When Leaves of Grass first appeared in July 1855, everything about the book seemed odd. It was a very thin volume with big pages. The dark green binding was embossed so that the lettering of the title snaked off in raised, leaf-like patterns.Neither the cover nor the title page named the author; only an engraved picture stood on the frontispiece.
It had the picture of the poet, improbable to say the least for its time: a man “in his shirt-sleeves, with one hand in a pocket of his pantaloons, a daringly unbuttoned collar, and a hat cocked over his forehead.”
The poetic style of Walt Whitman was very radical for the time when the “Leaves of Grass” was published. As more than one reviewer noted, there seemed to be nothing poetic about them except that each line began with a capital letter. They did not rhyme; they had no meter; the lines were of wildly uneven length, often wrapping around into more than one line of print; they flouted expectations about “poetic” writing; and no topic or body part seemed to have been left out. As a matter of fact, publishers repeatedly refused to handle him. In 1882 the Boston district attorney threatened him with prosecution for obscenity. Emily Dickinson confessed that she never read Whitman, having been “told that he was disgraceful.”
His style was very modern, more like the “free verse” style: a form so common now a days, that it could even be called the dominant kind of verse.
Whitman essentially wrote the same book over and over. Seven substantially different editions of Leaves of Grass were published in his lifetime, along with a few minor variants. New poems would be added each time, old ones rewritten, and the structure of the book rearranged. As a result, critics remain divided over the merits of different editions, and no one version of Leaves of Grass can stand alone to capture Whitman’s work.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was born on Long Island and educated in Brooklyn, New York. He served as a printer’s devil, journeyman compositor, and itinerant schoolteacher, edited the Long Islander, and in 1846 became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, a position from which he was discharged for political reasons. After a period in New Orleans, he returned to Brooklyn and became prominent among the bohemian element of New York. In 1855 he published Leaves of Grass, which he continued to revise and republish over his lifetime. The Civil War found him working as an unofficial nurse. After the war he became a clerk in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, from which he was shortly dismissed by the Secretary, who regarded Leaves of Grass as an immoral book. He lived in Camden, New Jersey, during his last nineteen years.
Poems from Leaves Of Grass
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.
Looking back on his earlier, more productive years, the aging Whitman often tried to summarize what he had been up to. He told the story in a different way each time. He once remarked that Leaves of Grass had been above all “a language experi- ment.” He told a group of admirers in Canada that his main object all along had been “to sing, and sing to the full, the ec- stasy of simple physiological Being.”
When I Read the Book
When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life? And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life? (As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
Singing my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,) In the Old World the east the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires;
Yet first to sound, and ever sound, the cry with thee O soul, The Past! the Past! the Past!
A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death and the stars.
O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Whitman was capable of inspiring intense devotion, even among those who knew nothing of his work. Notoriety gradually gave way to fame. Though never fully accepted in his lifetime, he was in later years recognised by some leading lights of the literary world, including Tennyson.
Oscar Wilde, who saw Whitman twice, (“I have the kiss of Walt Whitman’s still on my lips,”) he later told a young gay Englishman.Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Edition) Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (Library of America)
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