poem index

Sections 3-10May 26, 1992Cathedral of St. John the DivineFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced firsthand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. Noted Whitman scholar, M. Jimmie Killingsworth writes that "the 'merge,' as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: 'I Sing the Body Electric,' 'The Sleepers,' and 'Song of Myself,' all of which were 'merged' in the first edition under the single title Leaves of Grass but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title."

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D. C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.

Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood) gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America's most important poets.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891)
Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood, 1881)
Passage to India (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (William E. Chapin, 1867)
Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Leaves of Grass (Thayer & Eldridge, 1860)
Leaves of Grass (Fowler & Wells, 1856)
Leaves of Grass (self-published, 1855)

Prose

Complete Prose Works (David McKay, 1892)
November Boughs (David McKay, 1888)
Memoranda During the War (self-published, 1875)
Democratic Vistas (David McKay, 1871)
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (New World, 1842)
 


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
1

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;   
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.   
   
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you
          are to me!   
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home,
          are more curious to me than you suppose;   
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me,
          and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.  


2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;   
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme—myself disintegrated,
          every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:   
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;   
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—
          on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;   
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;   
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.   
   
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;   
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;   
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights
          of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;   
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an
          hour high;   
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will
          see them,   
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back
          to the sea of the ebb-tide.   
   

3

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
          many generations hence;   
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how
          it is.   
   
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;   
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;   
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
          I was refresh'd;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current,
          I stood, yet was hurried;   
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd
          pipes of steamboats, I look'd.   
   
I too many and many a time cross'd the river, the sun half an hour high;   
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air,
          floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,   
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest
          in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.   
   
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,   
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,   
Look'd at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head
          in the sun-lit water,   
Look'd on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look'd on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,   
Look'd toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships,   
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,   
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor,   
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine
          pennants,   
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,   
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,   
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set,   
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests
          and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite
          store-houses by the docks,   
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank'd on each
          side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,   
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high
          and glaringly into the night,   
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over
          the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.   
   

4

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;
I project myself a moment to tell you—also I return.   
   
I loved well those cities;   
I loved well the stately and rapid river;   
The men and women I saw were all near to me;   
Others the same—others who look back on me, because I look'd
          forward to them;
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)   
   

5

What is it, then, between us?   
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?   
   
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.   
   

6

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters
          around it;   
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,   
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,   
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.   
   
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;
I too had receiv'd identity by my Body;   
That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be,
          I knew I should be of my body.   

   
7

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,   
The dark threw 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?
          would not people laugh at me?   
   
It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;   
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;   
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,   
Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,   
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;   
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,   
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,   
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting.
   

8

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!   
I was call'd by my nighest 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.   
   

9

Closer yet I approach you;   
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born.   
   
Who was to know what should come home to me?   
Who knows but I am enjoying this?   
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot
          see me?   
   
It is not you alone, nor I alone;
Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries;   
It is that each came, or comes, or shall come, from its due emission,   
From the general centre of all, and forming a part of all:   
Everything indicates—the smallest does, and the largest does;   
A necessary film envelopes all, and envelopes the Soul for a proper time.
   

10

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable
          to me than my mast-hemm'd Manhattan,   
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide,   
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the
          belated lighter;   
Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with
          voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as
          I approach;   
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man
          that looks in my face,
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you.   
   
We understand, then, do we not?   
What I promis'd without mentioning it, have you not accepted?   
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not
          accomplish, is accomplish'd, is it not?   
What the push of reading could not start, is started by me personally, is it not?
   

11

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!   
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg'd waves!   
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men
          and women generations after me;   
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!   
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful
          hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!   
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!   
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!   
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my
          nighest name!   
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!   
   
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be
          looking upon you;   
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the
          hasting current;   
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;   
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast
          eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one's
          head, in the sun-lit water;   
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail'd schooners
          sloops, lighters!   
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower'd at sunset;   
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall!
          cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses;   
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are;
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul;   
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas;   
Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers;   
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual;   
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.
   

12

We descend upon you and all things—we arrest you all;   
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids;   
Through you color, form, location, sublimity, ideality;   
Through you every proof, comparison, and all the suggestions
          and determinations of ourselves.   
   
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers! you novices!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward;   
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us;   
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently
          within us;   
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection
          in you also;   
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. 

This poem is in the public domain.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman is the author of Leaves of Grass and, along with Emily Dickinson, is considered one of the architects of a uniquely American poetic voice. 

by this poet

poem
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in
poem
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, 
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, 
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, 
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of
   the water, 
Or stand under trees in the woods, 
Or talk by day with
poem
Delicate cluster! flag of teeming life!   
Covering all my lands! all my sea-shores lining!   
Flag of death! (how I watch'd you through the smoke of battle pressing!   
How I heard you flap and rustle, cloth defiant!)   
Flag cerulean! sunny flag! with the orbs of night dappled!
Ah my silvery beauty! ah my