poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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

Spontaneous Me

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
Spontaneous me, Nature,   
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,   
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,   
The hill-side whiten’d with blossoms of the mountain ash,   
The same, late in autumn—the hues of red, yellow, drab, purple, and light and dark green,
The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds—the private untrimm’d bank—
     the primitive apples—the pebble-stones,   
Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call
     them to me, or think of them,   
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)   
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,   
This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry,
(Know, once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty, lurking,
     masculine poems;)   
Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap,   
Arms and hands of love—lips of love—phallic thumb of love—breasts of
     love—bellies press’d and glued together with love,   
Earth of chaste love—life that is only life after love,   
The body of my love—the body of the woman I love—the body of the man—the body of
     the earth,
Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west,   
The hairy wild-bee that murmurs and hankers up and down—that gripes the full-grown
     lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself 
     tremulous and tight till he is satisfied,   
The wet of woods through the early hours,   
Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across
     and below the waist of the other,   
The smell of apples, aromas from crush’d sage-plant, mint, birch-bark,
The boy’s longings, the glow and pressure as he confides to me what he was dreaming,   
The dead leaf whirling its spiral whirl, and falling still and content to the ground,   
The no-form’d stings that sights, people, objects, sting me with,   
The hubb’d sting of myself, stinging me as much as it ever can any one,   
The sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers, that only privileged feelers may be intimate where
they are,
The curious roamer, the hand, roaming all over the body—the bashful withdrawing of flesh
     where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves,   
The limpid liquid within the young man,   
The vexed corrosion, so pensive and so painful,   
The torment—the irritable tide that will not be at rest,   
The like of the same I feel—the like of the same in others,
The young man that flushes and flushes, and the young woman that flushes and flushes,   
The young man that wakes, deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what would master
     him; The mystic amorous night—the strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,   
The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers—the young man all color’d,
     red, ashamed, angry;   
The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked,
The merriment of the twin-babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning
     her vigilant eyes from them,   
The walnut-trunk, the walnut-husks, and the ripening or ripen’d long-round walnuts;   
The continence of vegetables, birds, animals,   
The consequent meanness of me should I skulk or find myself indecent, while birds and animals
     never once skulk or find themselves indecent;   
The great chastity of paternity, to match the great chastity of maternity,
The oath of procreation I have sworn—my Adamic and fresh daughters,   
The greed that eats me day and night with hungry gnaw, till I saturate what shall produce boys to
     fill my place when I am through,   
The wholesome relief, repose, content;   
And this bunch, pluck’d at random from myself;   
It has done its work—I tossed it carelessly to fall where it may. 

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
The world below the brine;   
Forests at the bottom of the sea—the branches and leaves,   
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds—
      the thick tangle, the openings, and the pink turf,   
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold—
      the play of light through the water
poem

After surmounting threescore and ten,
With all their chances, changes, losses, sorrows,
My parents' deaths, the vagaries of my life, the many tearing passions of me, the war of '63 and '4,
As some old broken soldier, after a long, hot, wearying march, or as haply after battle,
At twilight,

poem
Come, said my Soul
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after death invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas'd smiles I may keep on,
Ever