Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855
Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.
- Students can use this activity with the Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1854 Primary Source to develop a better understanding of transcendentalism and the issues that were of concern to transcendentalists in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1855, Walt Whitman published 12 poems in a collection entitled Leaves of Grass. These poems touched on a variety of themes central to the transcendentalist movement. In his poems, Whitman revealed himself as a champion of the individual and of the working classes as he celebrated the achievements of ordinary men and women in a rapidly industrializing nation. He also demonstrated a respect for the natural environment as he marveled at the beauty inherent in the various American landscapes he frequented. Throughout his work, Whitman departed from traditional poetic techniques and used free verse, which gave his poetry a tone that was less rhythmic and more conversational than traditional poems. Some of Whitman’s readers viewed his book as highly controversial because his poems addressed issues of sexuality and criticized the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, Whitman succeeded in winning over a number of American readers, including the prominent transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman went on to publish several more editions of his anthology that included new poems that touched on a variety of subjects, including the Civil War.
- Who was the intended audience of this anthology?
- Which transcendentalist principles does Whitman try to convey to his audience?
- Why was Whitman’s work considered both controversial and groundbreaking at the time he wrote it?
|en masse(adv): all together
physiognomy(n): facial features
|“One’s-Self I Sing”
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse,
I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
|blithe(adj): cheerful||“I Hear America Singing”
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be
blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank and 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 . . .
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.
|loafe[loaf] (v): to remain idle
abeyance(n): state of suspension
|“Song of Myself” 1
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. . . .
|“Song of Myself” 10
. . . The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.
- Whitman wrote this poem as an introduction to the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass. How does Whitman set the tone for the poems that will follow?
- Which statements in this poem would have been considered controversial in the mid-nineteenth century? How are those statements reflective of transcendentalist ideologies?
- How does Whitman convey the changes and growth that occurred during the nineteenth century? Which classes or groups of people contributed to these changes?
- How does Whitman draw connections among himself, his readers, and nature?
- Whitman’s account of the runaway slave is fictitious. Why does he tell the story from his own perspective?
- In telling the story of the runaway slave, how does Whitman reveal his opinions about the institution of slavery?
Historical Reasoning Questions
- Whitman frequently uses the verb “sing” throughout Leaves of Grass. What do you suppose is the meaning of this word, according to Whitman? In what ways do Whitman and the people he depicts “sing” throughout the anthology?
- Evaluate the extent to which Whitman’s poetry addresses issues that were of importance to transcendentalists in the nineteenth century.
Selections from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1855 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm