Whitman celebrates the common man by creating a unified, overarching concept of the self that applies to individuals as well. Whitman often casts himself as the main character in his poems, but the Walt Whitman he refers to is only partially representative of Whitman's own opinions and experiences. He also uses "I" (or himself) to represent the archetypal American man. This technique, known as "an all-powerful I," allows Whitman to draw all Americans into a unified identity with the poet himself as the figurehead. The idea of the Democratic Self is common in the work of Transcendentalist writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The ideology of individualism is very prevalent in Whitman's work. This concept thrived in America during the early nineteenth century - a democratic response to the new class of industrial wage-workers. Like Whitman, many powerful thinkers, politicians, and writers encouraged everyday Americans to exercise self-ownership and value original thought. Whitman's poetry often addresses the role of the individual within a collective society while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of self expression.
Democratic Nature of Poetry
Whitman saw his poems as more than words on a page - he frequently points out the democratic power of poetry. He felt that form called for vocalization and sharing rather than private, silent consumption of the words - he wrote poetry that he intended to be spoken aloud. In addition to writing inherently communal poetry, he used the medium to celebrate the struggles of the common man. He felt that both the form and the content of his work could sow the democratic spirit in his readers' hearts and minds.
The Body and Soul
Whitman emphasizes the connection between the body and the soul repeatedly in his poetry. According to Whitman, the human soul consists of two parts - mind and body. The body is the vessel through which the soul experiences the world, and is therefore sacred. Whitman does not search for divinity within abstract concepts but rather, he finds God in nature and in the human body.
The Natural World
Walt Whitman often draws his readers' attention to the everyday miracles of the natural world. He believed that nature facilitated connections between human beings over time, distance, and superficial differences. All human beings, no matter who they are or where they are from, interact with the same elements of nature - the water under a boat or the grass growing around a grave. Whitman portrays nature as all powerful because it can form a uniting bridge across any chasm - ideological or physical.
Whitman's career coincided with the Civil War. Therefore, many of his poems address themes of war and the loss of humanity that results from physical conflict. Although Whitman was a patriotic man, he was also a pacifist. He believed that war was useless and that fighting was never an effective solution. He worked as a nurse during the Civil War and during that time, he developed many personal relationships with wounded soldiers. He felt that it was his personal responsibility to humanize these brave individuals and honor their sacrifice. "Ashes of Soldiers," in particular, was inspired by soldiers that Whitman met during the war. Through the war was over, he wanted his readers to pause their celebrations and remember the individuals who enabled the victory.
Whitman's fascination with the human body drove him to explore themes of both romantic and sexual love in his poetry. Whitman believed that humans should never be ashamed of their physical desires, because the human body is a sacred vessel of the soul. Whitman wrote more freely about eroticism and sex than most of his contemporaries. As a result, poems like "I Sing the Body Electric" sparked controversy within the public and some of the more conservative literary critics of Whitman's era.
Walt Whitman: Poems Questions and Answers
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