Featured Poet - Walt Whitman: America's Revolutionary Poet
Walt Whitman was born on May 31st in 1819, the second of nine children. He left formal schooling at age 11 and started working to help support his family. He got a job as a printer’s apprentice at a weekly newspaper, The Patriot, edited by one Samuel E. Clements, now better known as Mark Twain. Whitman learned to set type and run printers, and may have written filler pieces for the paper on occasion.
Whitman went on to work for another printer, Erastus Worthington, and even after his family moved, he went to work for another publication, the Long-Island Star. During this time, he anonymously published his earliest pieces of poetry in the New-York Mirror. He went on to work as a typesetter in New York City at age 16, but soon found it difficult to find work as the country headed into the Panic of 1837.
Whitman taught at various schools, but found teaching unsatisfying as a career. Whitman started his own newspaper, The Long-Islander. He served as publisher, editor, pressman, and distributor of this paper. In less than a year, he sold the company.
At 20 years old, he went to work as a typesetter for the Long Island Democrat. He also tried teaching again, for about two years. He published a series of ten articles called “Sun-Down Papers - From The Desk of a Schoolmaster.”
Whitman would go on to work for a series of newspapers, and while working for the Brooklyn Eagle, he started publishing pieces of music criticism. He became a fan of italian opera, and once said, “But for the opera, I could never have written Leaves of Grass.”
Whitman lost his job at the Eagle due to a political dispute with the paper’s owner. He contributed freelance fiction and poetry to various publications throughout the 1840s.
Whitman then decided to pursue a career as a writer and poet. He experimented with several literary forms that were popular at the time, and in 1850, started writing what would become “Leaves of Grass,” one of the most well known poetry collections in American history. He wrote the book in free verse, a form of poetry that doesn’t rhyme or adhere to a particular meter. Whitman would continue to edit and revise Leaves of Grass until his death.
Leaves of Grass is a volume containing 2,315 lines of verse in 12 untitled poems. The first edition was distributed widely and received high praise, including glowing praise from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a five page letter to Whitman extolling the book’s virtues.
The book focused on a certain immediacy of existence, demonstrated by the following line:
"Happiness, not in another place, but this place
not for another hour, but for this hour."
Though the book received praise from literary critics, it was also very controversial in its time. Leaves of Grass focused heavily on the pleasures of the body and the material world in ways that were considered inappropriate. This writing was heavily influenced by Whitman’s dedication to humanist philosophy; a focus on humanity and the physical world rather than on the spiritual.
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier is said to have burned his copy of the book. Author and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson said regarding the 1855 edition: "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards." Literary Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold called the book “a mass of stupid filth,” and accused Whitman of being a homosexual. Even Emerson, who wrote words of praise for Leaves of Grass, urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery contained within the book.
Leaves of Grass would go on to have 6 different editions published. By the final version, the “deathbed edition,” Leaves of Grass had grown from 95 pages containing 12 poems to a volume of more than 400 collected works.
While the first edition of Leaves of Grass focused primarily on themes of freedom and nature, poems added in future editions took on a more solemn feel, and played with themes like love and death.
One of his many lines of poetry about death was this:
"Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it."
About love, he wrote the following:
“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me”
This turn may have been a result of Whitman’s experiences during the civil war. His brother, George Washington Whitman, went to war on the Union side, and on seeing the name G. W. Whitmore in a list of wounded and fallen soldiers, went to find out if his brother was still alive. The sight of the war wounded had a deep impact on Whitman. He found George alive. His brother would later be captured by Confederate forces and held prisoner for more than a month. He also wrote about his experiences during the Civil War in a book titled Memoranda During the War.
In 1872, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed. From1884 on, he lived mostly bedridden, still writing. He died in 1892; the cause of death listed as pleurisy and miliary tuberculosis. His lungs had reduced to one eighth of their normal breathing capacity.
Whitman’s life and work had a tremendous influence on the American poetic tradition. He inspired poets like Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes, and his reputation as a vagabond inspired beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Outside of the US, authors like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda counted Whitman among their influences.
Poetry would not be what it is today without Whitman, and in keeping with his belief that the poet and society have a mutually influential relationship with one another, society itself would also not be the same without him. He was a revolutionary writer, and truly America’s poet.
Our beautiful wrap ring, bearing the words, “we were together - I forget the rest” celebrates the impact Walt Whitman had on our literary tradition, and the mark he left on America. This quote expresses the immediacy and intimacy of love, and makes a perfect gift for your own loved one.