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(37) Walt Whitman and his Poetic Sequence.

A m e r i c a n  R e n a i s s a n c e

[See under "34 N. Hawthorne..."]


W a l t  W h i t m a n  ( 1 8 1 9 – 9 2 )

L i f e :

- apprenticed in a printing shop (<=> B. Franklin, M. Twain, and W. D. Howells) = the poor-boy’s college > acquainted with miscellaneous lit. and intellectual culture

- worked as a typesetter, schoolteacher, newsp ed., free-lance journalist, storekeeper, and house-builder

- studied science, art, philos., linguistics, esp. the Am. vernacular, and R. W. Emerson’s gospel of self-reliance and individualism

- grand opera released his emotions and helped free him from conventional forms and meters of his earliest conventional poems, short stories, and sketches

W o r k :

- a bridge figure connecting the era of N. Hawthorne and H. D. Thoreau to that of M. Twain and H. James

- pointed to the open road of modernist form, vision, and experiment

- worshipped boldness, contradiction, and change, shocked with his candour about sexuality

- created a radical poetry voicing a radical consciousness: the most ardent of nationalists of the ‘democratic America’

< R. W. Emerson’s “The Poet”:

‘I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. We do not with sufficient plainness or sufficient profoundness address ourselves to life...We have yet had no genius in Am., with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods...’

‘Poet as a seer and namer of things: makes sense of the world. The poet gives power to things which ‘makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes and tongues into every dumb and inanimate object.’

‘Through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform; that within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form.’

L e a v e s  o f  G r a s s ,  1 s t  e d i t i o n  (1855):

- the cover did not incl. his name, revealed his identity only when stating: ‘Walt Whitman, An American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly, fleshy and sensual.’

- incl. 12 untitled poems = at 1st glance clusters of prose sentences set up like Bible verses

- intended it to be a ‘new Bible’ for the new age of democracy and science

- democratic both in subject matter and language

< the neo-Epicurean concept of relig. = the enemy of natural human pleasure

- psychological complexity

- tenderness twd all people, intense and explicit sexuality

- master strokes of comedy

- common language to reach a communion, to connect the self with another individual

x but: also obscure, foreign, and invented words to prove his statues of an individual


- in form of an untitled essay

- punctuated by sets of what looked like ellipses

- written in an oracular tone with a sweeping message

< R. W. Emerson’s “The Poet”

- conc. with the sort of poet Am. required and the sort of poetry he would write to:

(a) incorporate past beliefs into newer ones

(b) incarnate the Am. geography, occupations, and the people themselves in a new transcendent poetic form

(c) tie poetry to the veritable knowledge [= science]

(d) replace the priest as a servant to the people

(e) use both new forms and subject matters

=> content: refuses the ‘graveyard school’ and didactic poetry in favour of ‘genuiness’ = respect for the way things really are

=> form: refuses the uniformity of stanza pattern and the primary role of rhyme

“Song of Myself”:

- orig. untitled >> “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” >> “Walt Whitman” >> “Song of Myself”

- poet as a seer and namer of things: Walt Whitman, the specific individual, becomes the abstract myself

=> the poetry springs from the self

- mingles poetic meditation, biography, and sermon

- resembles the epic natural speech

- explores the possibilities of communion btw individuals

- interested in astronomy > cosmic concepts

- celebrated by R. W. Emerson in his famous private letter: later used by W. without permission as a promotional material

L e a v e s  o f  G r a s s ,  n e x t  e d i t i o n s :

> “Calamus”: treats the ‘manly love’ or ‘the love of comrades’

> “Children of Adam”: treats the heterosexual love

> “Drum-Taps”: treats the Civil War

> “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: mourns the death of Abraham Lincoln

> “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”

- also incl. the individual shorter / longer poems: “A Woman Waits for Me”, “I Sing the Body Electric”, “The City Dead-House”, “There Was a Child Went Forth”, “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d”

P r o s e :

Franklin Evans: an early novel about the evils of drink; modelled on his depressed father ‘addicted to alcohol’

Democratic Vistas (1871): a mature essay on the Am. society and ideals

Specimen Days (1882): a loosely structured autobiog. focusing on the Civil War


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Peprník, Michal. Semináře: Americká literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.


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