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About this poet

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Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, on Long Island, New York. He was the second son of Walter Whitman, a house-builder, and Louisa Van Velsor. In the 1820s and 1830s, the family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Long Island and Brooklyn, where Whitman attended the Brooklyn public schools.

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 HomerDanteShakespeare, 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 schoolhouses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent for three months. After witnessing the auctions of enslaved individuals in New Orleans, he returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848 and co-founded a “free soil” newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, which he edited through the next fall. Whitman’s attitudes about race have been described as “unstable and inconsistent.” He did not always side with the abolitionists, yet he celebrated human dignity.

In Brooklyn, he 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-two 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; he ended up staying in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs within 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. After Harlan fired him, he went on to work in the attorney general's office.

In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. A few months later he travelled to Camden, New Jersey, to visit his dying mother at his brother’s house. He ended up staying with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood), which brought him 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 his deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891–92) 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)

This Compost

1

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you?
Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

2

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will
   none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on April 13, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive. This poem is in the public domain.

This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on April 13, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive. 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
Among the men and women the multitude,   
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,   
Acknowledging none else, not parent, wife, husband, brother, child, any nearer than I am,   
Some are baffled, but that one is not—that one knows me.   
   
Ah lover and perfect
poem

You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides

poem
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same