What Makes Walt Whitman Whitmanian?

Throughout my readings I have mentioned Walt Whitman with sweeping, vague references to his eminence and looming spirit. Sweeping because deeming something Whitmanian suffices as analytical synecdoche to say there is a strong sense of metaphysical unity in the poem; and vague because, to be honest, I don’t think I could define it, that is pinpoint it with accuracy. Whitman is a paradoxically elusive poet, burying his visionary power within his superficial simplicity (superficial meaning on the surface, nothing negative). I am no great reader of Whitman. I have glanced at his lesser works and have read “Song of Myself” several times. Strangely, I came to “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” with some fervor after I lost my brother. It is his best poem, and that gentle elegy (for Lincoln) will haunt me when I venture to memorialize my brother in verse. The poem is especially significant today for not just myself, but the world, as we collectively mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, Friday. The poem remains important not only because of its strength, but also because it is an elegy for every one that has ever passed. Here we see that unity I mentioned (the initial ‘you’ is Lincoln. Also, a quick note that I have noticed confuses some new to poetry. When you see an awkward indent in verse, as we see at ‘and sacred death’, it is not the poet’s intended line break. The line is just too long for the page. In Whitman’s original text there is no break there: ‘For fresh…death’ is all one line):

(Not for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane
and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

But where is the vision? And what makes it great? Why, when he writes, ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you’ (‘To a Stranger’) does it bear a heft as great or greater than a poetry well wrought and rife with, well, poetry; there is no ‘My life had stood—a Loaded Gun’, which we get in Dickinson, his withdrawn contemporary of equal eminence. I think his greatness is due to his self-regard, which stands separately from an egotism. He does deem himself ‘august,’ but he knows that any honor he is due is rendered wholly through his unbridled commitment to not only humankind but also the entire earth and cosmos. He is the paradoxical poet of expansion—manifested formally in what is called the operatic line due to its brea(d)th—as this expansion is only found in the psychological death-of-self. His self is selfless. He sings this self (which is not the Me Myself) only because it is the only way to appropriate and sing the entire world. (All italics are mine throughout.)

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

This is how ‘Song of Myself’ opens. Immediately he sees his presence in everything, every body, each gust of wind, and indeed every leaf of grass. I think the word assume here is often misread; Whitman’s stature is too large for him to admit that he is merely making assumptions and not stating universal truths. I read assume to mean take the shape of. So as we read his work we take the shape of the ‘the woman the same as the man.’ The truths are universal in that the truth he sings, the body, the body politic, and the nation’s body, are all literally the stuff of the universe, stardust smattered and strewn from the unifying explosion of our shared origin.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the
And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

I find I incorporate gneiss [rock], coal, long-threaded
moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over…

This ‘assuming’ continues throughout ad nauseam:

‘I am the hounded slave’

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person’

‘I am the mash’d fireman’

This is what makes Whitman a great poet and a visionary. At a time when the country was torn apart in ‘fratricidal war’ Whitman volunteered as a nurse and wound dresser in Washington D.C. What little money he received went to buying clothes, pens, and even ice cream for the wounded. He read and wrote letters for the newly blind and amputated. This is why when he states ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you,’ it is so impactful. And this is why he is the great American poet. He cared. He placed himself among the suffering, suffered with them and, as a great lover of America, strove for a unifying vision that would end the madness and create equality for all. He saw, as we see through him, each individual in utter communion with every living and inanimate thing. That is what it means to be Whitmanian. I leave you with an excerpt from Song of Myself:


A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive
them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colourless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


18 responses to “What Makes Walt Whitman Whitmanian?

  1. Once again I learn more from your site than any class I ever took. Thank you so very much for your insight.

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  3. Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” reminded me of a line from William Butler Yeat’s poem “The White Birds”, a poem that influenced one of my own poems written after reading it (I think… I may have found the poem after I’d written my own. I have a nack for finding fitting poems to pair with my own after I’ve already written mine, but on this occasion I may have read Yeat’s poem first).

    The line from Yeat’s poem was :
    “A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;”

    If you want to find Yeat’s poem quickly, here’s the post I included it in – http://fergusandthedruid.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/new-10-set-haiku-clarion-chorus-of-the-thunder-snow-halcyon/

    And no, I’m not shamelessly trying to plug my own blog, you already liked two of my posts today, and I am grateful for your encouragement, not greedy for more 🙂

    I look forward to reading future blogs about the lives of poets and analyses of their poems, you have an interesting blog that I will try to keep up with! If you have written anything on Yeats, and you can easily point me to said posts, I would enjoy reading them, as he is my favorite poet.

    By the way, I have been writing poetry for 8.5 years now, but it was only earlier this year that I started reading other people’s poetry. It’s a shame I spent so many years only enjoying my own poetry, when there’s so much excellent poetry of others I was missing out on being enriched by! Hopefully in tracking with you in your blog, I can get exposed to much of the greatness already written that I’ve been missing out on for so long! 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments! I enjoyed reading both your haiku sequence and Yeats’s poem, which I haven’t read in years. Never fear ‘shamelessly trying to plug’ your blog, we are a community here and sharing is integral, so thank you. The connection between Yeats and Whitman is there, especially in regard to the sea–which is of huge import for Whitman. If you ever wanted to develop the thought, you might want to look to Song of Myself part 22, as there Whitman gives himself entirely to sea. In considering Yeats I immediately think of Byzantium, the second part of Sailing to Byzantium, where he writes of ‘that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.’ Here with the ‘The White Birds’ I also think of Whitman’s The Sleepers’, which you should read.

      I have a post on Yeats here: https://thebrokentower.com/2013/03/01/w-b-yeats-the-fascination-of-whats-difficult/ and will have more to come in the future. In regard to further exposure to poets, just keep reading! The Poetry Foundation is a great start. If you hover over the menu ‘Readings’ on my home page there is a drop down of the poets discussed so far. They are mostly poets of Modernity (roughly between 1920-50s), with the exception of Whitman and Dickinson.

      8 and half years is quite a long time! Now that you likely have your voice and style, reading will only make you a better writer! All the best!

  4. I really need to read more Whitman, I’ve read this post and realise I know nothing! SD

    • sandradan1,

      Don’t disparage yourself! What you ‘know’ of Whitman is your personal experience with his work, how it affected you, and that is most the important thing. Subjectivity reigns supreme in poetry! As long as you’re honest with your feelings, your understanding of anything is immediately vast.

      Keep reading!


  5. Very powerful words, but all poetry is powerful. Thoughts distilled down to the most effective, most lovely, most cutting, words. Thanks for visiting my blog. Friday’s are flash fiction day. Please come back to enjoy a story.

  6. I am not a huge fan of Whitman, but I have enjoyed several of his poems. I would have to say I have several favorite poets, including Robert Frost. I enjoyed your analysis. It allowed me to see Whitman as I had not previously. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  8. Enjoyed this and I look forward to reading more. It seems you have brought to light the heart of Whitman and helped me understand why I’ve loved his work. Will be back for more! “)

  9. For a person who is not a fan of Whitman, you surely represented him well. I think that what makes Whitman so great is that he was a modernist before modernism even knew what it was. Like Dickinson, he was before his time. “Song of Myself” reminds me of “One’s Self I Sing.” The opening lines are almost contrasting as he writes: “One’s Self I Sing/ A single, separate person/ Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” These lines can be applied to your comment that Whitman, “sings this self (which is not the Me Myself) only because it is the only way to appropriate and sing the entire world.” He is one and he is also all.

    I also enjoyed your treatment of Whitman as American. I always enjoy reading about poet’s lives. To be honest, I did not know much about him! I feel like knowing that he served those in need in honor of his country really makes his political poems much more deep and meaningful.

    Great writing!!!

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