Walt Whitman, one of the great American poets, published his volume of poetry titled Leaves of Grass on this date in 1855. Whitman was one of the first generation of Americans who were born in the newly formed United States. He left school at 11 years of age to help support his family, working as a printer’s apprentice. But Whitman continued his self-education through reading, visiting museums, and engaging in conversations.
During the Civil War, Whitman volunteered as a nurse in the army hospitals. He published a poem called “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as a patriotic rally call for the North. Whitman also set out to write a distinctly American epic. He thought that the voice of the poet could be a reconciling agent in a culture that was being split apart by the tensions in American political life, and most significantly the challenges represented by the Civil War.
Touching on subjects never tackled by poets before, Whitman wrote about runaway slaves, the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the miracles of everyday life, his respect for the common working man, the impact of urbanization on the masses, and of his own dreams and travels. He wrote about the diversity of humanity – all the different kinds of people in the world. He wrote about the diversity of the landscape – the sea and the sky, plants and animals, the city and the country.
At the time, many thought Whitman’s poems were unfit to be read because they were too earthy and not “refined” or “lofty” enough. Others criticized his innovation in verse form — that is, the use of free verse in long rhythmical lines with a natural, “organic” structure. But today, Leaves of Grass is considered an American literary masterpiece. Read it online or download it for free. (Recommended for high school students and adults.) Here are a few examples:
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of the mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,
the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Behavior—fresh, native, copious, each one for himself or herself,
Nature and the Soul expressed—America and freedom expressed—In it the finest art,
In it pride, cleanliness, sympathy, to have their chance,
In it physique, intellect, faith—in it just as much as to manage an army or a city, or to write a book—perhaps more,
The youth, the laboring person, the poor person, rivalling all the rest—perhaps outdoing the rest,
The effects of the universe no greater than its;
For there is nothing in the whole universe that can be more effective than a man’s or woman’s daily behavior can be,
In any position, in any one of These States.
Walt Whitman’s Caution
To The States, or any one of them, or any city of The States, Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.
One Song, America, Before I Go
One song, America, before I go,
I’d sing, o’er all the rest, with trumpet sound,
For thee—the Future.
I’d sow a seed for thee of endless Nationality;
I’d fashion thy Ensemble, including Body and Soul;
I’d show, away ahead, thy real Union, and how it may be accomplish’d.
(The paths to the House I seek to make,
But leave to those to come, the House itself.)
Belief I sing—and Preparation;
As Life and Nature are not great with reference to the Present only,
But greater still from what is yet to come,
Out of that formula for Thee I sing.
See Also: Walt Whitman’s Biography
Poetry for Young People: Walt Whitman – An annotated, beautifully illustrated introduction to Whitman’s life and work intended for ages 9 and up.