poem index

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

When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
1

When lilacs last in the door-yard 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.   
   
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;   
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.   
   

2

O powerful, western, fallen star!   
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!   
O great star disappear'd! O the black murk that hides the star!   
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!   
   

3

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash'd
   palings,   
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich
   green,   
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume
   strong I love,   
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich
   green,   
A sprig, with its flower, I break.   
   

4

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,   
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.   
   
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 gifted to sing, thou would'st surely die.)
   

5

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,   
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep'd
   from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)   
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes—passing the
   endless grass;   
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the
   dark-brown fields uprising;   
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,   
Night and day journeys a coffin.   
   

6

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,   
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,   
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil'd women,
   standing,   
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,   
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces,
   and the unbared heads,   
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,   
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong
   and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour'd around the coffin,   
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these
   you journey,   
With the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang;   
Here! coffin that slowly passes,   
I give you my sprig of lilac.
   

7

(Nor for you, for one, alone;   
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:   
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O
   sane and sacred death.   
   
All over bouquets of roses,   
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,   
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;   
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,   
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)   
   

8

O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk'd,   
As we walk'd up and down in the dark blue so mystic,   
As we walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,   
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after
   night,   
As you droop'd from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the
   other stars all look'd on;)
As we wander'd together the solemn night, (for something, I know not
   what, kept me from sleep;)   
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you
   went, how full you were of woe;   
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold
   transparent night,   
As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the netherward black of
   the night,   
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad
   orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.   
   

9

Sing on, there in the swamp!   
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your
   call;   
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;   
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain'd me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.   
   

10

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?   
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?   
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?   
   
Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on
   the prairies meeting:   
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,   
I perfume the grave of him I love.   
   

11

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?   
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?   
   
Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,   
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and
   bright,   
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking
   sun, burning, expanding the air;   
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of
   the trees prolific;
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a
   wind-dapple here and there;   
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky,
   and shadows;   
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of
   chimneys,   
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen
   homeward returning.   
   

12

Lo! body and soul! this land!
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides,
   and the ships;   
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in the
   light—Ohio's shores, and flashing Missouri,   
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover'd with grass and corn.   
   
Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;   
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;   
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill'd noon;   
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the stars,   
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.   
   

13

Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the
   bushes;   
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.   
   
Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;   
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.   
   
O liquid, and free, and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!   
You only I hear......yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)   
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.   
   

14

Now while I sat in the day, and look'd forth,   
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring,
   and the farmer preparing his crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and
   forests,   
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb'd winds, and the
   storms;)   
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the
   voices of children and women,   
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail'd,   
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy
   with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its
   meals and minutia of daily usages;   
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb'd, and the cities
   pent—lo! then and there,   
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the
   rest,   
Appear'd the cloud, appear'd the long black trail;   
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.
   

15

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,   
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,   
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of
   companions,   
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,   
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the
   dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.   
   
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me;   
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv'd us comrades three;   
And he sang what seem'd the carol of death, and a verse for him I
   love.   
   
From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,   
Came the carol of the bird.   
   
And the charm of the carol rapt me,   
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;   
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.
   

16

DEATH CAROL.

Come, lovely and soothing Death,   
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,   
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,   
Sooner or later, delicate Death.   
   
Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;   
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!   
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.   
   
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,   
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
   
Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;   
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.   
   
Approach, strong Deliveress!   
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the
   dead,   
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.   
   
From me to thee glad serenades,   
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and
   feastings for thee;   
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are
   fitting,   
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.  155 
   
The night, in silence, under many a star;   
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;   
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,   
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.   
   
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and
   the prairies wide;   
Over the dense-pack'd cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,   
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death! 
   

17

To the tally of my soul,   
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.   
   
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,   
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;   
And I with my comrades there in the night.   
   
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed, 
As to long panoramas of visions.   
  
 
18

I saw askant the armies;   
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;   
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc'd with missiles, I
   saw them,   
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody; 
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in
   silence,)   
And the staffs all splinter'd and broken.   
   
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,   
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;   
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;
But I saw they were not as was thought;   
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer'd not;   
The living remain'd and suffer'd—the mother suffer'd,   
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer'd,   
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd. 
 
  
19

Passing the visions, passing the night;   
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades' hands;   
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my
   soul,   
(Victorious song, death's outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering
   song,   
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding
   the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again
   bursting with joy,   
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,   
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)   
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;   
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
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.   
 
  
20

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;   
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,   
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of
   woe,   
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;   
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,   
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I
   keep—for the dead I loved so well;
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.

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
In paths untrodden,
In the growth by margins of pond-waters,
Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,
From all the standards hitherto publish'd, from the
   pleasures, profits, conformities,
Which too long I was offering to feed my soul,
Clear to me now standards not yet publish'd, clear to me
   that my soul
poem
On the beach at night alone,	 
As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song,	
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future.	 
  
A vast similitude interlocks all,	 
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets	
All
poem
1 

I wander all night in my vision, 
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping, 
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers, 
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory, 
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping. 

How solemn they look there,