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Poets.org Guide to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Year

2000

Type

Online Resources
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Reading Guide

Download the entire Walt Whitman Reading Guide as an Adobe Acrobat pdf file.

Introduction to Leaves of Grass 

On July 4, 2005, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of what is possibly the greatest book of American poetry ever written. In a celebratory article in the New York Sun, poet J. D. McClatchy calls Walt Whitman’s vision "mystical" and "too uncanny to have resulted from mere literary musings." McClatchy writes, "No one has been able to adequately describe how Walter Whitman came to write his book. Certainly nothing in his past could have predicted it." By some fortunate conversion of mysticism, talent, and singular vision of humanity, in 1855, Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, a slim volume consisting of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He designed the cover, and typeset and paid for the printing of the book himself. Well-known poems in the 1855 edition include "I Sing the Body Electric," "The Sleepers," and "Song of Myself," a long poem in fifty-two sections, which is considered by many to be his masterpiece. It contains such notable lines as "I am large, I contain multitudes" and "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."

Upon publication, he sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised it so highly that Whitman reprinted the letter in subsequent editions—without obtaining Emerson's permission. The letter from Emerson included the now famous line: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

A year later, in 1856, Whitman released a second edition of the book with a total of thirty-three poems. Over the course of his life, Whitman continued to rework and enlarge the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. The version left in 1892, at the time of his death, contained 383 poems, in fourteen sprawling sections: "Inscriptions," "Children of Adam," "Calamus," "Birds of Passage," "Sea-Drift," "By the Roadside," "Drum Taps," "Memories of President Lincoln," "Autumn Rivulets," "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "From Noon to Starry Night," "Songs of Parting," "First Annex: Sands at Seventy," and "Second Annex: Good-bye My Fancy." Each section is self-contained, as if it were a book in itself. Famous poems from the "Deathbed" edition include two poems written to memorialize President Lincoln: "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!" as well as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," and "America," which is the poem that Whitman chose to record lines from in his own voice. A 36-second clip of this poem, recorded on a wax cylinder, is available online at the Whitman archive.

Whitman's great subject was America, but he wrote on an expansive variety of smaller subjects to accomplish the task of capturing the essence of this country. Some of his many subjects included slavery, democracy, the processes of reading and writing, the various occupations and types of work, the American landscape, the sea, the natural world, the Civil War, education, aging, death and immortality, poverty, romantic love, spirituality, and social change. "I Hear America Singing" is one of Whitman's most beloved poems, and is an excellent example of how he uses these disparate subjects to create an inclusive portrait of America:

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it
     should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank
     or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work,
     or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his
     boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat
     deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the
     hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's, on his way
     in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at
     sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the
     young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
     washing, each singing what belongs to her, and
     to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—at night, the
     party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious
     songs.

Whitman's greatest legacy is his invention of a truly American free verse. His groundbreaking, open, inclusive, and optimistic poems are written in long, sprawling lines and span an astonishing variety of subject matter and points of view—embodying the democratic spirit of his new America. He uses a number of literary devices to accomplish his work. Although written in free verse, meaning that it is not strictly metered or rhymed, sections of Leaves of Grass approach iambic meter, which is the same meter as in a traditional sonnet (as in, "Come live with me and be my love"). Since iambics closely mimic the patterns of natural speech and are pleasing to the ear, Whitman used them for sections of his poems, without exclusively writing metered verse. Whitman's "catalogs," or lists, are used in many of his poems to indicate the breadth of types of people, situation, or objects in a particular poem. Whitman's mastery of the catalog has caused critics to praise his endless generative powers, his seeming ability to cycle through hundreds of images while avoiding repetition and producing astounding variety and newness. Anaphora is a literary device used by Whitman which employs the repetition of a first word in each phrase; for example, each line will begin with "and." Whitman uses anaphora to mimic biblical syntax and give his work a weighty, epic feeling, but also to create the hypnotic rhythms that take the place of more formal verse. Whitman's poetics also rely on careful control of the indicative and imperative moods (described in a recommended essay by Galway Kinnell; see the Suggested Reading).

The critical and popular response to Leaves of Grass was mixed and bewildered. Leaves of Grass was most harshly criticized because Whitman's free verse didn't fit into the existing British model of poetry, which was a tradition of rhyme, meter, and structure. One critic noted, in an 1855 review in Life Illustrated, "It is like no other book that ever was written, and therefore, the language usually employed in notices of new publications is unavailable in describing it." Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Since I have seen him, I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident." Matthew Arnold wrote, "While you think it is his highest merit that he is so unlike everyone else, to me this seems to be his demerit." In the early 20th century, Ezra Pound expressed his admiration in mixed terms: "[Whitman] is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with the time. He does 'chant the crucial stage' and he is the 'voice triumphant.' He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission." Since then, reactions to Whitman have been at both extremes: his book has been banned for sensuality one decade, and then praised as the cornerstone of American poetics the next. With the upcoming 150th anniversary, America's poets and critics have found unmediated love for our most American poet, the man who came to shape our ideas of nationhood, democracy, and freedom.