| By Sarah Robertson |
Does Walt Whitman live on in a blade of grass or a clump of soil? If you examined the earth, would you see his great beard, his tipped hat, or his impenetrable gaze? Probably not. But, in meditating on a blade of grass, you would immediately understand the essence of Whitman’s poetry: our individual spirits are outgrowths of the ground beneath our feet. It is a uniquely American perspective, and it is the reason for Whitman’s enduring appeal.
Walt Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most consequential poets. He was an instinctive experimenter who transformed poetic forms by disregarding traditional rhyme and meter and abandoning the conventions of his peers. Whitman eschewed the thematic concerns of his contemporaries and, instead, used his pen to celebrate democracy, nature, love, sensuality, and friendship. His 1855 poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, is studied around the world as a hallmark of modern poetry.
Born in 1819 into relatively humble circumstances, Whitman saw some of America’s most painful and progressive transitions throughout his lifetime. He watched as the fast-growing United States grappled with the frontier, slavery, democracy, and industrialization. Inspired by westward expansion, he wrote Leaves of Grass. Whitman also witnessed the U.S. Civil War, struggling along with his fellow Americans to come to terms with the nation’s character and the deep divides that come with war. In “O Captain! My Captain!” (Poetry for Students 2 and Poetry for Students 61) and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (Poetry for Students 51), he consoled a nation after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Both poems would appear in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
As Whitman watched America transform throughout the nineteenth century, he used his poetry to articulate a national identity. He did this by focusing his poems on a celebration of the self, the “I” that is a singular, unique component of the masses. In “I Hear America Singing” (Poetry for Students 3), Whitman exalts the carpenter, boatman, shoemaker, mother, and wife. He celebrates the common man and woman. In doing so, he invites us to celebrate the beauty of ourselves as distinct individuals. Whitman was pioneering a new mode of poetry writing and feeling his way towards the creation of a new—and wholly modern—subjectivity.
At the conclusion of “Song of Myself,” which was also published in Leaves of Grass, Whitman resigns himself to his physical mortality as he bids his reader farewell. He instructs us not to mourn his death, but instead, to look for him under our boot-soles. He declares that his spirit is in the dirt and the grass, waiting for us, long after his body has been buried in the ground.
May 31, 2019, marks the two-hundredth birthday of Walt Whitman. As we celebrate, take a look at the grass and the soles of your shoes. Walt Whitman’s poetry is as timeless as the dirt.