Walt Whitman Poems
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: a Comparative Review of American Poets
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were two very contrasting poets that wrote during the writing period of the American Renaissance between 1830 and 1865. This period happened around the end of the Civil War, and many of Whitman’s writings had to do with it, such as “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” Whitman also wrote with a bigger sense of nationalism, like he did in “I Hear America Singing.” Dickinson, on the other hand, was almost the opposite. She preferred a more solemn and simplistic writing style, with almost a sense of calmness. Whitman was broad, large, and bold in his writing, whereas Dickinson was a minimalist writer. Socially, Whitman was an extrovert, while Dickinson was a secluded and shy introvert. Both of their personalities were implemented in their writing. This is prominent in many of her poems. Whitman and Dickinson were both key contributors to American literature; they differ in some ways, and are similar in others.
One of Emily Dickinson’s poems was “If you Were Coming in the Fall.” This poem is a love poem, and very smooth compared to Whitman’s writing style. When contrasted to Whitman’s piece called “Song of Myself,” it has a very different tone. Dickinson’s poem is a love poem about how if she knew when her astray love would return to her, she would do everything to make time go by faster; however, since she does not know when that time will be, she doesn’t find this waiting very appealing. Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” is a list of different scenarios that the speaker was a part of, with the point being to show that there are many different views of America and the American dream, and everything is always changing. Dickinson’s poem is more romantic, while Whitman’s piece is more proud and diverse. However, this is not the only way these two writings are different.
Dickinson’s poem, “If you Were Coming in the Fall,” has somewhat of a rhyme scheme; the first stanza has an ABCB rhyme scheme, with the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas following suit. The second stanza is almost the same rhyme scheme, but line 6 and 8 is internal rhyme. In Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” there is basically no rhyme scheme. In fact, the stanzas in this poem vary in the amount of lines, and there is rarely any structure; this is true for most of Whitman’s poetry. Also, Dickinson’s poem has a rhythm to it when read, while Whitman’s is read like any other story. Whitman wrote in free verse most of the time, including in this poem, and Emily Dickinson wrote with a structure to it. In summary, when it comes to the actual rhythm and rhyme of the poem, Whitman almost completely throws it all to the wind, while Dickinson wrote hers in a very structured, rhythmic style.
Not only are the poems structured differently, they also have very different tones to them. Dickinson’s tone has a sense of hopelessness in the last stanza. The speaker is “uncertain of the length” and it goads her; this implies a sense of reluctance in the speaker. For most of Whitman’s poem, the speaker is very sure of everything. Also, Dickinson’s poem is more melodramatic and solemn, while Whitman’s is bold. For example, in stanza two, the speaker sees the land and shouts with joy. This is very contrasted to Dickinson and her uncertainty. Also, the speaker had a fun time after digging for clams. Overall, the message behind Whitman’s poem is that everyone has different perspectives of the American dream; while his poem tells five stories, Dickinson doesn’t focus on any stories. In fact, these two poems barely have anything in common.
When it comes to figures of speech, Dickinson and Whitman can differ. In this specific poem by Dickinson, she uses parallelism; the first four stanzas start with the word “if” followed by how long it would take for her love to come back, and how she would make it go by faster. Also, Dickinson uses metaphors is her poem while Whitman does not; for example, she says if her love was coming in the fall, she would swat the summer away like a housewife would with a fly. Dickinson also under exaggerates some things while Whitman does not. For example, Dickinson says if it takes her long lost love centuries to return to her, she’ll count them all on fingers. Although Whitman does not make understatements, he is much more descriptive than Dickinson; this is true for most of his poems. Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman describes each detail of every story he tells and uses lots of imagery. In the first stanza, when the speaker is looking for a place to sleep, he says it’s in the wilderness, near the mountains, on top of a pile of leaves with his dog and his gun. In the second stanza, he describes the image of a Yankee clipper on their boat, cutting through the foam and the sparkle of the water before stumbling on land. The third stanza in this poem is on the more descriptive side; it tells about a wedding between a trapper and an Indian girl; it then goes on to describe the outward appearance of the girl’s family, the appearance of the groom, then the appearance of the bride. The last stanza describes a runaway slave as having a “sweated body and bruised feet,” and just generally creates an image of the scenario. In summary, Dickinson and Whitman have very differing styles, especially in these two poems; no matter what, both of them are still very popular writers that greatly contributed to American literature.
The Stark Contrast Between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s work have various contrasts. Compared with Dickinson’s brief and apparently straightforward words, Whitman’s is long and regularly unpredictable. However, both twentieth-century scholars share a few likenesses when dove into completely. Although their methodology’s distinction, they frequently manage similar subjects, and both created their own special style of writing.
Dickinson’s compositions on death is progressively mind-boggling and incomprehensible, and unquestionably dark. She illustrates death, as an observing ruler or a convincing lover. In one of her progressively most -known poems, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, passing resembles a compassionate courter. A considerable portion of her different poems are about the moment when someone dies. In ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died’, Dickinson endeavors to clarify what exactly occurs at the limit of death. She portrays the experience as tangled as she endeavors to characterize that minute with striking pictures and sounds. Despite the fact that Whitman and Dickinson expound on death in various settings, both appear to feel obligated to handle the issue more than once. They continue depicting it in their works. It is similarly evident that neither one of them felt threatened from death. Whitman refers to his approaching passing in the last stanza of ‘Song of Myself’. He continues utilizing nature as a symbolism for the man’s connection to death in his works.
Truly, the two of them utilized death and nature as a typical point however their poems are vastly independent. Whitman’s style of composing is exceptionally bright, energized and extended, and the utilization of catalogues, diction and Free Verse, for he was the principal individual to do as such, are being applied. Dickinson’s state of articulation is dark, short, baffling and continually about the hunt of the spirit either previously or after death. The stark contrast between these two authors allows the reader to look at the concept of death from drastically different perspectives.
In their personal lives Dickenson and Whitman were very different. Emily Dickenson was a very closed person who did not speak much, in fact at one moment in her life she stopped talking as a whole, which caused her to keep her poems short and use slant rhyme. Walt Whitman on the other hand was a very loud and open person who did not fear on how he would express himself and could talk for hours, thus the long poems that are easy to read and understand.
Source Material as a Rich Foundation for Many Literary Texts
Source material is a rich foundation for many literary texts, including novels, short stories, and poems. However, it takes a skilled author to select a source material—a character, a topic, a theme, an event, an idea, etc.—and transform it into a unique work that is truly his or her own. As you read the following selections, keep in mind that some elements of the texts were drawn from source material and used in a new and unique way.
Source material is often text, but it could also be a photograph, a statue, a painting, or even a firsthand account. Major conflicts, such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, have become the subjects of art, thus serving as source material for literary texts. Recall the story of “Prometheus” as told by Josephine Preston Peabody. The fate of people and society, as well as Prometheus’ actions, reactions, and decisions, directly result from the war between the villainous Zeus and the Titans. Prometheus is a hero who does what he thinks is right. This character type, along with similar ideas about oppression, are also present in Anthem. While the novel that is very different from the myth, they do share some elements. As you read, you will notice that the same topics and themes come up again and again throughout literary texts.
A topic is a text’s subject, or what the text is mainly about. A theme is the lesson or universal truth that lies beneath the words. Themes are universal, meaning they can be understood by many people across time and cultures. Themes can be shared many texts and appreciated whether the reader lived 200 years ago in England or in the modern-day United States. Many authors draw upon topics and themes from source materials. But each author develops the source material differently and incorporates unique elements into his or her text so that it is not simply a duplicate of someone else’s work. This happens so often in literature that it can be unnoticeable unless you analyze what you are reading.
Here is a perfect example: The theme “love is blind” is at the very heart of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The star-crossed lovers are from feuding families, but their only care is that they are in love and want to be together. The popular musical West Side Story tells essentially the same story, but the author Arthur Laurents, writing in 1961, set his version in then present-day New York City. His protagonists, Tony and Maria, fall in love although they are associated with a rival gangs. The theme remains the same, and because it is universal, people can relate to it now, just as they could in Shakespeare’s day.
Another popular theme in literature is “bravery is the face of adversity.” This theme is expressed in countless books, including Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind (in which Scarlett O’Hara must overcome the hardships of the Civil War and the years following), 1947’s The Diary of Anne Frank (in which Anne and others must hide in an attic to elude capture from the Nazis), and the 1997 movie Titanic (in which the men give up their seats in the lifeboats to women and children, among other instances of bravery). As you can see, topics, events, and characters (or real people) are just part of the text. They lead to bigger ideas and messages. The author uses his or her own imagination and style to build on the source material, conveying the ideas and messages in a fresh way that readers can enjoy.
Events of all sorts shape history and cultures, so it is not very surprising that many authors draw inspiration from these important, world-changing incidents. In fact, an author of a literary text can take one event—a war, a political movement, a new law or amendment, etc.—and create a whole new world around it. Think again about Gone With the Wind. This sweeping Civil War-era novel covers many universal themes, including:
- War sweeps up everything in its path.
- Individual freedom and independence are essential to life.
- Human life is sacred.
- Attaining ones equal rights is a necessary struggle.
In her novel, Mitchell makes the story personal to the reader by revolving the plot around Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, who undergoes hardships in the midst of the Civil War and the fight to end slavery. Rita Williams-Garcia’s trilogy One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama, also works of historical fiction, follow a trio of sisters during the 1960s when the Civil Rights era takes hold and share many of the same themes as Gone With the Wind, set a century earlier. The shared themes are just as relevant in a novel about the 1960s as they are in a novel about the Civil War.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity. Christ was arrested and, after enduring six trials, was mocked, beaten, and whipped. A crown of thorns was placed atop his head. He was then made to bear a large cross over rugged ground to the place that had been deemed his execution site. Christ’s hands and feet were then nailed to the cross, where he hung for three hours under the brutal sun, then in three hours of darkness. His actions were that of a truly selfless mortal man who lived a life without sin. He knew that nobody else on Earth could live a life so without sin that he or she could enter Heaven. Therefore, Christ offered himself as a sacrifice in the place of all other mortals. To Christians, Christ’s act is viewed as the supreme sacrifice, making him Christianity’s savior.
Song 38 begins with the author talking about the “usual mistake.” In the second stanza, we learn he has been hit with mockery, insults, and “blows of the bludgeons and hammers,” and this is what he believes, incorrectly, is the true meaning of life. Whitman then goes on to mention his own “crucifixion and bloody crowning.” These direct references all relate to Christ’s crucifixion. When the author says, “I resume the overstaid fraction,” he is telling the reader that painful experiences blot out the parts of life that are kind and loving. Christ remained loving and kind, despite his ordeal. Whitman then reminds the reader that “gashes heal,” and the poem continues on with a more upbeat tone and imagery.
The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was part of the “manifest destiny” movement, in which it was felt that the United States had the right to expand across the entire continent. In the process of pushing toward the Pacific Ocean, the United States took nearly one-third of Mexico’s land, including almost all of what is now California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Prior to the official start of the war, there were already battles, one of which occurred in the town of Goliad, Texas, in 1836. With General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his Mexican soldiers advancing across Texas, Sam Houston ordered Colonel James W. Fannin to evacuate his men, roughly 400 of them, from Goliad. They were to retreat about 30 miles away to a town called Victoria, where they would be protected by the Guadalupe River. Houston gave his orders on March 14.
Colonel Fannin disobeyed. It is unclear why. However, by the time he ordered the retreat on March 19, it was too late. The Mexican forces, 1,400 strong, were close at hand, following on the heels of Colonel Fannin’s troops. Colonel Fannin was injured. With no food and little water and ammunition, the unprepared Texas troops were slaughtered or taken as prisoners of war. Clearly, Whitman tells the story of this disastrous battle in Song 34—everything from the number of soldiers to the retreat to Colonel Fannin’s injury to the slaughter and capture of the outnumbered troops. In his poem, Whitman paints the Texas soldiers as gallant heroes—omitting the crucial part about the colonel disobeying Houston, which undoubtedly contributed to the defeat of his troops.
In “Song of Myself, Song 34,” Whitman uses bravery as one of his themes—bravery that he associates with this actual historic event (his source material). But how do you know that bravery is a theme? What parts of the text provide evidence for the conclusion that Whitman is trying to convey this message? Just look at stanza three where Whitman describes the soldiers in this way: They were the glory of the race of rangers, Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship, Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate. Many of these details develop the idea of courageous, well-trained young men who met an untimely demise. As a poet, Whitman does not come right out and say, “These men were brave.” He lets the reader interpret his details.
Whenever you develop your ideas about theme, search throughout the text for evidence that supports your conclusion. Your instincts about theme may be correct if you have read carefully, and there there will be details that back up your thoughts. Consider both Song 34 and Song 38 from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” Although they seem quite different and deal with events that are not associated with one another—one a historic event, the other a religious event—these two songs are part of a much longer work. Therefore, it is not surprising that the author would include some themes that recur from song to song.
What is a theme that Whitman uses in both Song 34 and Song 38?
One theme that is present in both Song 34 and Song 38 is the idea that suffering unites people. In Song 34, evidence that supports this theme is “A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay together/The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt,” which describes the suffering of the soldiers. In Song 38, an example of evidence is “trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!,” which alludes to Christ’s crucifixion on the cross.
For authors, source material is a deep well. The same events, themes, ideas, characters—and, yes—real-life peopleserve as the basis for countless works of literature. Authors sometimes adhere to details in the source material and sometimes transform the source material until it is almost unrecognizable. In either case, identifying and analyzing source material can greatly enhance a reader’s understanding of a text.
Overview of the Poetry Collection “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman
The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman’s celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity. This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual human’s role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
In the poetry collection by Walt Whitman called, “Leaves of Grass”, the author celebrates in many different writings, his life and his ability to be a human being. The different poems inside this book focused on the pleasures of the world along with the materials in the world. This book of poems was very influenced by the fact that the transcendentalist movement was going on. Whitman was highly interested in the author, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his writings.
The different poems switch formats as far as the way they are set up. There are not rules that the author seems to follow when setting up the lines and the different parts of the poems. This book was most likely looked down on by many different people because of the amount of sexual imagery in it. The sexual content seems to be a little much and is probably not talked about in schools.
The book is sectioned into many different areas, with different names and titles. However, the focus of all of the poems seems to focus on one’s self and an individual. A lot of the poems seem to have an influence on the Civil War, where he actually served in. He related his poems to the time frame and period he wrote them but not as much as anyone else.
Whitman was one of the only authors that doesn’t speak about the time period he lives in as much, more about themselves and the different things happening in his life instead of during his time period. It’s nice to hear about other things other than the time he lives in and the history. He writes about materialistic things, how things affect life and more.
The author is an American poet that seemed to influence many people in the world with his writings. He was influenced by many; however, he influenced many others himself and was the hero of other authors. He was a very good writer and wrote about things he wanted to no matter what others seemed to say. His topics were not time period based, but they were so much better.
Analysis of the Theme of Human Nature in Walt Whitman’s Poetry
As the new world developed into a vastly growing nation, the spread of ideas and influence from Europe pushed its way into the colonies, and what would soon become the Unites States of America. Government structure and criticism of human behavior was constantly challenged throughout the growth of the America. This was an advantage for many artists to take ownership of their craft and bring out their message to the audience. Many of those who moved over across the Atlantic arrived to a new start to life, filled with what was hoped to be as a new beginning and a more optimistic society. Even though that may not have been the case initially for the growth of the country, this new slate was the beginning to how America would claim itself. Walt Whitman was one of many poets at the time who’s work helped capture the potential future of America. His work touched upon views of political progression and unity, and its resemblance to the unity of nature and life. His work was the start to a new foundation, promoting freedom of expression and self-worth.
When describing Walt Whitman’s work, the reader can experience an overflow of powerful feelings relating to the idea of man and nature. Whitman describes the importance of the identification of oneself, and an individual’s relationship to the rest of the world. He perceives the idea of “self” as a spiritual entity with can never remain constant due to the influx of ideas and change affecting it from the rest of the world, or the universe. To Whitman, our “self” is both influenced by our individual actions, as well as our relationship to the rest of the universe and its actions towards us. He emphasis our individual existence as a contributor towards the function of the world, but also that our existence is not merely a number. Described in his most famous work Song of Myself, our very scent is an, “aroma finer than prayer,” (Whitman, line 29) and our own knowledge more power than, “churches, bibles, and all the creeds.” (Whitman, line 30) The houses we build and the families we make all come from the same family tree sprouting from a common root. Every aspect of our spiritual and physical existence, from “the atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air…” (Whitman, line 6) all comes back around to its origin. Therefore, if we all come from the same beginning we must, “accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” (Whitman, line 10-12) Whitman’s expresses strong views towards the development of a democracy, which went against his time with other European poets whose poetry became increasingly associated with nationalism. The foundation of which America was established upon gave Whitman the right to criticize the idea of nationalism and its inapplicability towards America. He openly critics, “I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard/Nature without check with original energy.” (Whitman, lines 13-14) for he values the freedom of speech, hence what the Unites States is crafted upon. His freedom of expression is expressed through the work he writes, hence extending his views onto the world, sounding his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (Whitman, line 34) Besides writing about the indescribable beauty of nature like many poets did during his time, he described nature as not only as sacred, but in a lot of ways similar in its wild features to humanity’s untamed ways. Nature cannot be kept quiet, for it is its own “self,” in what Whitman wants to extend towards humanity and our time to claim the possession of “self.”
In comparison to European poets in the late nineteenth century, Whitman’s poetry differed in its short and direct structure and style, crafting a uniqueness only seen in his work. Similarly to European poets such as Friedrich Schlegel, both were their own creators in creation to tying romanticism in literary work. In Schlegel’s case, he was credited for using the term “romantic” to describe his work, making him one of the first artists to combine emotional connotation into an imaginative form throughout his writings. His work introduced the idea of individualism, spontaneity, freedom from rules, and beliefs that imagination is superior to reason than devotion to beauty. He displayed these romantic views, whereas Whitman went on to extend them. However, both poets provided society a different glance at life, as opposed to what was already spoon-fed to them throughout history. Their new ways of thinking brought influence into what the future of America and Europe would look like, for once again times brought change but this time would bring some hope, especially after the break of the civil war in the states.
Many forms of art immerged once again, just as it had done during the Renaissance and in history after. This new form of art considered humanity’s relationship towards nature, which found to be easily described through text such as the poetry that took place. Though many poets went about publishing their work, the ones that were able to stand out provided a voice, such as Walt Whitman. He created and started a new style of art in comparison to the previously established poetic norms. The traditional way of writing poetry was discarded in his work and turned in favor of a more personal voice. His work seems to touch the reader directly, in lines that didn’t rely on rigid meter and instead moved with open arms. Through his inner conflicts, and the conflicts of many common Americans, Whitman was able to allow his work to speak for them. He became not only a writer, but a voice for the majority of Americans who weren’t associated with higher class. He helped to expose the fears that many everyday Americans had to face, therefore allowing his work to be attainable and accessible. His universal language provided a solution to difficult situations, and the hope of growing from them.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer: How Walt Whitman Illustrated the Intellectual and Emotional Side of a Person
In every human, there is a split between the intellectual and the emotional. The intellectual is the rational sensible part of a person, and the emotional is the feelings and emotions connected to a person. In order for a normal individual to function properly, he or she needs to balance these two parts and use each one in its proper place. For example, if a mother would think rationally about having children, she might come to the conclusion that the means do not justify the ends. Therefore, it is imperative that she considers it from an emotional standpoint in order to understand that even though logically having children doesn’t make sense, it is the most amazing thing a woman can do.
In the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman describes a simple man listening to a lecture by an astronomer. From the first line, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” Whitman shows us the intellect of the individual in the poem. The fact that he wrongly spells “learned” reveals that the individual does not possess a high intellect. It even seems rather comical that such an individual would be attending a lecture about astronomy.
“When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me”—Here we see that the individual is unaware of the meaning behind the numbers but simply refers to them all in a childish manner as figures in columns. Whitman makes it feel as if the figures were a dark, scary wall towering over the individual, cutting him off from what everyone else seems to be looking at.
In the line “When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,” Whitman seems to be painting a picture of a classroom, the center of the intellect.
It seems as if the individual is about to take a test and be graded among his peers. Again, we find a trace of fear hidden behind these childish words—the last remains of any self-esteem washed away by a river of numbers and equations.
“When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room”–Here, just like in the first example, we have to wonder what this individual is doing sitting in a lecture hall listening to an astronomer. It seems obvious from what Whitman is showing us in terms of spelling that the individual is far below the intellectual standard needed to understand an astronomer’s lecture. The last part of the line brings a metaphorical tear reminiscent of a young child being shunned away from a group of friends. The individual doesn’t know why the crowd is clapping, but he knows he is missing out on something.
“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick”–From here we seem to get an answer out of the first question we posed: What is this individual doing in a lecture about astronomy? Whitman gives us a hint by the use of the word ”unaccountable.” It seems as though the individual wants to sound intelligent; he is yearning for a change to show the world that he is not an outcast, unable to relate to modern humans.
Rather, he is trying to show everyone that he is like you and I, a person capable of appreciating astronomy and art.
“Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself” –Now comes the realization that he is different from the rest of society, the implication of the words “by myself” ringing in the empty world around him. He is a loner, unable to withstand the tortures of a lecture while all the people around him seem to be basking in the illumination of astronomy. He asks what makes him so different, but no one is there to give him a reply.
Whitman gives us a beautiful wrap-up: “In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time. Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” After being rejected and shunned from the intellectual side of the world, he now reflects on what he has been able to retain that others have not: an emotional vantage point. What makes the stars perfect to him is the fact that they remain pure and untainted by the reality of what they are. To an intellectual mind, stars are no more than balls of gas up in the sky, but to this individual they can be anything from old kings looking down upon the earth and guiding us to gods in heaven helping out the weak and shining down on them. To him, perfection comes from the ability to feel emotion rather than from a purely intellectual way of looking at the world.
Unveiling the Metaphor of Light in Civil War Poems
The above passage is excerpted from Canto I of Longfellow’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso (22-24). In this third section of The Divine Comedy, Dante uses light as a metaphor for goodness; as objects move closer to God, they reflect more light. However, light serves another purpose in the work, as well. The divine light in Paradiso is so bright that at first, the speaker cannot even bear to look at it in its entirety. His experience of visiting Paradiso is so intense that he is continually conscious about using language to recount it accurately. In the quotation, the speaker can only hope to convey “a shadow” of the great light to which he is exposed.
As a poet, Whitman, too, is conscious about his ability to accurately depict what he observed in visiting Union hospitals during the Civil War. In the introduction to his Memoranda, written between 1862 and 1865, he writes:
Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin.
In fact, Whitman uses Dante’s metaphor of light and reflection in several of his Civil War poems. In one aspect, Whitman uses the concept of illumination to glorify images of soldiers. However, he also uses the concept of illumination to expose the horrors of war particularly the bodies of dead or wounded soldiers. In addition, Whitman uses scarcity or reflection of light to articulate a literal absence of holiness, as well as his own concern about depicting real images in poetry. The idea of projecting the shadow or reflection of a true image, introduced by Plato in 360 B.C.E and adapted by Dante in 1300 A.D., resurfaced in the 1860s in Whitman’s poetry as a result of growing technological advances in the field of photography. The first successful picture (i.e. image reproduced on a sensitized surface by the action of light) was produced in 1827, but the exposure time was approximately eight hours, restricting subjects to landscapes only. It was not until 1851 only ten years prior to the Civil War that Frederick Scott Archer introduced a method known as the Collodion process, in which exposure times were reduced to two or three seconds, thus opening up new horizons in photography. At that time, the goal of capturing a realistic image in a still photograph revived the age-old question of whether a shadow or reflection of an image could accurately depict its true meaning. Photographs were widely used during the Civil War in capturing images of battlefields and of dead and wounded soldiers.
But just as people wondered whether the photographs could truly portray the reality of their subjects, Whitman, too, wondered whether his poems could accurately describe his experiences and observations to the fullest extent. This is why in several of the Civil War poems, the settings are often poorly lit, and soldiers are described as dark figures or shadows. Furthermore, Whitman capitalizes on the qualities of the moon that capture the essence of the “light” metaphor; while moonlight can provide an illuminating effect, it is “photographic” in the sense that its rays are reflected from the sun.
Whitman evokes this quality of moonlight in “Look Down Fair Moon.” On one hand, Whitman commemorates the dead soldiers by requesting that the moon “bathe this scene” and “pour softly down.” On the other hand, the fact that Whitman uses moonlight as opposed to a purer kind of light suggests that he is aware that his poem cannot represent them accurately. The poem itself acts as a reflection of the true image of the soldiers, just as the moonlight that bathes them is a reflection of sunlight.
The romantic language of the beginning of the poem comes to a halt at the end of the second line with “faces ghastly, swollen, purple,” indicating that the poem is not solely for the purpose of their commemoration. It is clear, as is the case in many of his Civil War poems, that Whitman intentionally calls the reader’s attention to the body and to the physical appearance of the dead. Here, he describes the dead soldiers as Christ-like figures, saying: “the dead on their backs with arms toss’d wide.” The image is not of soldiers lying at peace, but rather of bodies strewn about as if they died suddenly. The Christ-like language suggests that they are martyrs, or innocent people who died for their country. However, the fact that the bodies are not at peace and the faces are “ghastly, swollen, purple” suggests that there is something horribly wrong with the picture. The poem is indeed like a picture the scene is motionless, and reading the poem gives the eerie impression of looking at a snapshot of a battlefield at night.
In fact, the effect of reading the poem is much like the effects that people had in viewing photographs taken during the war. The poem, like a photograph, is emotionally powerful; yet Whitman is conscious of the problem of attempting to describe something so powerful in a poem, just like the problem of capturing the essence of a true image in a photograph. His intention is not merely to shock the reader, but also to impress the images of the dead on the reader’s mind so that he will not forget the horrors of the war. By using moonlight to shine over the soldiers, Whitman commemorates them, while at the same time exposes the horror of their deaths, and expresses his concern about representing them accurately. Whereas Dante could only convey a shadow of the light because it was too divine for words, Whitman presents a reflection of the true image in part because it is too horrific for words.The concept of light becomes somewhat more problematic in “Dirge for Two Veterans.”
Whitman’s movement from “Look Down Fair Moon” to “Dirge for Two Veterans” parallels the growing issues about photography in his time. While the moon shines over dead, motionless bodies in “Look Down Fair Moon,” there is much more movement in “Dirge for Two Veterans,” which poses the photographic problem of capturing a moving image. Whitman’s attempt to assign meaning to the moon’s presence is represented well in the line: “Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,” since he combines both “beautiful” and “ghastly” in the same adjectival phrase. At the beginning, the poem appears to be about the “two veterans son and father dropt together,” but it soon transforms to being about a “strong dead-march.” The effect is that the father and son become representative characters, and the dirge is for all dead soldiers. Thus, in the final stanza, the “you” in “The moon gives you light” refers not just to the two veterans, but to all of the dead who lost their lives unjustly in battle. In saying, “The moon gives you light,” Whitman refers to the moon acting as a force that glorifies their bodies as well as one that unveils the horror of their deaths. Further contributing to that duality is the fact that the poem begins with the last sunbeam falling “from the finish’d Sabbath.” Just like the dead soldiers who lay on their backs like Christ figures, there is something extremely unholy about the burial of father and son in the “new-made double grave” on the Sabbath, the holiest time of the week. His difficulty in reconciling commemoration and exposure of the unholy is paralleled by the movement of the “strong dead-march,” which is harder to capture both photographically and poetically.
Whitman’s use of light becomes even more complicated in “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.” Appropriately, the setting of the poem is darker and more vague than in others. Instead of the moon, Whitman uses a scarcity of light to represent the photographic problem of capturing moving images as well as the problem of balancing commemoration with exposure of the grotesque. Since the poem deals more directly with what Whitman actually saw and recorded in Union hospitals, his concerns about being able to convey his observations accurately are well-developed through the use of images of scarce light and shadows.Throughout the poem, things are described as poorly lit. In the third and fourth lines, the retreating army comes upon the lights of a “dim-lighted building.” Inside, he sees: a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made, Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps, And by one great pitchy torch stationary with the wild red flame and clouds of smoke.
The dark and dimly-lit atmosphere underscores the very idea that what the speaker sees is “beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” Whitman’s own experience of seeing the heaps of wounded soldiers is so intense that he cannot describe it clearly for the reader, nor can it be captured entirely in a photograph, for that matter. Hence, it is “beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” That is why the images in the poem are vague and difficult to see. In essence, the words themselves are mere shadows of the true forms from which they are inspired. Whitman mentions his own doubts about portraying the experience through the voice of the nurse by saying, “I stanch the blood temporarily.” In this instance, Whitman represents himself as being ineffective as a nurse in order to express his concern about being ineffective as a poet. The stanching of the blood is an ephemeral act, just as Whitman believes his poem to be ephemeral and incapable of describing the experience. He reinforces the notion that he cannot effectively recount the experience by using vague and nondescript language, as in the line: “faces, varieties, postures beyond description”.
Continuing the sense of duality in “Look Down Fair Moon” and “Dirge for Two Veterans,” Whitman incorporates the commemoration of the soldiers along with the exposure of the unholy. “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest” takes place in “a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital.” The fact that the soldiers are in a church suggests that they are somehow sacred and praiseworthy. However, there is a bitter irony in their location, much like the way the dead soldiers are depicted as Christ-like figures in “Look Down Fair Moon” and the way in which the father and son are put to rest on the Sabbath in “Dirge for Two Veterans.” The fact that the soldiers who are wounded from battle are inside a place of worship suggests that there is something sacrilegious about the entire scene. The scarcity of light in the poem returns to the idea of Dante’s Paradiso, in which the amount of light reflected in an object is proportional to its goodness. Whitman concludes the poem with an image of darkness, with the army “ever in darkness marching.” The image of the marching army is significant because at the time of the Civil War, technology was not yet efficient enough to photograph a moving army. Furthermore, the army would have been impossible to photograph since it is in darkness, without a light source such as the moon in the other poems. Thus, in addition to the scarcity of light, as in the “dim-lighted building” and the “shadows of deepest, deepest black,” the problem of capturing movement in a photograph, such as the marching on in darkness, serves to convey Whitman’s perceived shortcomings about the poem’s ability to portray reality. At the same time, the literal distance of the soldiers from light serves to convey the blasphemy of the situation.
In 1839, following the death of Joseph Niepce, the producer of the first successful photograph, Louis Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype, which produced images on photographic plates. At the time, some were skeptical of the process of photography and what it sought to achieve. For example, a German newspaper report stated:The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible… but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man-made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman… to give to the world an invention of the Devil? In writing poems about what he witnessed in hospitals during the Civil War, Whitman sought to counter opinions like the one stated in the article above. By publishing his journals and numerous poems describing the nature of the war in great detail, he strove to accomplish what photographers of the time were striving to do capture the essence of a true image in a still frame. Just like the photographers of his time, however, Whitman was aware of the physical difficulty of attempting this. This is why so many of the poems express concerns similar to those of the speaker in Paradiso about a failure to relate the experience. Combining the function of light in photography with the metaphorical purpose of light in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Whitman succeeds in illuminating the essence of the Civil War its glory as well as its horror while conveying his concern about being able to reproduce it accurately.
Edwards’ Personal Narrative and Whitman’s Song of Myself: Comparison of Two Perspectives on Religion
Upon reading Jonathan Edwards’ Personal Narrative, one would undoubtedly find that Edwards’ descriptions and expressions of his insurmountable love for God (and all things in relation to the Christian faith) are of an extreme degree uncommon to that of the ordinary believer. It is therefore justifiable to pinpoint one of the themes in Personal Narrative as being intense emotionalism towards religion, or, to be more precise, towards his Puritan faith. In addition to examining aspects of his work with regard to this theme, this essay will also compare Personal Narrative to a section of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; section 48, as this part of Whitman’s influential and historic poem details his own strong, differing opinions about religion and God.
As a child, Edwards initially found the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as horrible and abhorrent. He used to be repulsed by the idea that God chooses “whom He would to eternal life and rejecting whom He pleased”. However, his point of view was completely altered at some point, which he describes as a “wonderful alteration”, and from that moment on he continued to have very little to hardly any doubts and objections towards this doctrine. In fact, God’s absolute sovereignty is what his mind was so rest assured of, and had come to often appear to him as “exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet”. He then began to have great longings after God and holiness – finding all that revolves around his faith as extremely “sweet” and full of “delight”. His passionate love for God thus lead him to feel “a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian”.
This conviction, however, meant that he repulsed all notions of pleasure on Earth so that he may instead direct all his attention, love and energy onto being with Christ in the afterlife. He therefore made “a solemn dedication to God” in which he states: “…in giving up myself and all that I had to God; to be for the future in no respect my own; to act as one that had no right to himself, in any respect”. It is this extreme devotion to God that emphasises his emotionalism, to the point where he places himself in a position so humble, especially as he vowed to look on nothing else as any part of his own happiness, believing that he had no right to feel delight in earthly matters. This is proven as Edwards declares to have vowed to “fight with all [his] might, against the world, the flesh and the devil”.
From his words, it can be discerned that Edwards’ love and commitment to God and his Puritan faith made him a strong believer of orthodox Christian ideologies of that era, whereby the soul is seen as an eternal, transcendental creation and thus superior to the temporal human body. This belief had been a catalyst in shaping Edwards’ opinion to strongly divide the soul and the body by objecting to any pleasures of the flesh, and focusing only on all that would benefit the soul, particularly for the hereafter. His determination to “fight… against the world, the flesh and the devil” exemplifies his attitude towards the body and the Earth as being creations related to sin, and so should not be allowed the least bit of mercy.
These strict, ardent ideals contrast greatly to those of Walt Whitman’s, which can be deduced from section 48 of his renowned poem: Song of Myself. In this small fraction of Whitman’s long Song, the poet openly dictates his views on God and spirituality. By this segment, Whitman had become courageous enough to boldly declare, “I have said that the soul is not more than the body / And I have said that the body is not more than the soul / And nothing, not God, is greater to one that one’s self is”. This does not mean that Whitman was so indifferent of God, or that he was an atheist. On the contrary, Whitman was a spiritual person himself, and believed in the Christian faith, yet not in the same context as traditional teachings of the church. Whitman’s version of Christianity was more in favour of nature, and was overall a democratic one. He believed that the soul and body should both be equally glorified and therefore refusing the body of its happiness would be an unchristian thing to do. On top of that, he firmly believed that God was not a being so exalted and high above human beings, but rather an existing presence in everyone and everything: “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least / Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself”.
For this reason, Whitman did not see the world and all that existed within it as unworthy of beauty, as opposed to Edwards, who claimed that, “I do certainly know that I love holiness… It appeared to me, to be the highest beauty and amiableness, above all other beauties: … and that everything else, was like mire, filth and defilement in comparison of it”. Certainly, this does not mean that Edwards found the rest of the world so unsightly, but rather saw that all the beauty in the world was so low in comparison to that of holiness, and so ultimately unworthy of it.
Jonathan Edwards possessed a love so intense towards God and saintliness, that he could not appreciate and admire the world and all that existed in its mortal realm, whereas Walt Whitman was a firm believer in equality. The soul, the body and God are all equal to him. In Whitman’s work, he celebrates humanity, while Edwards celebrates divinity, and is more than content that there is a Creator so exalted and in control of human fate. Thus, Whitman’s ideologies can be considered modern and highly democratic for his time, and Edwards’ were of a firm traditionalists’. Both of these contrasting opinions ended up to be greatly influential works within America and defining literary pieces in American history.
The outstanding nature towards humanity
American poet, essayist and journalist, Walt Whitman, worked to expose his readers to his unique, personal thoughts on the body, nature, and the human experience. Whitman was a humanist, and incorporated both transcendentalism and realism in his work. He is often referred to as the father of free verse. Whitman’s most praised work is Leaves of Grass: a collection of poetry, published in 1855. The poems in Leaves of Grass are seen as Whitman’s celebration of life and humanity. Whitman chooses to explore and praise the many pleasures that life has to offer, even those which may be considered immoral. Choosing to write about such subjects, both directly and indirectly, allowed for a great deal of interpretation to be made by his readers. One of the most repeated and more explicit ideas taken from his poetry regards Whitman’s sexual preference. There are several poems in Leaves of Grass that contain homoerotic imagery. Though the imagery is subtle, it is a part of his work which cannot be ignored. Through simplified and subverted word play, Whitman twists homoeroticism into his work without actually making a definitive statement about his sexual preference, never revealing whether he is homosexual or bisexual, and at the same time explores sexuality as a whole.
The majority of Whitman’s poems which contain allusions to homoeroticism are part of a section in Leaves of Grass entitled “Calamus.” Though this section contains most of the poems which are dominantly erotic, we must first question why Whitman chose “Calamus” as the title for this collection. There are a few reasons why this section can be seen as a reflection of Whitman’s sexuality and view on sexuality. First, the Acorus Calamus is a tall perennial wetland monocot. It is a plant in the Acoraceae family, which grows in the same shape as an erect human penis. Many would assume he chose this title for this section of Leaves of Grass for the erotic imagery the plant creates. Second, in Greek mythology, Kalamos, the son of the river god, Maeander, loved Karpos, who was the son of Zephyrus and Chloris. When Karpos died in a drowning accident, Kalamos was so full of grief that he himself turned into a reed (Calamus). The imagery and meaning of the word “calamus” may therefore be seen as an intentional choice made by Whitman to represent male homosexual love, both physical and emotional. We know that Whitman focuses upon the physical and emotional aspects of human life in his poetry, so it is only appropriate that this may be seen as the reasoning behind why he chose this as the title. As we look further into the poems in this section, it becomes more apparent that this is in fact his intention when writing this section.
Whitman’s poem “Behold This Swarthy Face,” in “Calamus,” is the first to hint at homoeroticism in this section. In this poem, he writes of an encounter with a man in New York City, and the interaction between them upon this meeting. Whitman is sure to emphasize the masculinity of the individual he is regarding. He assures the reader that the person he is interacting with is indeed a man, and confirms it to us with a physical description very early on in the poem. “Behold this swarthy face—these gray eyes, This beard—the white wool, unclipt upon my neck” (Whitman, 149)
Whitman begins using a physical description to ease his readers into the actual nature of this piece. He makes it very obvious what type of person is to be loved in the poem. Whitman continues: “Ye comes one, a Manhattanese, and ever at parting, kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love, And I, on the crossing of the street, or the ships deck, give a kiss in return;” (Whitman,149)
Whitman is much less delicate here than he is the beginning of the poem. Though this can be interpreted as an experience of his “bonding” or assimilating with the city he is in and the people in it, he clearly writes about a physical, faintly erotic experience with this man he has encountered. In “Behold this Swarthy Face,” the homosexual aspects are implanted so subtly that it is possible for them to be interpreted as something else, however, interpreting the writing directly brings Whitman and his work into a totally different light. Not only does writing this reveal aspects of sexuality and perhaps Whitman’s desires, but it defines him and his writing as highly progressive and open for the time period it was written in.
Also in “Calamus,” we see physical interaction and subtle homoeroticism in Whitman’s poem, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand.” The poem is significant because it takes the time to directly communicate with the reader. The poem deals with a love which is physical and spiritual at the same time. Whoever you are holding me now in hand, Without one thing all will be useless, I give you fair warning before you attempt me further, I am not what you supposed, but far different. (Whitman,135) The first lines of the poem can be seen as somewhat of a “confession” of Whitman’s sexual preference. When he says, “whoever you are” (Whitman, 135), he maybe be speaking to someone unknown, defining them as a stranger, or recognizing “whoever” as everyone reading the poem. The fact that Whitman says, “I am not what you supposed, but far different,” (Whitman,135) can support the idea that he is admitting to homosexuality. The fact that we live in a heteronormative world, and during the time Leaves of Grass was written, heteronormativity was much more dominant, we can define homosexuality here as something that would be seen as “different.” By saying he is not what one would assume he is (heterosexual), we can view this line as a sort of “coming out” to his readers. Eventually, we see the actual revelation of male interaction: “Who is he that would become my follower? Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?” (Whitman,135) The actual use of the pronoun “he,” and again with the actual written action: “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you, With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss, For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.” (Whitman,135) Whitman is taking on the role as the husband of the other party in the poem. Marriage is more than just a physical linking between two human beings, there is an infinite love and spiritual connection that is not always present in casual romance. By desiring both the physical and spiritual connection with another man, or “comrade,” we can assume that Whitman does not only want a casual meeting, but a full on matrimonial bond with a man.
Finally, references of bisexuality in “Calamus” begin to peak in Whitman’s poem “To a Stranger.” In this piece, we see Whitman begin to speak of the pleasure and privileges of knowing both sexes: Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you, You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,) I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you, (Whitman,151) Whitman tells us that he has lived a life of joy with “you,” meaning either men or women who have been a part of his story. By saying this, he is assuring his readers that he has experienced the pleasure of fully exploring sexuality as a whole. Whitman can be considered sexually “whole,” for he has indulged himself physically and spiritually in every aspect of sexuality. He confirms that the experiences he has had were indeed physical by stating: All I recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured, You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me, I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only, nor left my body Mine only, You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take my beard, Breast, hands, in return. (Whitman, 151) The emotional intimacy Whitman and the unnamed person in the poem have faced match their physical closeness, which we can assume is sexual due to the context of most of the poems in “Calamus.” Whitman’s sexual experience knows no bounds. By stating these things about himself, and knowing Whitman highly praised the human body, we can assume he has indulged in all the sexes have to offer.
Whitman’s poems have a tendency of speaking for themselves. There are a handful of other poems in Leaves of Grass that dance around the same ideas of sexuality and homoeroticism, but not as blatantly as the collection in “Calamus.” Whitman understood human existence in a unique way, and completely broke away from sexual and gender norms during the period of his writings. Leaves of Grass, and particularly the section “Calamus” uses imagery, and both subtle and blatant context clues to make a solid statement about sexuality as a whole. By doing this, Whitman separates himself from a heteronormative society and presents to us limitless poetry.
Works Cited Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: New York UP, 1965. Print.
The City He Loved: Whitman’s Manhattan
The birthplace of Walt Whitman, New York is where the poet spent much of his life and became the inspiration for much of Whitman’s poetry. Living in an era where mass industrialization and modernization began to change and shape the New York, Whitman wrote “Mannahatta” as an acknowledgement and acceptance of this shift to an urban society. By first drawing attention to the aboriginal name, Whitman references the pure, natural origins of the city and how the formation of Manhattan is from the soil makes it seem alive. After that, Whitman looks at the cityscape, the detached yet beautiful aesthetic of the city, but does not condemn it for taking over the environment around it, because the city and the earth has formed together into one system. Finally, Whitman hones in on the lives of the people in the city, treasuring each of their lives and appreciating each of them as human beings that add to the individuality and liveliness of Manhattan. “Mannahatta” is Walt Whitman’s homage to New York City; it is a celebration of the union of the urbanized metropolis and the organic natural world as well as a recognition of the humanity that brings life to his beloved city.
Whitman’s search for a name that describes New York and his love for his city leads him to the original name, Mannahatta, and subsequently brings attention to the organic and fundamental parts of the city; he shows that the city is natural and alive, from its creation to its current development. Referencing the original name for the island, Whitman writes:
I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient;
I see that the word of my city is that word up there (1-4).
Whitman sees the original name, Mannahatta, as the “perfect” name for his city, suggesting that life in New York is as organic and free it had been hundreds of years ago. Mannahatta, meaning “land of many hills,” was the name that the Lenni Lenape Indians gave the city when they first arrived upon its shores. The fact that the name still fits the city, even though it has now become an industrial metropolis, shows that at its very roots, the city is still primitive. Through using the native name, Whitman references the nomadic tendencies of the native Indians, which also makes the city appear restless and yearning . In the next lines of the poem, Whitman draws attention to the name as “liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient” (3). By using words such as “liquid” and “unruly,” Whitman makes the city appear as a fluid object, one that can form and meld without breaking or snapping. He sees New York as an autonomous being, a place where things are freewheeling and subject to change, viewing the city as a living, breathing being of its own, chaotic in its own existence. By going back to its original name, Whitman seems to suggest that Manhattan is not an unnatural system and not just an industrial structure; it is as primitive and animated as it was when it was discovered.
Despite being called “aboriginal” in the first part of the poem, Whitman still draws attention to the industrial aspects of the city, showing that he accepts the urbanization of Manhattan and that the melding together of nature and technology is welcome and appreciated. First, Whitman draws attention to the skyscrapers: “Numberless crowded streets – high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies; / Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown” (6-8). Whitman creates the image of the iron of the skyscrapers meeting the sky; the use of “light” and “clear skies” is preceded with the mention of “numberless crowded streets – high growths of iron,” (6). This seems to show that the city is “strong” and stable enough to triumphantly reach the sky and join together with the natural world. From its natural roots, New York has built itself up higher and higher until it reconnected with the sky, an ideal marriage of metal and the environment. However, Whitman does not only writes about the sky as meeting with city, but he also mentions the water as another joint that the city connects to. For example, Whitman writes:
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the
Ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The downtown streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses
Of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the
Whitman uses enjambment to allow the poem to flow fluidly, as if the words were tumbling into one another. In fact, save for the first two lines and last two lines, there are no full endstops in the entire poem. Even lines where there seems to be an end are marked by a comma or a dash, making the poem seem like one long thought, streaming and unceasing. This structure reinforces the image of the city meeting and becoming the river, cascading from one point to another. Through imagery and poetic devices, Whitman describes the union of the city with the sea and the sky to show his appreciation for this combination of modernity and the Earth that New York has become.
However, what Whitman seems to love most about Manhattan is the variety of people that live there; he seems to want to seek out the lives of each and every one of these people, imagining the possibilities within them. ?Whitman highlights the importance of humanity in the poem by using repetition in the majority of the poem, following a list-like form: “The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors, / The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft” (14-15). This repetitive form brings attention to the homogeneity of these objects, from the consistency of the sun and clouds, to the mechanical carts, to the uniformity of the groups of sailors and drivers. The repetition ends at the line that reads, “The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes” (16). By breaking out of repetition, Whitman allows the reader to pay more attention to the line, just as he prepares to pay more attention to the lives of these individuals. In the case of the citizens, there are no limitations in regards to intimacy, which Whitman seems to marvel over: “A million people — manners free and superb — open voices — hospitality — the most courageous and friendly young men…The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them! / The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!” (19-24). What sets the humans apart from the rest of the city is the difference in their structure — the city is made of concrete and steel, and no matter how hard one tries to understand it, the pure industrial character of it prevents anyone from getting too close to it. However, the people are generous and hospital, “courageous and friendly,” giving off a warmth that the cool mechanics of the city cannot have. Despite the beauty of the city, Whitman seems to suggest that without the men and women in the city, he cannot live happily in it, showing that even in the most brilliant and promising of cities, it is humanity and life that defines its worth, and so the mingling crowds of people in Manhattan is what brings worth to the city.
“Mannahatta” is Whitman’s ode to a city he loved and lived in. He takes the reader through the lives and experiences of those who live in New York, as if putting them in his shoes as he takes a stroll through the city. Living in a time when the city around him was changing, Whitman seems to embrace the modernity and industrialization of Manhattan, but does so tentatively. Although he starts with the very roots of the city and the organic origins that it was built upon, Whitman suggests that the industrial development of New York does not disrupt this naturalness, but in fact, adds to it. As the poem progresses, Whitman seems to focus in on the lives of the inhabitants of New York. He describes them just as he describes his beloved city: natural and endless. Whitman seems to suggest that without the lives and the humanity that people bring to a place, he cannot truly love this city, and in fact, his love for Manhattan is, fundamentally, a love for the people and the possibilities that lie in their existences.