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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)

Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand

Whoever you are holding me now in hand,   
Without one thing all will be useless,   
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,   
I am not what you supposed, but far different.   
   
Who is he that would become my follower? 
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?   
   
The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,   
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard,   
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,   
The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon'd, 
Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go your hand from my shoulders,   
Put me down, and depart on your way.   
   
Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,   
Or back of a rock in the open air,   
(For in any roof'd room of a house I emerge not, nor in company, 
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,)   
But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any person for miles around approach unawares,   
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or some quiet island,   
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,   
With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss, 
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.   
   
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,   
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,   
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;   
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
And thus touching you, would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.   
   
But these leaves conning you con at peril,   
For these leaves and me you will not understand,   
They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you,   
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.   
   
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,   
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,   
Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me,   
Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few,) prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps more,    
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at;   
Therefore release me and depart on your way.

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

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain'd!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen'd!
Let the tools remain in the

poem

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

poem

Sounds of the winter too,
Sunshine upon the mountains—many a distant strain
From cheery railroad train—from nearer field, barn, house
The whispering air—even the mute crops, garner’d apples, corn,
Children’s and women’s tones—rhythm of many a farmer and of
      flail,
And old man’s