Walt Whitman was born in New York in 1819, from a working-class family. He had a little formal education because at the age of 11 he started to work and then he became a printer’s apprentice for a local newspaper. When he was 30 he travelled from New York to New Orleans and this experience brought him in touch with his country and its inhabitants. During this period he read the Bible, Dante, Hegel and Shakespeare acquiring an eccentric self-education.
- In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of his most famous work Leaves of Grass contains 12 poems about his development as a poet and his experience of the American land; nine editions followed containing new poems.
During the Civil War he devoted himself to visiting the soldiers in the army hospitals, believing in the value of democracy. The fourth edition of his masterpiece contained poems about Civil War and President Lincoln’s death. He died in 1892.
Whitman was especially appreciated by the Aesthetic Movement and he is generally regarded as the father of American poetry.
Leaves of Grass can be regarded not as a collection of poems, but as a life-long poem because Whitman continued to revise and expand it throughout his life. Writing this poem he never lost a transcendental sense of life and of the unity of the all things, therefore he rejected the traditional forms of 19th century poetry because it imposed rigidity and completeness upon the reality.
Whitman’s poetry is characterized by a strong sense of optimism for the future of American nation. In fact he celebrated his country in all its variety, to him America represented the expression of the idea of democracy and the incarnation of the “American dream” in which he always believed.
Another main theme is Whitman himself, his task, as a poet, to give voice to the common man. He also deals with physical love: the theme of sex is developed with directness.
What Whitman valued most was the dignity of the individual, conceived as the unity of body and soul.
In another poem, Song of my self, Whitman divided is being into three: myself (Whitman’s poetic personality), the real me (his inner personality) and my soul (an enigma) / the author knows only the first two sides of the mind, the last one is an enigma rather like the soul of America.
Whitman rejected rhymes and regular lines with a fixe number of syllables in favor of long lines where rhyme is naturally determined by the thought expressed. In fact Leaves of Grass is written in free and long verse and proceed by accumulation and addition. His language is considered new and original because he mixes dialect and common speech with a scientific and philosophic vocabulary. Finally he avoids similes and metaphors because, according to him, the poet’s aim is not to evoke but to celebrate, in his case to celebrate America.
- O Captain, my Captain! (themes: individualism / celebration of the work of common people who is trying to built a better society and bring the American dream to life)
- I hear America singing (themes: importance of the figure and the actions of Abraham Lincoln)