Is Whitman more concerned with life or with death in his poetry?
One cannot say if Whitman was more concerned with life or with death since he holds each state in equality. It is possible to say that Whitman understood being as a cyclical process from which one was created from the natural world, lived in body and spirit, which then returned to its natural state. Death, then, was simply a phase of being and, in Whitman's words, was often luckier than a state of physical and spiritual duality.
Describe Whitman's vision of patriotism.
For Whitman, patriotism was a collective affair of the American people. Through patriotism, individual Americans, concentrating on their individual lives, were bound together in a collective spirit. Whitman saw this most powerfully during the Civil War. In "Drum Taps," he describes the scene of a patriotic parade in New York in which wounded soldiers march through the streets. The spirit of New York melds with this patriotic military spirit to embody what is best in the American mindset.
Discuss Whitman's nuanced understanding of male erotic love.
Whitman was often criticized during his lifetime for the depictions of homosexuality and erotic love in his poetry. "Calamus," with its depictions of intense male bonding and friendship, was especially shocking to much of Whitman's audience. It is not possible, however, to say that Whitman was extolling a particular erotic lifestyle. Whitman understood masculine sexuality as a force to bond men together. Eroticism was a powerful emotion and one that Whitman felt could not be excluded from any relationship, whether male or female. For Whitman, to deny the sexuality between two close friends was to deny an essential part of their being.
Whitman has been known as the "First Poet of Democracy." Explain this name.
Whitman began seriously writing poetry only a generation after the Revolutionary War created the United States. In the democratic process, Whitman saw unparalleled, if unrealized, genius. He was one of the first artists to be able to step back and observe the flowering of the democratic state, the way in which it created social and economic growth, and the way in which it created a new kind of citizen. Whitman understood this spirit better than outside observers such as de Tocqueville because he admittedly was a part of it.
Discuss Whitman's understanding of individuality vs. collectivity in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
Whitman alternately deals with themes of individuality and collectivity throughout Leaves of Grass, but in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he seeks to understand both in the context of the other. As individuals, he writes, the people of New York approach the ferry with their own perspectives and preparations for the journey ahead, yet they cannot help but be joined together on the passage across the river. They see the same sights and take part in the same journey. It is not only these living souls that journey, however, but also the souls of those that have journeyed in the past and will journey in the future. For Whitman, the collective population is not just those living and breathing in New York, but all of those who have called New York their home.
Discuss Whitman's symbolism of the pastoral and the urban.
Whitman held a love for both the natural and pastoral landscape of his youth, as well as the bustling urban center of his adulthood. Paumanok, or Long Island, becomes the symbol of the pastoral in Leaves of Grass. This is where the sea and the woods and the leaves make their homes in their natural and wild habitats. There is an intense spirituality to this scene as it invites the individual to commune with nature and with the soul. New York, or Mannahatta, is not simply a physical urban space but also a symbol of the collective American population. There is a spirit in New York of both individuality - those that labor for their own freedom and prosperity - but also for collective patriotism and advancement. New York was becoming America's urban center during Whitman's lifetime, and in the city Whitman saw all of the potential and failings of American society.
How would you describe the identity of the main character in Leaves of Grass?
The main character in Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman, himself. It is a mistake, however, to read the book as autobiographical, however. While many of the poems are Whitman's own reflections and thoughts regarding personal experiences, Whitman also writes as a double character. The "I" of the book is also meant to represent the people of America, and in some cases, the people of all the world. Whitman seeks to chronicle the common existence of the people of the United States. Thus, his song is a song for all people.
Discuss Whitman's conception of body and soul.
Whitman's conception of body and soul is the focus of his poem "I Sing the Body Electric." In this poem, Whitman asks, "And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? / And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?" Whitman does not see a strict separation, or dualism, between body and soul. In this poem, Whitman seeks to understand how one could conceptualize the soul without the body and vice versa. Body and soul must be a part of the other for a person to truly be alive.
Why do you think Whitman's poetic style was so controversial during his day?
Whitman broke form with the American poets of the eighteenth century by using free verse and disregarding the structure and strictures of nineteenth century poetry. Many American poets of Whitman's day continued to use the diction and form inherited from European Romantics. Whitman, however, sought to create a form that would mirror the subjects in which he was engaged - freedom, spirituality, sexuality, and the ever changing nature of the world. Whitman disregarded rhyme and meter and created his own rhythms. He often created words to fit a meaning he already had in mind. Just as the American spirit sought to break free from its historical context, so too did Whitman seek to break free from poetic history in order to create a new song for a new land.
Do you believe that the structure of Leaves of Grass, the way the book is assembled, is important for its meaning?
Whitman went through many variations and editions of Leaves of Grass and few of the poems published in his 1891 "Deathbed" edition remained in the same form in which they were originally published. While many works of poetry are organized in a sequential order so as to show the poet's progression of thought, Whitman purposefully randomized the order of his poems. He did this in order to mirror the ever changing landscape of the individual and the collective population. Just as a person may grow and regress in their beliefs or emotions, so too does Whitman show that his poetry can be as random as the thoughts and feelings of the common person. This also mirrors the progression and regression of democracy in the nation. Though Whitman saw great promise in American democracy, he also recognized its great faults. His poetry reflections this: he can be thoroughly proud and patriotic in one poem, while disgusted and frustrated with the intolerance and injustice he sees around him in the next.