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Walt Whitman as a Poet

Whitman as a Poet

To read Whitman was to know a man who made himself out to be now visionary, now sage, now prophet often all three at one” (Pearce) Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the greatest of the American bards has been acknowledged as the most orginal and stimulating of the poets of the world. Though the greatness of the poet was well sensed by Emerson in the very first edition of his ‘Leaves of Grass’ but there were many others who challenged and questioned his poetic genius. But as fragrance of a flower can not be kept hidden so spread the fame of the artist and gradually all had ever produced. “Every aspect of Whitman’s poetry breathes newness and strangeness. If the form of Whitman’s poetry seemed strange to readers in 19th century America, the contents came as even more of a bombshell. Never before in American had so many revolutionary ideas been given expression.” (A.K. Ganguli)

Works of Walt Whitman

For Whitman the beginning of the muse came in the from of ‘Leaves of Grass’ published in 1855. This edition was only a thin volume of only twelve poems. But this book grew with each new edition. The second edition published in 1856 was considerably larger and contained thirty two poem (other than the ones published in the first edition). A still larger edition came out in 1860 and Whitman kept on working hard to refine his art. Several times during his life time he went on revising this volume, reissuing it with additions and alterations. In all he brought out nine editions of the book (in 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881-82, 1888 and the death bed edition in 1891–92.) Besides these editions, the other poetic works composed by Whitman were Drum Taps (1865), Passage of India (1871), After All Not To Create Only (1871), As A Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872) Two Rivulets (1876), November Boughs (1888) and Good Bye My Fancy (1891). He also wrote many essays, notes and studies which included ‘Democratic Vistas (1871), Memoranda During The War (1875—76), Specimen Days and Collect (1882–1883), Complete Prose Works (1882), An American Primer (published posthumously in 1904.) The list of the collections of letters that he wrote and journals that he contributed to is also very long. It includes the names of ‘Calamus, edited by Richard M. Bucke (1897), ‘The Wound Dresser’ edited by Richard M. Bucke (1898) ‘Letters written by Walt Whitman to His Mother’ (1.866-1872) edited by Thomas B. Harned (1902), Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada edited by William Kennedy (1904) “The Letters of Ann Gilchrist And Walt Whitman’ edited by Thomas. B. Harned (1918). He also wrote one novel in 1842 namely” Franklin Evens’ and wrote a collection of short stories. The Hard Breed And Other Stories’ which was published in 1927. But it is as a poet that he is basically remembered. The salient features of Whitman’s poetic genius are discussed below-

  1. Influence of the Exiting Literary Trends-

    Whitman’s poetry grew partly from the literary trends in 19h century America and partly from his personal convictions on the nature and function of poetry. The period 1829-1860 is styled the period of American Renaissance or American Romanticism. During this period American poetry found itself to some extent due to the impact of English Romanticism. Several facts of English Romanticism which were the predominant features of American Romanticism too are clearly visible in the poetry of Whitman. The chief among them are-emphasis upon the inclusion of the entire range of human emotions, liberation of imagination from the fetters of reason, individualism democratic inclinations, interest in nature-transcendentalism and mysticism subjectivism, greater freedom in versification, the use of language of daily conversation, suggestiveness in language and so on.

  2. Whitman’s Conception of Poet and Poetry-

    In the preface to 1855 edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ Whitman has explained his conception of poet and poetry. A poet, he says much be a lover of nature and universe and should draw his material from these sources only. He should have a comic vision and must be a seer and uniter of the past present and future in harmonious sequence. He should be interested in all the subjects and must find some spiritual meaning in the ordinary and physical facts. Poetry, according to him is a spontaneous composition. It must represent reality and science and democracy must provide the poet’s frame of reference. Poetry demands an active and participating audience. Poetry must play a vital role in the life of an individual and in that of the nation.

  3. His Concept of Democracy-

    Walt Whitman has been justly called “The Prophet of Democracy” “The Seer of Cosmic Consciousness” and “The Bard of American Democracy”. One of his admirers exclaimed, “He is Democracy.” Burke and Burroughs called the ‘Leaves- “the Bible of Democracy.” He had a pragmatic and earth bound conception of democracy and saw in it possibilities of universal peace, toleration and brotherhood. The future hope for the mankind lies according to him—”………in Democracy-It is the life of one man or one woman today-the average man of today.” Thoreau wrote after reading ‘Leaves of Grass‘ — “Whitman is apparently the greatest democrat the world has seen. Certainly among democratic poets there is not another of his stature.”

  4. Humanitarian Note-

    Whitman’s poetry is pervaded by the spirit of humanitarianism. The poet exhibits an unbounded love for the whole humanity and freely embraces all But the humanitarian note found in the poetry of Whitman is not a sentimental creed as it generally is with poets and philosophers. He translated his humanitarianism into active love and service and frequently visited and nursed the wounded soldiers during the Civil War. He did not recognize any distinctions of caste, colour or creed and displayed a sympathy for all the underdogs of society. Whitman’s humanitarianism embraced the world of animals also. Infact he admired animals more than ever convetous, quarrelsome and wrangling human beings.

  5. An Egotist-

    Many critics have raised an objection against Whitman and that is that he is one of the greatest egotists in Literary history. It is very surprising because Whitman was never tried of asserting the common bonds of humanity. Actually the first person pronoun ‘I in Whitman’s poetry do not stand for Walt Whitman alone. It symbolizes man in his universality. Charles Feidelson says that “the ‘I of Whitman’s poem speaks the world that he sees and sees the world that he speaks and does this becoming the reality of his vision and of his words, in which the reader also participates,” His I is the incarnation of the universal-“It is not the earth it is not America who is so great, It is ‘I who am great or to be great.”

  6. Treatment of Love and Sex-

    Whitman called his ‘Leaves of Grass’ “the song of sex. He recognized the legitimate claims of the body and considered the sexual relationship as blessed with divine grace. He talks about the human body, sexual organs and activities very freely and frankly. This fact has shocked many of his critics who are further horrified at the sanction given by Whitman to homosexuality. His poetry also exhibits ‘auto love.’ But all these type of love ultimately lead to mystical experiences and get merged into his over powering feeling of universal love.

  7. His Mysticism-

    Whitman himself said, “No one will get at my verses who insist upon viewing them as a literary performance or as animing mainly towards art or aestheticism.” His essential aim in poetry was to discover the relationship between the material and the spiritual, between the temporal and the eternal.

  8. Interest in the theme of Death-

    Whitman exhibits himself highly interested in solving the riddle of death. He has firm faith in immortality so he is able to ponder over the mystery of death without fear. He openly professes, “The smallest sprout shows that there is really no death” and “Grass is the development of the grave Life can never die” and “I swear I think there is nothing but immortality” and “I know I am deathless” and so on.

  9. His Symbolism—

    Whitman’s poetry is highly symbolic. His symbols have a significance different from traditional symbols because of the poet’s changed stand point. He himself observed, “One main contrast of the ideas behind every page of my verses compared with page of my verses compared with established poems, is their different relative attitude towards God, towards the objective, universe and still more (by reflection, confession, assumption etc.) the quite changed attitude of the ego, the one chanting or talking towards himself and towards his fellow humanity.” The major symbols used by Whitman include grass, I sea voyage, elemental objects and many other. But Whitman’s symbolism must be understood in a much wider sense than the one normally associated with it. His symbols by their easy intelligibility and their vastness can create a far mystical vision of the world for the common man than the subjective symbols used by other symbolists.

  10. Impact of Hindu Thought-

    In his search for spiritual truth, Whitman turned eastward and found shelter in the Vedantic philosophy of India. He was initiated into the Hindu thought by Emerson and Thoreau. We find a marked impact of the Upanishads and the Bhagwat-Gita on his poetry. He has a firm faith in the theory of Karma and sometimes displays a faith in the theory of reincarnation and rebirth. Swami Vivekananda paid a real tribute to this aspect of Whitman’s per senility when he called him “the Sanyasin of America. His poetry is permeated by a certain optimism, a joy that is the result of the realization of his own self. This realization is very much in accordance with the Hindu concept.

  11. His Craftsmanship-

    Walt Whitman has been very justly a master of words and sounds” and the most sonorous poetic voice” in the literary world. He liberated poetry form the bondages of established rules, customs and conventions such as rhyme metre etc. as he expresses “Rhymes and rhymers pass away, distilled from poems pass away.” He naturalized conventional poetic language and style. He propounded a theory that the language of daily conversation must be used in poetry and this language must welcome words form any or every source. Whitman’s style is very uneven because of his wide ranging all inclusive vocabulary and his scant respect for traditional syntax. It is as erratic, as chameleon like as his swift changing moods and embraces the extremes of genuine simplicity and childish triviality. Whitman had a life long interest in the art of oratory and the impact of rhetoric is very clearly visible in his poetry.

Whitman was pre-occupied with the idea of revolt against traditional poetry so he has even argued against the “barriers of form between prose and poetry” He not only disapproved of rhyme but also of the lilt of regular rhythmical pattern. The regular stanza forms have no place in Whitman’s poetry but Whitman’s attitude towards the rhythm of poetry is far different from that of most poets-even modern poets practicing free verse. Phonology is an important component of his style. It is the phonology which actively produces music melody and rhythm and makes his poetry echoing sounding and reflective. It is beyond doubt that “his “Leaves of Grass’ was a deliberate challenge to the conventional ideas of what is beautiful and appropriate in verse” (Salincourt).

Whitman did not get universal recognition. It was only later on that people came to realize his greatness. His influence on future generation, however has been tremendous. His example led to the admittance of all topics ugly as well as well beautiful physical as well as spiritual. The loose form the free verse the linguistic audacities the long catalogues and the detailed lists of Whitman’s poetry have all been widely imitated. In the words of D.H. Lawrence-“Whitman the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer poets. In Europe the would be pioneer are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him none. His wide strange camp at the end of the great high road. And lots of new little poets camping on Whitman’s camping ground. But none going really beyond.”

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