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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

To Think of Time

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
1

To think of time—of all that retrospection!   
To think of to-day, and the ages continued henceforward!   
   
Have you guess'd you yourself would not continue?   
Have you dreaded these earth-beetles?   
Have you fear'd the future would be nothing to you?
   
Is to-day nothing? Is the beginningless past nothing?   
If the future is nothing, they are just as surely nothing.   
   
To think that the sun rose in the east! that men and women
   were flexible, real, alive! that everything was alive!   
To think that you and I did not see, feel, think, nor bear our
   part!   
To think that we are now here, and bear our part!
   
2

Not a day passes—not a minute or second, without an
   accouchement!   
Not a day passes—not a minute or second, without a corpse!   
   
The dull nights go over, and the dull days also,   
The soreness of lying so much in bed goes over,   
The physician, after long putting off, gives the silent and terrible
   look for an answer,
The children come hurried and weeping, and the brothers and sisters
   are sent for,   
Medicines stand unused on the shelf—(the camphor-smell has
   long pervaded the rooms,)   
The faithful hand of the living does not desert the hand of the dying,   
The twitching lips press lightly on the forehead of the dying,   
The breath ceases, and the pulse of the heart ceases,
The corpse stretches on the bed, and the living look upon it,   
It is palpable as the living are palpable.   
   
The living look upon the corpse with their eye-sight,   
But without eye-sight lingers a different living, and looks curiously
   on the corpse.   
   
3

To think the thought of Death, merged in the thought of materials! 
To think that the rivers will flow, and the snow fall, and fruits ripen,
   and act upon others as upon us now—yet not act upon us!   
To think of all these wonders of city and country, and others taking
   great interest in them—and we taking no interest in them!   
   
To think how eager we are in building our houses!   
To think others shall be just as eager, and we quite indifferent!   
   
(I see one building the house that serves him a few years, or seventy
   or eighty years at most,
I see one building the house that serves him longer than that.)   
   
Slow-moving and black lines creep over the whole earth—they never
   cease—they are the burial lines,   
He that was President was buried, and he that is now President shall
   surely be buried.   
   
4

A reminiscence of the vulgar fate,   
A frequent sample of the life and death of workmen,
Each after his kind:   
Cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf—posh and ice in the river,
   half-frozen mud in the streets, a gray, discouraged sky overhead,
   the short, last daylight of Twelfth-month,   
A hearse and stages—other vehicles give place—the funeral
   of an old Broadway stage-driver, the cortege mostly drivers.   
   
Steady the trot to the cemetery, duly rattles the death-bell, the gate
   is pass'd, the new-dug grave is halted at, the living alight, the
   hearse uncloses,   
The coffin is pass'd out, lower'd and settled, the whip is laid on the
   coffin, the earth is swiftly shovel'd in, 
The mound above is flatted with the spades—silence,   
A minute—no one moves or speaks—it is done,   
He is decently put away—is there anything more?   
   
He was a good fellow, free-mouth'd, quick-temper'd, not bad-looking,
   able to take his own part, witty, sensitive to a slight, ready with
   life or death for a friend, fond of women, gambled, ate hearty,
   drank hearty, had known what it was to be flush, grew low-spirited
   toward the last, sicken'd, was help'd by a contribution, died, aged
   forty-one years—and that was his funeral.   
   
Thumb extended, finger uplifted, apron, cape, gloves, strap, wet-weather
   clothes, whip carefully chosen, boss, spotter, starter, hostler,
   somebody loafing on you, you loafing on somebody, headway, man before
   and man behind, good day's work, bad day's work, pet stock, mean
   stock, first out, last out, turning-in at night;
To think that these are so much and so nigh to other drivers—and
   he there takes no interest in them!   
   
5

The markets, the government, the working-man's wages—to think what
   account they are through our nights and days!   
To think that other working-men will make just as great account of
   them—yet we make little or no account!   
   
The vulgar and the refined—what you call sin, and what you call
   goodness—to think how wide a difference!   
To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we lie beyond
   the difference.
   
To think how much pleasure there is!   
Have you pleasure from looking at the sky? have you pleasure from poems?   
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? or engaged in business? or planning a
   nomination and election? or with your wife and family?   
Or with your mother and sisters? or in womanly housework? or the beautiful
   maternal cares?   
—These also flow onward to others—you and I flow onward, 
But in due time, you and I shall take less interest in them.   
   
Your farm, profits, crops,—to think how engross'd you are!   
To think there will still be farms, profits, crops—yet for you, of
   what avail?   
   
6

What will be, will be well—for what is, is well,   
To take interest is well, and not to take interest shall be well.
   
The sky continues beautiful,   
The pleasure of men with women shall never be sated, nor the pleasure of
   women with men, nor the pleasure from poems,   
The domestic joys, the daily housework or business, the building of
   houses—these are not phantasms—they have weight, form,
   location;   
Farms, profits, crops, markets, wages, government, are none of them
   phantasms,   
The difference between sin and goodness is no delusion,
The earth is not an echo—man and his life, and all the things of
   his life, are well-consider'd.   
   
You are not thrown to the winds—you gather certainly and safely
   around yourself;   
Yourself! Yourself! Yourself, forever and ever!   
   
7

It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and
   father—it is to identify you;   
It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided;
Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form'd in you,   
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.   
   
The threads that were spun are gather'd, the weft crosses the warp,
   the pattern is systematic.   
   
The preparations have every one been justified,   
The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments—the
   baton has given the signal.
   
The guest that was coming—he waited long, for reasons—he
   is now housed,   
He is one of those who are beautiful and happy—he is one of
   those that to look upon and be with is enough.   
   
The law of the past cannot be eluded,   
The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,   
The law of the living cannot be eluded—it is eternal,
The law of promotion and transformation cannot be eluded,   
The law of heroes and good-doers cannot be eluded,   
The law of drunkards, informers, mean persons—not one iota thereof
   can be eluded.   
   
8

Slow moving and black lines go ceaselessly over the earth,   
Northerner goes carried, and Southerner goes carried, and they on the
   Atlantic side, and they on the Pacific, and they between, and all
   through the Mississippi country, and all over the earth.
   
The great masters and kosmos are well as they go—the heroes and
   good-doers are well,   
The known leaders and inventors, and the rich owners and pious and
   distinguish'd, may be well,   
But there is more account than that—there is strict account
   of all.   
   
The interminable hordes of the ignorant and wicked are not nothing,   
The barbarians of Africa and Asia are not nothing,
The common people of Europe are not nothing—the American
   aborigines are not nothing,   
The infected in the immigrant hospital are not nothing—the
   murderer or mean person is not nothing,   
The perpetual successions of shallow people are not nothing as
   they go,   
The lowest prostitute is not nothing—the mocker of religion
   is not nothing as he goes.   
   
9

Of and in all these things,
I have dream'd that we are not to be changed so much, nor the law
   of us changed,   
I have dream'd that heroes and good-doers shall be under the present
   and past law,   
And that murderers, drunkards, liars, shall be under the present
   and past law,   
For I have dream'd that the law they are under now is enough.   
   
If otherwise, all came but to ashes of dung,
If maggots and rats ended us, then Alarum! for we are betray'd!   
Then indeed suspicion of death.   
   
Do you suspect death? If I were to suspect death, I should die
   now,   
Do you think I could walk pleasantly and well-suited toward
   annihilation?   
   
10

Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,
Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,   
The whole universe indicates that it is good,   
The past and the present indicate that it is good.   
   
How beautiful and perfect are the animals!   
How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!
   
What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just
   as perfect,   
The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable
   fluids are perfect;   
Slowly and surely they have pass'd on to this, and slowly and surely
   they yet pass on.   
   
11

I swear I think now that everything without exception has an
   eternal Soul!   
The trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have!
   the animals!
   
I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!   
That the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is
   for it, and the cohering is for it;   
And all preparation is for it! and identity is for it! and life
   and materials are altogether for it!

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
Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of
   dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your 
   feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners, 
   troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me,
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
poem
The words of the true poems give you more than poems,   
They give you to form for yourself, poems, religions, politics,
   war, peace, behavior, histories, essays, romances, and everything else,   
They balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes,
They do not seek beauty—they are sought,   
Forever