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About this poet

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced firsthand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. Noted Whitman scholar, M. Jimmie Killingsworth writes that "the 'merge,' as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: 'I Sing the Body Electric,' 'The Sleepers,' and 'Song of Myself,' all of which were 'merged' in the first edition under the single title Leaves of Grass but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title."

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D. C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.

Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood) gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America's most important poets.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891)
Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood, 1881)
Passage to India (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (William E. Chapin, 1867)
Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Leaves of Grass (Thayer & Eldridge, 1860)
Leaves of Grass (Fowler & Wells, 1856)
Leaves of Grass (self-published, 1855)

Prose

Complete Prose Works (David McKay, 1892)
November Boughs (David McKay, 1888)
Memoranda During the War (self-published, 1875)
Democratic Vistas (David McKay, 1871)
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (New World, 1842)
 


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

Song of Myself, I, II, VI & LII

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892

I

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

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil,
     this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and 
     their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never
     forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

II

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes.... the shelves
     are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume.... it has no taste
     of the distillation.... it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever.... I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and
     naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers.... loveroot, silkthread,
     crotch and vine,
My	respiration and inspiration.... the beating of my heart....
     the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore
     and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice.... words loosed
     to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses.... a few embraces.... reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs
     wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along
     the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health.... the full-noon trill.... the song of me
     rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned
     the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop	this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
     of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are
     millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor
     look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres
     in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from
     me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

VI

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

Or I guess if 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 vegetation.

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 then 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 you are from old people, or from offspring taken,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
     soon out of their mother's 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 colorless 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 women,
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.

LII

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
     of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd
     wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman is the author of Leaves of Grass and, along with Emily Dickinson, is considered one of the architects of a uniquely American poetic voice. 

by this poet

poem
O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;   
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;   
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who  more faithless?)   
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew
poem
Thee for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,	 
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur'd dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,	 
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,	 
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling
poem
          (From a talk I had lately with a German spiritualist)

Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of