11 Selected Poems of Walt Whitman

Mr. Debaditya Mukhopadhay

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This section offers a discussion of some of the most remarkable and often anthologized poems of Whitman. These poems bring up the major themes of Whitman’s poems and they are selected with the intention of providing the readers a brief overview of Whitman’s development as a poet. These discussions are to be treated as a guide to the important aspects of the poems.




An integral part of Whitman’s poetry is the celebration of the unique democratic nature of the nation of America. This poem, published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, offers a picture of this democratic nation that has the quintessential spirit of the American life, as imagined by Whitman, oozing out of it. In order to capture that spirit, the poet imagines the entire nation is singing songs. These songs are diverse in origin and are sung by people of different types but still all of them have merged and formed the song of America the nation in its entirety. This nation is indeed democratic but that has not cost anybody their individualty. In order to portray this idea, the poet uses one images after another that depict different groups all of whom contribute in one way or the other to help America move forward. Their songs are multifarious and yet together they form that vibrant song of life hearing which the poet utters: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear”. Then follows the description of the workers. The point to be noted about the description of these workers is that none of them are sitting idle. Rather, all are busy with hard work. Whitman has deliberately selected workers who are frequently considered as marginal. He tries to emphasize that these are the true faces of America, the building nation, the moving nation. The first three images therefore depict the mechanics, the carpenter and the mason, singing. They begin, carry on and even end their works along with singing which shows they enjoy every part of it. These three images are images of people who are literally building America. Then come the boatman and the deckhand. They too sing while they help to move the nation faster.


Whitman’s vision of America seems to cover almost every nook of America as next appear the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter and even the ploughboy. The poem insists that not a single person amongst these is insignificant, all are contributing substantially.So far the poem seems to be concentrating a bit too much upon workers of the male sex but the poet brings in the images of the female workers immediately after the section depicting the males to strike a proper balance. The females of the three major age groups- the mother, the young wife the adolescent girl are all mentioned. Their activities have equal importance. The poem accentuates the fact that each of these people are singing only that song which exclusively belongs to him or her in the line: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”. This lively poem rounds off by evoking a picture of mirth. If the day time of America is filled with the resonating rhythm of songs of people at work, the nights of this lively nation become euphonious with melodious songs that celebrate their successful endeavors.



This poem, consisting of nine sections in its final form, was initially titled “ Poem of the Body”. Though the final title underscores the power of the body, the previous one seems no less a proper one as this indeed is very much a poem about the human body of flesh and blood, irrespective of colour or gender. This is one such poem that shows Whitman celebrating the human body. He definitely does not merely want to inverse the soul superior- body inferior structure, but he actually wants to argue that both are equal. He wants to celebrate “the form complete”. The key issues of the separate sections are discussed below:


SECTION 1: The opening section announces the poet’s intention. He forms a picture where bodies of human beings surround him who, according to him, want the poet to purify their bodies by charging them with the charm of the soul. The phrase ‘body electric’ seems to have a connection to the Eighteenth century’s famous discovery of the electric nature of the human body. Despite such discoveries, the importance of the body was hardly asserted. Instead, it is always given an inferior status, next to the soul. The poem attacks this notion and asks: “if  the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” This seems to be Whitman’s response against those who have created the discourse about the bawdiness of the body.


SECTION 2: The poem tries to reveal the fact that the body is glorious from top to toe and this section is the one that depicts this idea brilliantly. Firstly, it is clarified that body means both the female and the male and both are perfect. Secondly, the poem challenges the age old notions of Physiognomy, particularly that of Sir Thomas Browne that gave importance to the facial portion of the human body for the study of the mind. In place of that this section points out:


“…the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,


It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,”. This section then offers a picturesque catalogue of the human body of different sexes, different age groups, and professions busy at their unique works. The poet joyfully asserts: “The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting; Such-like I love”.


SECTION 3: The third section focuses upon the body of an individual. Technically he has nothing that special about him but the facts that he has five sons, all of whom contain the seed of producing their progeny and a body that looks quite robust even at the age of eighty make him appear as an embodiment of the power of the human body. This section extols this old man because he has a physique that proves that the common notion about the human body at the old age is not entirely true. This eighty year old man’s body seems to suggest that “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”, is hardly a correct a description of an old man.

SECTION 4: A very important statement is made here which removes the enmity between body and soul. The poet insists that physical presence of human bodies have a positive effect upon the mind. Unlike a loneliness-loving poet he states:


“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,

To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough”.


He further argues that this is not typical to him alone, the soul in general gets pleased by the company of the body. Even the very smell of the body pleases the soul. The last line sets this particular pleasure apart from the other kinds by stating: “All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.”.


SECTIONS 5 & 6: These two sections offer Whitman’s powerful statements about the female and the male body respectively. It is to be noted that the fifth section, dealing with the female body is one of the largest of the whole poem. The fifth section glorifies the woman body imagining it as the entrance to both soul and the body. It highlights the unique power of the female body – it begets a child that later becomes a full grown man who once more has to come back to the female body for procreation. Whitman observes:

“The female contains all qualities and tempers them,

She is in her place and moves with perfect balance,

She is all things duly veil’d, she is both passive and active,

She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.” .

Equally powerful is the male body. The next section shows the unique things a male body is capable of. If the woman’s body displays features with depth, the man’s according to this section has impulse and vigour. Though one might feel like charging the poem with a slight gender bias at this point, the line: “The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred” seems to purge the poem. One needs to understand that the poet wants to show the uniqueness of both sexes.

SECTIONS 7 & 8: If the previous two sections glorify the human body of both sexes, these two sections shed light on the darkest business done using the human body. The seventh section lashes the slavery system of America quite powerfully. He depicts a painful scene from the slave market where a black man’s body is up for sale. He mocks this, stating: “Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it”. He reminds that the veins of these black men’s body do carry the same red blood. He even seems to attack the discursive ideas that tried to equate the black men with primitive men by asking the white community a burning question: “Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?”. The auctioning of a woman’s body which seems to refer to the tradition of prostitution too is to be looked down upon. The poem tries to bring to everyone’s mind that “She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers, She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.”.


Conclusion: Finally the poem ends with the last section’s remarkable cataloguing of every minute details of the human body. Not only flesh and blood but “Upper-arm, armpit, elbow- socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bone” or “The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean” are also mentioned prominently. The way the last two lines justify the use of these images is excellent. The poet explains to his readers that the parts mentioned, the poem itself as a whole is not simply about the body. Rather he says, “ O I say now these are the soul!”.




Whitman’s poems not only depicted an idealized version of America but it also reflected his contemporary situation. He responded to the important social events of his time very significantly. It was quite natural that the Civil War in America too would impregnate him with thoughts. Poems written by him in response to the Civil War belong to his collection Drum-Taps and its sequel. War is generally depicted in literature in two opposite ways. There are some who glorify war and produce poems that encourage people to join it and on the other hand there are poets who criticize war by unmasking its romantic veil. Generally poets who do not have a direct experience of the battle grounds romanticize war and since  Whitman had not participated in the Civil War, he did consider this unrest as something positive because he felt this to be a solution to the rift between the two halves of the nation. Driven by such a thought he even wrote the recruitment poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”.


Such an ecstatic attitude about the war started changing soon. Whitman had joined the service of attending the wounded soldiers and there he came face to face with the horror of war. Moreover, his brother George’s joining the force and his subsequent injury made him directly share the pain and anxiety of all those families who had their members out amongst the guns. Combining the sympathy he felt as an attendant to the soldiers and the anxiety he experienced as a brother, Whitman produces this moving account of a family’s reaction about their son’s injury in the battle. The poem has a dramatic quality. It begins with the voice of the anxious little daughter of the family asking her father and mother to look at the letter from their dear Pete. After addressing the parents, the girl suddenly starts describing the beautiful nature that surrounds them. It is autumn all over, the season of fulfillment. Nothing in nature indicates even a bit of unrest but amidst this comes this letter whose arrival was desired and yet its arrival also brings anxiety.


The letter delivers shocking hints to the parents. They realize that it is written by somebody else which alone is alarming enough. Besides, it informs that their dear son is wounded severely. The line: “At present low, but will soon be better.” In particular seems to have a sinister irony hidden beneath. The daughter tries to console the mother referring to that vague line but she knew in her heart of hearts that she had lost her child. Whitman here uses his experience as an attendant to the soldiers. Quite often they would become unable to write letters due to fatal injuries and besides often the soldier died even before the letter was delivered. So these letters that included the formal consolation that the wounded will recover soon were hardly capable of speaking the truth. The poem ends with the description of how the mother turns into a melancholic person after getting this letter. The heart touching last line states that after that ominous moment the mother did not live life but only moved forward to death as that alone could re-unite her with her son.




The signature style of Whitman seems to be his use of informal lines. His lines glow with spontaneity but this poem seems to have a different radiance altogether. This has brilliant use of rhythm and meter that almost gives it the quality of a march past song. Actually the difference in the poem seems to have originated from its unique purpose. This was one of the four poems Whitman wrote in the memory of the death of Abraham Lincoln. Amongst the four this one has a technical gloss that is so different from Whitman’s typical style. The suddenness of Lincoln’s assassination had petrified the entire nation and this seems to be a song penned by the poet for the entire nation’s catharsis. It is not simply an elegy but a unique combination of dramatic impulse and elegiac intensity.


The poem uses the metaphor of a ship and its voyage to tell the story of America’s journey through the troubled years. The troubles of Civil War seems to be depicted using the image of the sea. The poem opens at a moment when this perilous journey has been successfully completed and the entire nation is standing at the shores rejoicing and waiting to welcome their champions. Amidst this joyous atmosphere, fate seems to strike a bolt from the blue as suddenly the able captain of the ship is found dead on the deck. Death enters the poem with such an abruptness that the welcome ovation instantly loses its mirth for the narrator.

The poem depicts the entire scene using its three carefully crafted stanzas. The first announces the shocking news. The second contrasts the celebration taking place outside with the petrified condition of the ship where the great man lies “ fallen cold an dead”. It also makes one last attempt to wake the dear father of the nation up and finally the ship arrives with the body and the mourning companion who is now given the heartbreaking task of revealing this shocking news to the jolly crowd. The structure of the poem seems to resemble that of a tragedy. It has its climax, anagnorisis and peripeteia arranged wonderfully. The final stanza offers the catastrophe and one can almost feel the kind of cathartic effect that the mourning nation must have felt while humming this wonderful yet tragic song by the poet of America.

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