Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an exemplar collection of poetry that encompasses all facets in what breeds humanity as subsists in the material world. As one of the most revered American texts in history, Whitman’s poetry acts as an instrument to highlight the similar nature between the mind and the body whilst celebrating what it means to be human, bringing an emphasis on sensuality, something that remained taboo during the mid-1800s. The works of Michael Sowder and other scholarly texts will benefit the development of distinguishing the functioning of this relationship by discerning Whitman as a writer and a creator. Through his language and abandonment of rigid poetical structure, the speaker can form a contradictory relationship with the American nation and us as readers. In the chosen passage, the speaker dwells on the unity they share with other citizens and sets himself up as more of a preaching character, bestowing his wisdom and calling to others as his worshippers. Henceforth, such relations between the poetic orator and American state are of contrasting classification, unable to commit between the humble citizen and the great deity presented.
The speaker encompasses a sense of unity to rouse its readers from the societal decline and low morale amid the Civil War. Its assuaging agency establishes a nationalistic lens that highlights the solid patriarchal relationship between the individual and America. As one of the paramount artefacts of American Literature, Leaves of Grass has been essential in encapsulating the material world and illustrating the body and mind in a manner that shifts away from Romanticism. In the allocated passage, the speaker rejoices by claiming, “this is the city…and I am one of its citizens” (Whitman, p. 49); through the first-person perspective, the reader feels they are spoken to directly. The speaker so eloquently trounces any barriers by empowering his surroundings and mentioning that he is a citizen of the city. Such inclusive language extends to the mentioning of mundane activities such as “factories, markets, stocks and stores…”, and “sweating and ploughing” (Whitman, p. 49). This is the life of the majority of the American populace where hard work must be applied to assume one’s desire in life, even if it is as simple as putting food on the table for their families or sustaining hard labour.
Whitman always strived to discover ways to value “the self without de-valuing others” (Folsom 2008, p. 3). He does this by echoing the idea that all men are created equal, a powerful statement cemented in the United States Declaration of Independence. Such conception evidences when the speaker claims “whatever interests the rest, interests me” (Whitman 1855, p. 49); there is no dissent nor semblance of apathy in this deliverance, only an assemblage of words that functions as a bridge between Whitman and the readers to whom he celebrates, despite their humdrum entity. As Folsom postulates, Whitman “defined the yin and yang of American political life”, bestowing his wisdom through his ideals of what it is to be free and moral, etching his footsteps in American history, all while attributing to its construction (2008, p. 3). Henceforth, Whitman elucidates the robust interrelation between the speaker and the nation of America by celebrating the individual as a mundane piece to a national puzzle that cannot be complete without the contribution of others, substantiating equality as a core value.
Whitman’s acute religious background and exposure to universal ardour enabled him to persuade readers and potentially convert them, using a range of “rhetorical strategies employed by evangelists” (Sowder 2005, p. 2) to connect the mind and body through deified imagery and voice. The speaker and the American community are not only connected through means of material life but spirituality throughout the text, exploring a sensuality within the nation as a means to honour it and permit its prospering. The manner of our speaker can be stylised as an orator or preacher by which he commands “come my children, come my boys and girls” (Whitman 1855, p. 49); reflecting Whitman’s youth where he desired to be an orator, even participating in a study (Sowder 2005, p. 2). He deifies himself by calling to his ‘children’ as would God, asserting a divine dominance over his readers and in some instances contradicting the idea that was earlier fleshed out; equality amongst individuals. “Whitman built his poetry and a good deal of his prose on maintaining the contractions and setting up a dynamic between the individual and the en masse” (Sowder 2005, p. 2). Such biblical allusion contradicts the unity portrayed throughout the myriad of stanzas, raising questions as to whether or not the relationship between the speaker and nation is on comparable grounds or mirrors that of the bible, where God’s being is the all-mighty creator with humans confined beneath his sanctity.
Additionally, when referring to the sensual nature of Leaves of Grass, we must consider the roles of the reader and speaker. In this instance, the speaker embodies the dominant role, and the reader is the submissive. When Whitman calls to his children, he calls to us, substantiating a metaphorical pedestal where the power dynamic between the speaker and nation members is significantly fractured. This is achieved by utilising “my” when referring to the women, boys, and girls, exerting a sense of ownership.
Walt Whitman in 1863.Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images
Furthermore, looking at the structure of this passage, our speaker has an entire stanza dedicated to repetition, as demonstrated in “ever the…”. As if to represent the cyclical affair of American life, the days that pass by filled with mundane activities and work, confirmed by mentioning “ever the sobbing liquid of life” (1855, p. 49). Whitman does not present this fable of his nation being the utopia one would wish to live in; he paints the picture and does not shy away from the mistakes caused by uneven brush strokes. He also abandons classic metre and rhyme, allowing the image of freedom to be portrayed not just by the poignancy of his words but the structure. Whitman’s writing was a product of emotional fulfilment that commemorated the body and mind for their ability to experience pleasure through physical means rather than focusing on intellectual stimulation. As Bromwich suggests, “a poem is something made with a purpose, and valuable beyond the limits of its maker.” (Bromwich 2018); Whitman’s body of work epitomises the national spirit through the celebration of one’s existence, cementing his existence within the American history.
Consequently, the relationship with the speaker has a contradictory nature, with the speaker commanding that he is nothing more but a citizen, sharing common interests, highlighting the simple American capitalistic life of work, hardships and family. However, he speaks like a preacher, talking down to his worshippers as a subliminal entity. While Whitman acknowledges man as essential to building up a robust nation, the allegorical language sets him up on higher terrain, attributing to the mystery of his status as the same as everyone else or the high and all mighty figure that can be discerned within his writing.
Within the allocated passage, it can be discerned that such relations between the speaker and the American state are built on disparity, attempting to balance the ideals that man on all fronts is equal and yet orates as if they are divine beings. Folsom’s assumption of Whitman’s prevalence in the American political life in terms of freedom confirms the conception of men being able to assume equal existence as what was pronounced in the United States Declaration of Independence. However, the strong religious undertones within Whitman’s language propels the speaker as a figure whose importance soars over that of other American citizens, establishing a relationship on uneven grounds that inhibits a type of importance some people feel inclined to possess. Therefore, the relationship between the American nation and the speaker is multi-faceted; there are aspects of pride and patriarchy that others envy, yet an even distribution of power that can be discerned still in today’s light.
- B, F, P, S. E. K. (2008). Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. University of Nebraska Press, 3–5. - B, D. (2018). Whitman’s Assumptions: “Song of Myself,. New York, 85(3), 503–519.
- B, D. (2018). Whitman’s Assumptions: “Song of Myself,. New York, 85(3), 503–519.
- Whitman, W. (2020). Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, The Original 1855 Edition. Independently published.
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- McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 29). Biography of Walt Whitman, American Poet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/walt-whitman-1773691