Discuss the role of the human body in Whitman's poetry and its significance in his portrayal of the soul.
Whitman believed that the human body was the physical manifestation of the soul. According to him, the soul used the body as a tool for experiencing the world, so the two are inextricably linked. Because of this, the body is just as sacred as the soul in Whitman's poetry. Unlike many poets of his time, Whitman wrote freely about all aspects of the human body, including sexual desire. In poems like "I Sing the Body Electric," Whitman openly addresses human sensuality, which was uncommon during this time. Whitman also describes the male and female form as equal. Gender equality was also a radical idea in Whitman's time.
Describe the role of patriotism in Whitman's poetry.
Patriotism, American pride, and democracy all figure very prominently into Whitman's poetry. Whitman harbored extremely democratic ideals, and believed that the democratic approach to anything was the best method. He also loved America, as evidenced through patriotic poems such as "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "I Hear America Singing." Whitman is widely considered one of the first truly American poets because of the subject matter of his poems, in which he paints a diverse American landscape and celebrates the common man. In his poems about wartime, he reminds his readers to remember the individual soldiers who gave their lives during the Civil War.
How are Whitman's poems typically structured? Was poetic structure important to Whitman?
"O Captain! My Captain!" is the only Walt Whitman poem that follows a regular meter and rhyme scheme. The rest of them are in free verse - with content presiding over structure. Whitman writes from his heart, not trimming or tailoring his lines. As a result, some lines in his poems are so long that they continue on to the following line. Whitman's style is prose-like because he meant for his poetry to be read aloud. He did not believe in limiting the flow of his poetry, instead expressing his thoughts, ideas, and postulations freely and honestly.
Describe Whitman's use of imagery in his poetry.
Walt Whitman was a very visual poet; he chose each word carefully in order to paint a picture in the reader's mind. His poetry focuses very heavily on nature and the physical world. Whitman believed that the physical world was a source of connection between humans, and he harnesses that power in his poems, like "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and "A child said, 'what is grass?'" Whitman's use of imagery in his poetry reveals his own connection to his environment, and shows how receptive he was to sensory information. He inspires all the senses in his work because he wanted it to be experiential and impactful - beyond words on a page.
How does Whitman incorporate the Civil War into his poetry, and what does his work say about his opinion of war overall?
The Civil War was raging for a good portion of Whitman's career, so many of his poems focus on the conflict, its beginnings, and its bloody aftermath. Whitman viewed war as utterly unnecessary and regrettably catastrophic; he composed poems such as "Ashes of Soldiers" that lamented the human losses that resulted from even a victorious outcome. In addition, Whitman incorporates prominent themes of unity into his poetry; this was especially relevant at this point in history, when America was deeply divided and feelings of national unity were at an all-time low.
What is the significance of Whitman referring to his poems as "songs" and calling what he does "singing" instead of writing?
By likening his poetry to music, Whitman indicates how he wants his readers to experience it. He saw his poems as more than words on a page; he intended his reader to hear them musically - flowing and melodic, just like a song. To him, poetry was akin to music in that it should be heard and not just read. This is evident in "The Voice of the Rain," in which Whitman describes his poems as water that evaporates into the atmosphere when he releases them to the public, and the rain represents the love of his readers and listeners returning to him. It is fitting that Walt Whitman's poetry has been set to music more times than the work of nearly any other contemporary poet.
Discuss critical reception of Walt Whitman and the reasons behind the differing opinions.
Whitman gained a great deal of attention during his career, as his poetry was unconventional during that time period. Some critics and other poets found Whitman's work to be unkempt, rugged, and unruly because he always wrote in free verse without any regard to structure. Another major topic of public debate was the unveiled eroticism in Whitman's work. Whitman believed very strongly in the sanctity of the human body, so he wrote about it explicitly and elicited negative responses from conservative readers and critics. Since then, Whitman's poetry has since been lauded for the very things that readers condemned during Whitman's time. Over time, Whitman has been celebrated for his innovation and courage to break out of the established conventions of poetry.
Describe Whitman's relationship with his readers throughout Leaves of Grass.
Throughout this collection of poems, Whitman often addresses his reader directly. One example of this is "Thou Reader," which appears at the very end of the "Inscriptions" section. In it, Whitman dedicates his poetry to his readers. Because of their shared human experiences, Whitman felt that his readers would relate to many of his feelings and thoughts. As a poet, he did not feel that is his work somehow transcended the masses - he wrote for the common man. Whitman believed his readers were his equals, and often counted himself among them. This stems from Whitman's overarching viewpoint that all humans are connected and bonded - even though superficial differences may often overshadow these inherent similarities.
Discuss the significance of the all-encompassing "I" in Whitman's poetry.
The protagonist in most of Whitman's poems is the all-encompassing "I," which illustrates his belief in the collective self. Whitman supported the expression of individual opinions, but he also emphasized the shared responsibility of all individuals to participate in a democratic collectivity. The "I" allows Whitman to speak for a nation of people in the singular, and present national and collective ideals in a cohesive and unified manner. The "I" represents Whitman's frequent call for unity during a time when his beloved nation was deeply and violently divided.
How does Whitman's work express the poet's opinions on the purpose of life?
According to Whitman, the purpose of life is simply to be alive and to experience living. He explicitly states this belief in the poem "O Me! O Life!". His poetry often describes the simple joys of life. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he describes watching a beautiful sunset during his daily commute. Whitman encourages his readers to live in the present, experience the world, and enjoy existence. He likes to draw his reader's attention to the minute natural details that many tend to ignore - like the water beneath the ferry on a frequent commute or the grass surrounding our feet. Whitman wanted his poetry to forge connections across time and space - between strangers and generations.