Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the first great American poet and a significant contributor to the country’s emerging literary voice. His works were especially influential in the pioneering of free verse, a poetic form that abandoned strict meter and rhyme schemes in favor of more irregular, variable structures. Free verse became a favorite of twentieth-century poets and is still in wide use today.
Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, where he worked as a teacher and journalist, taking advantage of New York City’s cultural offerings, especially the theater. In his late twenties, he traveled through the Mississippi River region for severl months, getting a feel for the American heartland. When he returned to Brooklyn, he wrote a large body of poems, publishing the first edition of his collection, Leaves of Grass (1855), on his own dime.
Leaves of Grass is an exuberant work, filled with poems celebrating democracy, brotherhood, the American landscape, and the human body. Due to its occasional racy physical descriptions and its undercurrent of ambiguous or even overtly gay sexuality, many decried the work as obscene. The collection’s most famous poem is its first, “Song of Myself,” which sets the tone of the entire work from its opening lines:
I celebrat myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born her of parents born her from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not til death.
Leaves of Grass displays many hallmarks of transcendentalism, which thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau was sweeping American artistic circles at the time. Originating in New England, transcendentalism was an optimistic intellectual philosophy that emphasized individuality, self-reliance, and the pursuit of a spiritual purity that trascended the concerns of the everyday world.
Whitman revised Leaves of Grass repeatedly over his career, adding new poems and editing existing ones, culminating in the authoritative deathbed edition that appeared in 1892. Whitman’s poems gradually become more serious, reflecting his deep sadness about the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His heartbreaking elegy to Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (written 1865-1866), ranks among his finest poems.