Walt Whitman: The First Modern American Poet Term Paper

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Walt Whitman: The First Modern American Poet

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Following the American Civil War, the poetry of the United States showed signs of becoming much more distinctly American, in style, theme, and content, as the new nation slowly found its own identity, confidence, and soul. Perhaps as part of a national reaction to the difficult and bitter aftermath of the Civil War, American writers began to take America and Americans more seriously, as subject matter for a uniquely American literature. The American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the first of these to embrace uniquely American themes, styles, and literary concerns. Whitman in fact established the first uniquely American voice within poetry, one separate from the mostly pre-Victorian and Victorian -inspired poetic styles, forms, and even themes of earlier American poets. Whitman's open-armed, free-verse celebrations of America's vastness, resources, and opportunities, and its people and possibilities, is distinctly American verse -- that is, for and about America --, and in that way, Whitman was like that of no poet before him. Through examining Whitman's unique poetic voice and personal philosophy of poetry, and also by explicating two sets of Whitman's free-verse poems: first, three of his earliest poems from Leaves of Grass (1855) and then four of his later Civil War poems, written from 1861-1865, all of which moved far beyond British influence, it shall become clear that Walt Whitman was a great innovator of modern American poetry, and one who offered America its first distinct poetic voice.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Walt Whitman: The First Modern American Poet Assignment

Within America before the Civil War, American literature most often closely imitated writing styles, tones and even thematic concerns of both past and present British authors. Before the poetry of Whitman in particular, American poets like Bradstreet, Taylor, Bryant, Wheatley, and others adopted British verse forms and other poetic conventions, shaping them to their own artistic voices and concerns within the New World. In several of Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet's poems that were either to or about her husband or children for example, Bradstreet closely imitated the metaphysical style of John Donne. The expansive, flowing, and exuberant free-verse works of Walt Whitman, which did none of that, may therefore be considered the first truly American poetry, reflecting, as it does, influences, moods, concerns, ways of expression, and social and political movements within American itself, and nowhere else, with a new and unique style and forms. In addition, according to the essay "Walt Whitman and the Development of Leaves of Grass":

When Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass... he believed he was embarking on a personal literary journey of national significance. Setting out to define the American experience, Whitman consciously hoped to answer Ralph

Waldo Emerson's 1843 essay, "The Poet," which called for a truly original national poet, one who would sing of the new country in a new voice. The undertaking required unlimited optimism... Whitman felt confident that the time was ripe and that the people would embrace him. This optimism and confidence resulted largely from his awareness of the tremendous changes in the American literary world that had taken place during his lifetime.

A few of the key societal events and movements in America, within the years of Whitman's adulthood and writing career, included the rise of industrialism and mass migration to the cities; the building and expansion of a transcontinental railroad; widespread westward expansion, and the California Gold Rush. Although Walt Whitman did not write specifically about these events or movements, he nevertheless captured within his work the unique American energy, optimism, zeal, and adventurousness that accompanied those events and times. As Whitman states, in his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass:

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadest doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings unnecessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes... (qtd. In Baym et al. 2080-2081)

Moreover such societal occurrences helped indirectly to shape the tone and content of American literary works in general, as well as the sensibilities, reading tastes and literary preferences of the American public of the time. Whitman in fact wrote specifically of America: its people, its landscape and its beauty and possibilities in expansive free-verse form. Styles, themes, and tones of Whitman's poems also echoed, and celebrated, the exuberant feeling of the new nation.

As Mc Quade et al., further point out, of Whitman and his poetic works:

He fulfilled the promise of Romanticism while pointing to the open road of modernist form, vision, and experiment. His powerful, imperial presence asserts itself in the work of Wallace Stephens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and the generation of Allen Ginsburg... he worshipped boldness, contradiction, and change, shocked contemporaries with his candor about sexuality, and created a radical poetry voicing a radical consciousness. (38)

Philosophically, Whitman was a Transcendentalist, like Emerson, Thoreau, and others of the time who considered the abstract and metaphysical to be more valuable than that which was material or measurable. Within his earlier works, the opening poems of Leaves of Grass in particular, Whitman often expressed an implicit philosophy similar to that of the Emerson Over-soul, or of one big soul of which everyone is a part.

Further, according to "American Transcendentalism 2":

Whitman was devoted to a philosophy which combined pantheism with a strong belief in human action, which unites the human soul with cosmic life but stresses the uniqueness of human personality and human relations. His civil, democratic, human consciousness was rooted in an all-embracing feeling of cosmic solidarity, and he was anxious to avoid any attenuation, and not to be deterred by psychic transmigration to the remotest objects.

Whitman was also a man of the people, and wished to be a people's poet. As he once declared: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (qtd. In Mc Quade et al.) Clearly, even if not within Whitman's own lifetime, that absorption, of both Whitman's artistic vision and his literary works into not only the cannon of American literature but the national psyche as well, has indeed come to pass.

Within Whitman's earlier poetry, the poems "Ones-Self I Sing"; "I Hear America Singing," and "Song of Myself"-- from Whitman's longer poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855), each of the titles refers to either songs or to the act of singing. Within poetry, to "sing" means to celebrate, in verse. In all of these early poems, then, Whitman is in fact "singing," that is, celebrating: first himself; second, the glories and possibilities of America as a nation, and finally, himself not alone, but instead in combination with his past, his present, and all his infinite personal, artistic, and possibilities: within America and all of its infinite possibilities.

Walt Whitman's expansive, unrestrained, free-verse celebrations of himself, America, himself and others within America, and all of America's beauty, vastness, openness, and seemingly endless opportunities and possibilities, make much of Whitman's work seem an elaborate and detailed expression of homage to his country and its people. It is also distinctly, refreshingly, and uniquely American, in its style; tone, and content.

And, like the young nation itself in so many ways, during the time in which Whitman wrote, these three poems from Leaves of Grass are unbridled, exuberant, and optimistic in tone, theme, style, and content. Each poem is also alive with sensory impressions; sensuality, or both.

In "Ones-Self I Sing," for example, the poet "sings" of the "Self," yet also "sings" the words "Democratic" and "En Masse." In America, as Whitman implies, entities like the "Self" and words or phrases such as "Democratic" or "En Masse," are neither contradictory nor oxymoronic: instead, all combinations of "self" and "others" are indeed possible, and in fact, in Whitman's own view and philosophy, they are synchronous. It is the "Modern Man" [and woman, e.g., "the Female equally with the male"] of which Whitman essentially "sings": both himself and others, and about all Americans.

Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing," on the other hand, is a straightforward celebration of America's diversity, or its "varied carols." Here, Whitman mentions American "singers" from all walks of life, each singing his or her varied songs, yet making harmony with the rest, "Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs." The singers in Whitman's poem may be mechanics; carpenters; shoemakers; mothers; young girls; or others, but each sings "what belongs to him or her and to none else," separately yet in harmony. This poem is an ode to all common working Americans from all walks of life, and a celebration of the diverse individuals, skills, interests, and jobs that comprise America. As Whitman further suggests, there for songs for day, songs for night, and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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