of poems first published in 1855 by Whitman himself. He couldn't find a publisher that would agree to print his poems, so he sold a house to afford the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained 12 poems.
Many of the poems there were inspired by his travels in the American wild. This first publication was welcomed with open arms neither by critics nor by the American public. People found his openness hard to digest; his straightforwardness about physical love invoked discomfort in readers of that time. The public showed contempt for Whitman presenting himself as a hardworking man. There was a general reluctance to accept his innovative poetic style - he was a bit of an unusual poet in the contemporary scene - both in style and choice of themes.
The quote above, from "‘I Sing the Body Electric" (1885) perfectly demonstrates Whitman's striving for unity, for a sense of oneness. He looked at nature with awe and saw the physical body and the soul as an integral part of it. Whitman was also fascinated by the notion of an eternal soul residing in a decaying body.
Civil War and later years
During the Civil War, his brother was injured, and Whitman volunteered at the hospital to be close to him. His travels and time spent at the hospital with wounded soldiers had a great effect on his poetic work.
The accumulated mental stress of the pain of war led to a heart attack and a general decline in health. After several years of unstable health, he died in 1892 at age 73. Despite not being revered back in the day, over 1,000 people came to his funeral. Much like Vincent Van Gogh, Whitman's genius was discovered and celebrated only after his death. And even when he finally gained recognition, he was first seen as a democrat and only then as a poet.
The quote above, an excerpt from "‘I Hear America Singing" (1860), is a great example of Whitman's democratic views and belief in the value of hard work as a measure of good ethics. He praises a hardworking man laboring and building the country with pride.
Frequently Asked Question
1. What is Whitman's most famous work of poetry?
Whitman's most famous work is his "Leaves of Grass," a collection of 12 poems he first published in 1955. Eight later versions came along as he wrote more and more poems. Some newer versions omitted older poems, and some even changed the wording of existing poems. There were also changes in the categories and editing of the poetry collection. Most say that the first version was the best of them all.
2. What is Walt Whitman's most famous quote?
Surprisingly, there isn't a consensus about which Whitman's quote is the most famous of them all. Many agree that his poem, "Song of Myself," is the most important and famous. In a way, it is a product of a lifetime, since Whitman worked on it, rewrote it, and perfected it since it was first published in Leaves of Grass' first edition to his death.
This poem encompasses all the themes that occupied Whitman's mind. It is a celebration of both the self and the unity of the self with the world, nature, and all beings living in it.
3. What is Walt Whitman's poetry mainly about?
Walt Whitman was occupied with democracy and filled with awe about nature. He wrote about love (both physical and spiritual) and friendship and praised the body and the soul alike in his poems.
Physical love, though frowned upon at his time, was also symbolic. It represented the raw innocence of nature, a world with no hidden motives but to live and live on by procreating and regenerating. He also speaks of the tension between the eternal soul and the decomposing nature of the body as a necessary part of nature's regeneration.
4. What is Walt Whitman's style of poetry?
Whitman was one of the pioneers of free verse poetry, a style that does not abide by any regular meter or rhyme common at his time. This innovation was part of the reason he did not gain a large following during his lifetime. He was accepted in England and Europe where the breaking of patterns and exploration of new styles were more welcome.
Free verse poetry is said to be influenced by the long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry.