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Walt(er) Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt(er) Whitman (1819-1892)
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Walt(er) Whitman (1819-1892)

American poet, journalist and essayist, best known for LEAVES OF GRASS (1855), which was occasionally banned, and the poems 'I Sing the Body Electric' and 'Song of Myself.' Whitman incorporated natural speech rhythms into poetry. He disregarded metre, but the overall effect has a melodic character. Harold Bloom has stated in The Western Canon (1994) that "no Western poet, in the past century and half, not even Browning, or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson."

"Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and

----knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

And that all men ever born are also my brothers... and the

----women my sisters and lovers."

(from 'Song of Myself')

Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, as the son of a Quaker carpenter. Whitman's mother was descended from Dutch farmers. In Whitman's childhood there were slaves employed upon the farm. Whitman was early filled with a love of nature. He read classics in his youth and was inspired from such writers as Goethe, Hegel, Carlyle and Emerson. Whitman left school early to become a printer's apprentice. He also worked as a teacher and journeyman printer in 1835. After that he held a great variety of jobs while writing and editing for several periodicals, The Brooklyn Eagle from 1846 to 1848 and The Brooklyn Times from 1857 to 1858. In between he spent three months on a New Orleans paper, working for his father, and earning his living from undistinguished hack work.

In New York Whitman witnessed the rapid growth of the city and wanted to write a new kind of poetry in tune with the mankind's new faith, hopeful expectations and energy of his days. Another theme in 'Song of Myself' is suffering and death - he identified with Jesus and his fate: "In vain were nails driven through my hands. / I remember my crucifixion and bloody coronation / I remember the mockers and the buffeting insults / The sepulchre and the white linen have yielded me up / I am alive in New York and San Francisco, / Again I tread the streets after two thouand years." (from an early draft) The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in July, 1855 at Whitman's own expense - he also had set the type for it himself - and the poem was about the writer himself. In the same year also appeared Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, another great American epic. The third edition of Leaves of Grass was published during Whitman's wandering years in 1860. It was greeted with warm appreciation, although first his work it did not gain popular success. Ralph Waldo Emerson was among his early admirers and wrote in 1855: "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."

When Whitman wrote the first edition, he knew little or nothing about Indian philosophy, but critics later have recognized Indian ideas expressed in the poems - words from the Sanskrit are used correctly in some of the poems written after 1858. Leaves of Grass also includes a group of poems entitled 'Calamus', which has been taken as reflection of the poet's homosexuality, although according to Whitman they celebrated the 'beautiful and sane affection of man for man'. According to some sources, Whitman had only one abortive atempt at a sexual relationship, presumaly homosexual, in the winter of 1859-60.

During the Civil War Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington. When his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman went there to care for him and also for other Union and Confederate soldiers. The Civil War had its effect on the writer, which is shown in his prose MEMORANDA DURING THE WAR (1875) and in the poems published under the title of DRUM-TAPS in 1865. In SEQUEL TO DRUM.TAPS (1865-66) appeared the great elegy on President Abraham Lincoln, 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd'. Another famous poem published about the death of Lincoln is 'O Captain! My Captain!'.

"Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead."

(from 'O Captain, My Captain')

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