Walt Whitman: The Great American Bard
Walt Whitman was an innovative poet who went down in history as America’s most influential bard because of his unprecedented experimentation with free-verse poetry. He was born on May 31, 1819, to a farming family that was failing financially, so his father had to move the family of 9 children from his rural birthplace in West Hill, New York to Brooklyn where his father became a carpenter. Whitman attended public school there, but because his impoverished family still struggled, Whitman, unfortunately, had to drop out of school at age twelve and go to work in order to help them. He became a printer’s apprentice, however, he liked to read and continued to educate himself in New York’s public libraries.
He was eventually promoted from printer to journalist and then to the editor of one of New York’s major newspapers, but he was fired because of his antislavery views. During this self-education period of his life, Whitman began to experiment writing poetry in free-verse form using the very hypnotic cadences found in the Bible and was very much like Hebrew poetry found in the Old Testament. Much of it did not rhyme making it a revolutionary form on the current day’s literary landscape. So when the first edition of his book Leaves of Grass was anonymously self-published in 1855 it was mostly written off by the establishment as “garbage” except for Ralph Waldo Emerson who said the book was full of “wit and wisdom”. And Whitman wrote three more revised editions over his lifetime.
During the Civil War Whitman was one of America’s greatest patriots and was a staunch abolitionist so he wrote his poem Beat! Beat! Drums as a call for the people to rally and fight to keep America one nation. He did not want the people to rest and become complacent with their everyday lives.
“Beat! Beat! Drums! -blow bugles blow!
Over the traffic of cities- over the rumble of
wheels in the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the
houses? No sleepers must sleep in those beds…”
So when Whitman got word that his own brother had been wounded in the war, he traveled to the South to find him and was so moved by seeing the carnage of the war that he moved to Washington DC to become a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals there and served to comfort both the wounded Confederate and Union soldiers suffering there. Whitman was a man of great compassion and love and he wrote my all-time favorite American poem O’ Captain My Captain as a heartfelt tribute to President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination.
O Captain! My Captain!
BY WALT WHITMAN
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
After the war, Whitman became a civil servant for the US Department of the interior but was promptly fired by the director because some of the passages in Leaves of Grass were considered obscene by him and Whitman was accused of being a homosexual because some of the passages he wrote praised the beauty of the naked male body.
Whitman died in 1892 as the result of a stroke and was greatly honored for his both his patriotism and poetry in a public funeral.