Whitman published some of his earliest poetry in the New York Mirror, but it wasn't until years later that he decided to leave his career as a newspaper editor and become a full-time poet. Around 1850, he began to write what would become Leaves of Grass. It was published in 1855 and Whitman continued to revise and edit the collection until his death. The poems in Leaves of Grass were very different from lot of the popular poetry from this time period, which dealt with religious and spiritual themes. Whitman instead chose to write about the human experience and the natural world. Though critics were initially interested in Leaves of Grass, the public soon began to question Whitman's controversial use of sexual themes.
Whitman often referred to current events in his work. He wrote the patriotic poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" during the Civil War. "O Captain! My Captain!" is about the death of Abraham Lincoln and has since become one of Whitman's most famous pieces. In 1865, Whitman published another section of Leaves of Grass titled Drum-Taps, which focuses heavily on themes of war and patriotism. Shortly after the Civil War ended, Whitman revised and published two new editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as a new collection entitled Poems of Walt Whitman. As the years went on, Whitman continued to release new editions of Leaves of Grass, each subsequent edition containing new poetry. In 1891, the year before his death, he prepared a final edition of the collection. Critics have since nicknamed Whitman's final effort the "Deathbed Edition."
Whitman's poetry often deviates from traditional poetic form; his writing often seems more like prose than poetry. Critics often refer to Whitman as "the father of free-verse," even though he did not invent this style — he just popularized it. Whitman used his poetry to reflect on everything happening in the world around him. America was growing and changing, developing its own cultural identity separate from Europe. As one of the first truly American poets, Whitman strayed from the conventional European poetic style. The subject matter of his poetry is extremely diverse and reflective of his rapidly evolving environment.
Despite his varied interests, there are many recurring themes in Whitman's poetry. Whitman often wrote about the human body, celebrating its beauty and its capabilities. He believed that the body was sacred because it enabled the soul to experience the world. Eroticism figures prominently into these poems, as does homoeroticism. Historians believe that Whitman had numerous homosexual relationships during his life. The poems in Whitman's collections also contain many natural images and symbols, some of which are unexpected - like rotting leaves or tufts of straw. Democracy is also a hugely important theme in Whitman's work. Whitman frequently celebrated the idea of democracy because it emphasizes the individual.
There are many different versions of each poem that appears in Leaves of Grass because Whitman published several revisions at different points in his life. Therefore, the editions of some of the poems used in this ClassicNote may not match up exactly with what you are studying. The overarching themes and ideas of each poem, though, are typically consistent throughout all of the editions.