The nineteenth century saw the rise of American Romanticism in poetry and art. Whitman built upon the Romantic and Transcendentalist traditions of writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson. The American Romantics used symbols of the external world ("nature") as representative of of an invisible inner reality. Whitman's work has been grouped with these earlier Romantics since he sought to use natural imagery such as the sea, the road, or personified animals to signify spiritual dimensions of the self and of the world. Whitman's "Song of Myself" is the best example of this element of the work, as the poet attempts to relate the body to the soul, and the physical world to the spiritual.
Whitman's poetry is significant because it is an artistic embodiment of the ideals of democracy, freedom, and revolution; the ideals on which the United States was founded and for which it fought during the Civil War. He recognized that America undertook a unique democratic experiment, one which was not at all certain to succeed. Whitman's poetry, like America's politics, broke the established form and structure. It relied not on tradition but on innovation.
Whitman's poetry idealized traveling, searching, and exploring. This mirrored the American landscape of the nineteenth century. During Whitman's lifetime, the United State grew from 22 states to 44 and acquired most of the territories that would later become the remaining six states. America was a wilderness, and Whitman sought to celebrate what was wild and what was natural about the land and the people that inhabited it. As the country traveled West, so did Whitman's poetry. It was an attempt to encapsulate an American spirit that crossed a vast landscape and was common to all people in the nation.
Individuality vs. Collectivity
In "Song of Myself," Whitman admits that his poetry is inconsistent. He acknowledges that he contradicts himself. The reason, he says, is that "I contain multitudes." Whitman's work embodies two ideals which seem to oppose each other: the first is his notion of the self, the second is his idea of the tribal, or collective, spirit of America. Whitman sings odes to the individual, and lifts up self-discovery as the highest ideal of the individual. But the self, inconsistent on its own, must also battle with the needs of society. It is both physical and spiritual and Whitman attempts to reconcile these differences. This duality, for Whitman, is mystical and mysterious. The speaker is both the individual and the microcosm of society - he contains multitudes.
Whitman also upholds the collectivity of the nation. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is, perhaps, Whitman's best example of the way humanity is connected through a common spiritual unity. This is a unity that the self seeks but that correlates to a common humanity.
The Lyric and the Epic
Leaves of Grass became as famous for its style as for its content when it was first published in the second half of the nineteenth century. Just as his content sought to correlate paradoxical themes, his style also attempted to combine varying understandings of the American poetic form. Specifically, Whitman sought to combine the lyric and the epic. Lyric poetry is traditionally a short poem of reflection. It expresses the thoughts, beliefs, or actions of the writers. The epic, on the other hand, is a celebration of the deeds and adventures of a hero. It often focuses on the physical and real as opposed to the internal.
To combine these two poetic forms, Whitman cast himself as the poem's epic hero. His journey became both a physical journey across the American landscape, and a spiritual journey through his own soul and through nature. As opposed to the epic tradition, Whitman cast himself as a commoner. His epic deeds, as well as the epic deeds of the American people, were not great displays of heroism but simple, common work which extolled the democratic virtue of the new nation.
Unlike American poets such as Longfellow or Dickinson, who wrote chiefly of particular regions and locales, Whitman sought to create poetry on a grander scale. His poems were intended to encompass the spirit of all the States and to find a collectivity between all Americans. Whitman accomplishes this through the glorification of travel. For Whitman, traveling through the United States is not simply a physical act of movement but a spiritual act. Traveling helps him understand his own soul, always moving and striving for the beauty of a higher reality. Travel also helps him to discern the American spirit of democracy that lives within the common folk of his writing. It is a metaphor for the continual act of transformation that Whitman sees in the nation as a whole. Just as Whitman moves between states and regions, so too does democracy advance in different stages and at different speeds throughout the land.
During Whitman's lifetime, the United States grew at an astounding pace, increasing its population fivefold and expanding its territory West. One of the greatest changes during this timewas the rise of industrialism and the growth of cities. Whitman grew up in New York City, spending summers with his family on Long Island where he developed his love of nature. New York plays a central role in Whitman's poetry because it symbolizes America's industrial, economic, and cultural growth during the nineteenth century. For Whitman it is the quintessential American city. Its residents display the best traits of democracy -- forward thinking, industriousness, patriotism, and freedom from history and tradition.
Whitman writes of two New Yorks in Leaves of Grass. The first is the City, or Mannahatta, an original Native American name for the island of Manhattan. This is the urban New York in which all of the residents are bonded together by democratic ideals and industrious advancement. The second is Long Island, or Paumanok. This is the natural and spiritual side of the land. Both sides are in paradox to each other, yet both are found in the same place and are part of the same reality.
Whitman uses the theme of romantic and sexual love to great effect in Leaves of Grass. Many found his frankness on topics of sexuality to be obscene and tasteless, while other critics praised this openness as a new literary way to understand the duality of spirit and body. For Whitman, sex can be understood as both a physical and spiritual love. It is not just a physical act, but a spiritual awakening. This sexuality can be both heterosexual and homosexual. Whitman often uses sexual metaphors to describe the deepest of fraternal relationships. Such relationships, he writes, are rare but when found contain the truest sense of friendship and companionship. This kind of deep love is what Whitman desires for himself and, on a grander scale, for all citizens of democracy. Thus, romantic love is not simply a physical reality, but is instead an ideal to be felt between all people.
Leaves of Grass Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Leaves of Grass is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
There are the obvious pastoral elements to Leaves of Grass. There is a strong nature element that runs through Whitman's work. The title is also a pun on the word grass. Many artists, in Whitman's day, used the word "grass" to represent more minor...