Celebrating the birthday of Walt Whitman
“Be curious, not judgmental.”
Claimed as America’s first “poet of democracy” Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a man of many parts, essayist, journalist, printer and newspaperman, nurse, political aide and government clerk, caring son, Transcendentalist and bisexual humanist. During his own lifetime, Whitman’s major work of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was both vilified and celebrated. Praised and distributed by major figures of the day, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau made Leaves of Grass a canon of the Transcendentalist movement. Others, criticized it as obscene or profane, scandalized by the poetry’s overt sexuality in reference to men. The first edition was printed without an author’s name, only an engraving of Whitman at age 35. Five hundred lines into the text he identifies himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest. “ Whitman would continue to revise Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime, including what is referred to as the ‘deathbed edition’; a less controversial reworking of the text.
Of slavery, a major issue of his day, Whitman remarked, “"you either abolish slavery or it will abolish you”. A number of Whitman’s poems are patriotic in tone, and Whitman himself wrote, ”The United States are themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” During the Civil War he took great pains to secure a position as a volunteer nurse. Many of his poems reflect the deep empathy he felt for the men he helped live or die and through this process developed an almost mystical attitude, writing, “And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death…” and, “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” The end of this period of his life is marked by his famous poem, O Captain! My Captain! , written on the death of Abraham Lincoln. A conventional poem by Whitman standards, it stands as one of the most moving poems ever written of a U.S. President:
Working as a writer and journalist, pre-Civil War, Whitman faced a difficult family life, his brothers ravaged by their war experience, led him to seek government and political posts. Whitman’s elder brother became a P.O.W. of the Confederates, one died of T.B. compounded by alcoholism and Whitman was forced to commit his youngest brother to a lunatic asylum. He was also charged with caring for his aging mother. The last twenty years of his life were spent working for the Attorney General’s office interviewing and preparing the case histories of Confederate soldiers eligible for Presidential pardons and working on his final edition of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman’s enjoyed friendships with a wide variety of people from all walks of life. One of his closest, long term friendships, and supposed loved affairs, was with Peter Doyle, a largely uneducated Irish immigrant that worked as a conductor. The playwright Oscar Wilde sought his friendship as well as Bram Stoker, who based the character of Dracula on Whitman, whom Stocker regarded as, “the quintessential male.” Whitman’s work was embraced and revitalized by the Beat poets, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder and Ferlinghetti, referring to themselves as Whitman’s, “wild children”, having embraced his bisexuality, the vagabond lifestyle of Whitman’s years preceding the Civil War and his pioneering use of free verse in poetic themes depicting nature, war, death, sexuality, including prostitution, and the mystical tone of his spirituality, “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” Curiously, Whitman was also vocal about the question who authored Shakespeare’s plays and questioned the attribution of William of Stratford-upon-Avon, writing, “only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.” Whitman’s great bio-epic love poem, Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking, describes his first childhood experience of great loss. The poem embodies the development of his consciousness as a poet on the journey from boyhood to manhood and his understanding of death as rebirth and transcendence. Whitman’s poetry remains a powerful measure of the American experience. http://www.bartleby.com/142/212.html
…My own songs, awaked from that hour; And with them the key, the word up from the waves, The word of the sweetest song, and all songs, That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet, The sea whisper’d me.