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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

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child 
   leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as 
   if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries, 
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me, 
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and
   fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as 
   if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in 
   the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass 
   was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather'd guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with 
   bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never 
   disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun! 
While we bask, we two together.

Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or niqht come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Till of a sudden,
May-be kill'd, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch'd not on the nest, 
Nor return'd that afternoon, nor the next, 
Nor ever appear'd again.

And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok's shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.

Yes, when the stars glisten'd,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call'd on his mate,
He pour'd forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,	
The rest might not, but I have treasur'd every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the 
   shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
   and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing, 
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair, 
Listen'd long and long.

Listen'd to keep, to sing, now translating the notes, 
Following you my brother.

Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,	
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.	

Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging--O I think it is heavy with love, with love.

O madly the sea pushes upon the land, 
With love, with love. 

O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers? 
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?

Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!

Hiqh and clear I shoot my voice over the waves, 
Surely you must know who is here, is here, 
You must know who I am, my love.

Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.

Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, 0 I think you could give me my mate 
   back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.

O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.

O throat! 0 trembling throat! 
Sound clearer through the atmosphere! 
Pierce the woods, the earth, 
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.

Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the niqht's carols! 
Carols of lonesome love! death's carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea! 
O reckless despairing carols.

But soft! sink low! 
Soft! let me just murmur, 
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois'd sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen, 
But not altogether still, for then she miqht not come immediately
   to me.

Hither my love! 
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain'd note I announce myself to you, 
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.

Do not be decoy'd elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.

O darkness! 0 in vain! 
0 I am very sick and sorrowful.
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!	
O throat! 0 throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the niqht.	

0 past! 0 happy life! 0 songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.

The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok's shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, 
   the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair
   the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last 
   tumultuously bursting,
The aria's meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy's soul's questions sullenly timing, some drown'd 
   secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.

Demon or bird! (said the boy's soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I 
   have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer,
   louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me,
   never to die. 
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, 
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease
   perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations, 
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me, 
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before
   what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon, 
The messenger there arous'd, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.

O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,) 
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!

A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up--what is it?--I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-
   waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?

Whereto answering, the sea, 
Delaying not, hurrying not, 
Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before
   daybreak,
Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death, 
And again death, death, death, death, 
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd
   child's heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet, 
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly
   all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget, 
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother, 
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok's gray
   beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random, 
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet 
   garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper'd me.

This poem is in the public domain.

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
Ah, not this marble, dead and cold:  
Far from its base and shaft expanding—the round zones circling, 
         comprehending, 
 
Thou, Washington, art all the world's, the continents' entire— 
         not yours alone, America, 
 
Europe's as well, in every part, castle of lord or laborer's cot,  
Or frozen
poem
When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv'd with
     plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow'd;   
And else, when I carous'd, or when my plans were accomplish'd, still I was not happy;   
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health,
poem

Weave in, weave in, my hardy life,
Weave yet a soldier strong and full for great campaigns to come,
Weave in red blood, weave sinews in like ropes, the senses, sight weave in,
Weave lasting sure, weave day and night the weft, the warp, incessant weave, tire not,
(We know not what the use O life