I CELEBRATE myself
With these lines, a then unknown Walt
Whitman introduced himself to the literary
world of his day. In 1855, at his own
expense, he published a book called Leaves
of Grass. Of the 795 copies printed,
almost none were sold. But in time, this
small book, just 95 pages long, would
alter the course of world literature.
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs
I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my ease....observing a spear
of summer grass.
Leaves of Grass
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans looked
for signs of an emerging cultural style distinct from European precedents.
American artists flocked to Niagara Falls to capture on canvas a
sight that was truly American.
America's leading man of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called for
a new kind of poet, an American bard who would create a new kind
"For it is not metres, but a metre-making
argument, that makes a poem, - a thought so passionate
and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or
an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and
adorns nature with a new thing."
While many American poets abandoned European subjects,
they continued to follow European conventions of
form. Whitman, who had discovered Emerson's work
in the early 1850s, abandoned these conventions,
opening the line of the poem to allow greater freedom
of expression. He later said: I was simmering,
simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet" (1844)
Whitman sent Emerson a copy of the new book and received the following
Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855
The rhythmic cadences of Leaves of Grass, America's first
epic poem, reflect the influence of the King James version of the
Bible. Expressing the optimism of "manifest destiny" and the emerging
importance of individual experience, Whitman addresses the world
as a prophet of a new kind of poetry:
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves
of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and
wisdom that America has yet contributed...I greet you at the beginning
of a great career....
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much?
have you reckon'd the earth much?
In 1862, shocked by the news that his brother George,
a colonel in the Union Army, had been wounded, Whitman
left New York for Washington, D.C., where he spent
the remainder of the war working as a nurse in the
field hospitals. Unlike most prominent writers of
the period, Whitman witnessed first-hand the suffering
of the war. Lincoln's assassination had a profound
impact on Whitman. From his grief came the greatest
literary work of the Civil War period, the American
elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd:
Have you practis'd 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
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
Leaves of Grass
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd,
During his years in Camden, Whitman continued to
edit and expand Leaves of Grass. In addition
to his poetry, Whitman published major prose works
during these years: Specimen Days and Collect (1882)
and November Boughs (1888). Whitman's faithful
companion during his final years and later his biographer,
Horace Traubel, visited Whitman regularly and recorded
with great detail the last years of the poet's life.
In 1891, Horace helped Whitman publish the ninth
and final version of Leaves of Grass. This,
with the annex of a collection of recent poems titled Good-bye
My Fancy, was to be the definitive form of Whitman's
great work. Whitman died at his home on March 26,
1892. He was buried at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love...
Leaves of Grass