Walt Whitman Poems

Unveiling the Metaphor of Light in Civil War Poems

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

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.

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Edwards’ Personal Narrative and Whitman’s Song of Myself: Comparison of Two Perspectives on Religion

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

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.

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Walt Whitman’s View of the American Glory

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Creation On Many Levels

America is made up of hard-working, dedicated individuals who enjoy doing what they do Walt Whitman’s I Hear America Singing focuses on the glory America holds when its people work and when they work doing what they love, which encompasses the idea of a country built on hard-work. What makes this poem effective in portraying this idea is the fact that Whitman mentions people who contribute to the structure of America in many ways. He mentions carpenters and masons, who built America physically, and he mentions boatmen and shoemakers, who build America’s economy. One person he mentions, however, builds America in an entirely different way: emotionally. Whitman mentions that a mother, or young wife, is singing and that this singing can be found delicious. Regardless of who it is, it can be assumed that each person enjoys what they, and that this joy is expressed in song. Whitman mentions that a carpenter and mason are singing while they work, implying that they are content and joyous with their work. The carpenter, “singing as he measures his plank,” (4) and the mason, “singing as he makes ready for work,”(6) show that these two are joyous at work and express this joy through singing. This contributes to the theme of joy through creation because while the carpenter and mason work, creating civilization, they are completely satisfied with it.

Another two people that Whitman mentions are those that build the economy of America. The shoemaker and the boatman both create the economy because they there to be a variety of goods available. This relates to the theme of construction on many levels because, similar to the mason and carpenter, the shoemaker and boatman create the foundation for America and they , too, are satisfied and happy while they do it. The last person that Whitman mentions in the poem is entirely different from the former because what carpenters, masons, boatmen, and shoemakers do for America is tangible and is apparent nationwide. Unlike these four, a mother, or young wife as Whitman would say, creates the emotional and ideological structure of America. The process of doing so is also different from the other four examples because it is also a nationwide effort to develop ideas in America. This is an example of creation on many levels because a wife or mother isn’t working with any hardware when creating ideas through the minds of her children, yet her children will one day be important because they will eventually inherit the country, so to speak. The themes of creation on many levels and joy through creation in I Hear America Singing, although not apprentice with every person mentioned, are important to the poem because they show that although what some people do for their country may not be as hard for everyone, the results of their actions could still be crucial to the structure of


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The outstanding nature towards humanity

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

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.

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The City He Loved: Whitman’s Manhattan

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

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

River-streets (10-11).

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.

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Main Ideas Of A Noiseeless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

The Spider that Could

In the poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman he speaks of a spider that faces problems and has no one to help it through them. Walt Whitman uses elements such as imagery and symbolism. He uses imagery to allow the reader to understand the surroundings, feelings, actions of both the speaker and spider. Symbolism is used to describe the actions of the spider while connecting them to human situations and how they are dealt with. Walt Whitman wants to convey to the reader that the problems that one face will be defeated with effort and perseverance.

In the first stanza Walt Whitman uses imagery to show the setting of the poem. He uses “noiseless” in the beginning to describe the spider and how it does not react to the situation like most people do when something suddenly comes up. In the second and third line of the first stanza Whitman uses “stood isolated/…vacant vast surrounding” to show that the spider is analyzing the problem before doing anything that it may regret. He also uses imagery to show how the spider then starts to build a solution for this. This relates to human nature because when people are faced with a problem most of the time people tackle it, just like how in the fourth line Whitman claimed the spider did “filament, filament, filament” taking its time.

Walt Whitman uses symbolism to compare the struggles of the spider to human life and how it is dealt with. The first stanza starts off with “A noiseless patient spider” Whitman seems to describe a person that could have been faced with a problem and is analyzing it. In the last two lines Whitman talks about how “It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” this symbolizes the effort of the spider and how it is taking it slow and being cautious. Most humans in intense situations will take their time and be aware of what they are doing in order to overcome the problem.

Whitman uses imagery once again in the second stanza to paint a picture of having the problem consume the spider like it does in life if it is given to much negative attention. In the second line of the stanza he states that the spider is “ measureless oceans of space” meaning there is no way that the problem could be tackled yet because there is no solution yet. Whitman then ends by saying “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere,” meaning the end of the problem. Once the situation is back to normal and humans have their solution to the problems.

Symbolism is in this stanza too when Walt Whitman uses “Surrounded, detached” in the second line to show that the spider is so consumed in this bump in the road that now it is all it could think about. Sometimes people can be so focused on something that it just takes away time and energy that could be used for something that makes them more happy. In the fourth line Walt uses “till the ductile anchor hold,” and it means that the spider would have to wait until it has the perfect plan to execute anything. Just like anybody would have to wait for the perfect moment in which they would be able to make things right again.

The imagery and symbolism in this poem relate to real human life because when effort and perseverance are put to use the problem is not as big. The imagery showed how the problem affected the spider and its socialness. The symbolism of the poem relates to the reality of life and its complications and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman is a great representation of life and its randomness.

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Literary Analysis of Whitman’s Elegiac Poem

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegiac poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln. The poem tracks the narrator waiting to lay a sprig of lilac on the president’s coffin, the physical journey that Lincoln’s coffin takes across the country, and, finally, a lone bird mourning far away from civilization. Specifically, the opening stanzas of the poem that follow the narrator and the stanzas concerning the thrush bird characterize the poem as an elegy through their use of classical elegiac conventions, such as references to nature, song, the apotheosis of the dead, and the transference of the narrator’s mourning to the entire world.

Throughout the poem, Whitman uses the traditional imagery and symbolism typically employed in an elegy poem. One component of elegiac imagery relies on an emphasis on nature or the pastoral, which is evident from the first line of the poem:

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d, / 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.

Whitman uses the image of colorful lilacs and spring, the season of new life, to juxtapose the premature death of Lincoln as well as to convey the speaker’s deep sadness to follow on each anniversary of the death. This reference to “ever-returning spring” also adds a somber tone by implying that although the human world may be in mourning, the natural world is disjointed from humanity and will always return to new life in spring regardless of the “the great star [that] early droop’d.”

The astrological symbolism or apotheosis of the dead is another common trait in elegy; Whitman uses both in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Throughout the poem, Whitman refers to Lincoln as a star several times:

O powerful, western, fallen star! / O shades of night! O moody, tearful night! / O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!

The use of the star to stand in for Lincoln is Whitman’s way of raising the fallen president up to the heavens, in an almost godlike manner. The imagery used to describe the fallen star consumed by darkness brings to mind an eclipse or the final moments of day when the sun finally sets; this imagery in connection with Lincoln is a sign of the speaker’s belief that Lincoln’s death was untimely and occurred too soon. The speaker’s choice of words also indicates that Lincoln was a sort of guiding star or light for America, and now that he is gone, the nation is plunged into temporary darkness at the end of the Civil War.

Whitman uses the thrush bird to symbolize nature’s mourning and as a comparison to the propriety of the narrator’s own mourning. He says of the bird, “Song of the bleeding throat! / Death’s outlet song of life — (for well, dear brother, I know / If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)” The bird mourns in a solitary swamp because he would die without the gift of song, not in the midst of civilization spurred by the death of Lincoln. The narrator recognizes and understands the thrush’s song, but he is not able to produce his own song for his fallen star:

But a moment I linger — for the lustrous star has detain’d me; / The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me. / O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone? / And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?

The speaker with the lilac does not feel he can mourn for the fallen president that means so much to him as properly as the lone thrush in the swamp does effortlessly with its death song. Whitman enters a meta-elegiac territory when he has the narrator recognize his inability to properly mourn and feels the death of Lincoln has “detain’d” him; in other words, he cannot get over the death of the president and cannot even begin the process of mourning.

Overall, Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln stands out among his poems for its heavy use of the imagery of a classical genre, yet his questioning of elegy and of mourning itself makes “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” an innovative poem full of meaning. His use of symbolism is easily explicated, but the way Whitman uses the classical elegiac framework to challenge the genre itself adds a great deal of complexity to the grief that he felt at Lincoln’s assassination and a deeper level of meaning to be extracted from the text.

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“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

The poem “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman is written in first-person point of view. Whitman writes the poem from his viewpoint using the word “I”. Whitman, as the narrator, hears and observes the hard-working individuals of America as they live their lives, carrying out their everyday responsibilities. We see through the eyes of Whitman, not any of the characters within the poem. If it weren’t first-person point of view, we would not be able to understand each different character and what tasks they deliver to America.

As Walt Whitman sightsees America, he explains listening as the working men and women sing about how pleased they are, and how wonderous America is. “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…”, “Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong…” Whitman uses words like “blithe and strong” referring to happiness and pride, and “belongs to him” which exalts their pride while working. The tone of “I Hear America Singing” is joyful. Walt Whitman rejoices the ordinary life of a regular American as they go about his or her daily responsibilities. He shows satisfaction is possible through one loving their everyday work. The tone of the poem “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman is jubilant and happy. The poem expresses Whitman’s” celebration of all that the good he grasps of America. !!!Langston Hughes” writing in “I too” shows his point of view by voicing how he is a burden to society, although this does not weaken his hope and determination to be equal.

The author states, “I am the darker brother”, talking on behalf of his race, since during his time African Americans were treated unfairly because of their skin color. Hughes does not mention the words racism, segregation, discrimination, or anything about the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, Hughes” refers to a “darker brother” being told to eat somewhere else. As it talks of such a brother, the reader can easily infer the poem as a cry for the African-American man. This leads the reader to really see the point of view of the writer. The imagery used by Hughes makes it as if you can really feel like you are there watching the man being told to eat in the other room. You can see him sitting in the kitchen eating his dinner by himself, and you can see him being ok with that. He knows that one day it will be better. When he says, “They’ll see how beautiful I am…And be ashamed” He is proud, and this makes the reader really notice the emotion in the authors writing.

When Hughes” expresses his ability to “laugh”, to “eat well”, and to “grow strong”, he also emphasizes his ability to be happy in a racist society. Something else that contributes to this poem’s joyful tone is its allusion to the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman often emphasizes “singing” of America, and to celebrate the variety of life in America. By saying that he’s also singing of America, Hughes intentionally replies to Whitman and the joyful tone of his poetry. To conclude, Hughes steps up to sing the verses Whitman might have missed.

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Literary Analysis of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” by Whitman

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

In his January 6, 1865 letter to fellow writer and self-confessed radical William O’Connor, Walt Whitman states in no uncertain terms that his poetry collection Drum Taps “delivers my ambition. . . to express. . . the pending action of this time and land we swim in, with all (its) despair. . . the unprecedented anguish of {the} suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death and agony.” But in contrast to this view, Whitman also declares Drum Taps to be a collection which reverberates with “the blast of the trumpet and the undertones of. . . comradeship and human love, (with) the clear notes of faith and triumph” (Bradley 765).

In his poem “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” first published in Drum Taps in May of 1865, Whitman describes his emotional attachment to the Civil War through his own experiences in New York City where the war efforts of the North were being examined and discussed by virtually every citizen. In his landmark work American Renaissance, F.O. Matthiessen notes that Whitman’s “deepened perception of the meaning of suffering” brought on by his “resolution to become a volunteer nurse during the Civil War” resulted in the creation of Drum Taps (537). While living in Manhattan, Whitman heard “the sound of the trumpets and drums” (line 30), “the rustle and clang of muskets” (line 39) and witnessed “the soldiers in companies or regiments” (line 31) and “the dense brigade. . . with high piled military wagons” (lines 34-35), all examples of the on-going struggle between the Union and the Confederacy over state’s rights and slavery.

This poem, however, is not totally concerned with the war, as in Whitman’s anthem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in which he explores his dedication to the military principles of the North. In “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Whitman offers two conflicting points of view, the first being a calm, peaceful co-existence with nature which can only be achieved via a complete indifference to the war, and secondly, a turbulent, war-mongering attitude replete with flag-waving, cheering crowds, marching soldiers and shows of military pomp and circumstance in the streets of Manhattan.

Whitman’s use of declamation or rhetorical speech, as in “Song of Myself,” is also highly represented in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” for he interprets and defends his ideals of nature with commands like “Give me a field” (line 3), “Give me an arbor” (line 4), “Give me fresh corn” (line 5) and “Give me nights perfectly quiet” (line 6). In contrast, he demonstrates his ambivalence with lines like “Keep your woods O Nature” (20), “Keep your fields of clover” (22) and “Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields” (24), all in relation to his yearning to join the celebrations in the streets of Manhattan due to his love for city life.

In the first stanza of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Whitman presents a portrait of nature separate from “the noise of the world” (line 12), a metaphor indicative of the urban dissonance of the city, a product of the Industrial Revolution. The “splendid silent sun” symbolizes the source of all life on earth, with “splendid” denoting the changes in the seasons which bring forth ripe fruits, fields of wheat, arbors and fresh vegetables, while “silent” points to the sun’s indifference to the societies of man. Whitman’s primal connection with nature is shown in such phrases as “Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers” (line 8), “Give me a perfect child” (line 12) and “Give me solitude, give me Nature” (line 11).

Whitman’s poetic vision in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” also revolves around music which appropriately must be conveyed in all poetry in order to maintain a sense of balance, tone and rhythmic structure. “Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my ears only” (lines 8-9) shows that Whitman is a musical being dependent on the music of nature and existence. His “spontaneous songs,” a reflection of his need to improvise, demonstrates his personal harmony with nature via a chord tuned to his spiritual self, a contrapuntal fugue in tune with nature’s “primal sanities!” (line 12).

At the conclusion of this stanza, Whitman reverses himself with “still I adhere to my city/Day upon day and year upon year” (lines 16-17) which reinforces his love for the city in contrast to his longing for nature. The “splendid silent sun” is then replaced with images of the city in the second stanza–“Give me faces and streets” (line 27), “Give me women–give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!” (line 28) and “Give me Broadway” (line 29). This serves as a second means for Whitman to describe his delight with music through the vocalizations of the people in the streets and the shows on Broadway with their bawdy renditions of dancing and singing–the heartbeat of Manhattan that Whitman so adores.

Towards the conclusion of the second stanza, the music continues with the rhythms of “soldiers marching” (line 29), the blaring of trumpets and the banging of drums which shows Whitman’s adoration for military processions. This musical extravaganza terminates with “People. . . with strong voices” (line 36), “Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs” (line 37) and “The endless and noisy chorus. . . the turbulent musical chorus” (line 39) of the boisterous crowds of New York City, shouting and singing the joys of their forthcoming victory over the Confederacy.

The final line of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” presents Whitman’s ultimate decision–he wishes to be given “Manhattan faces and eyes forever.” Despite his love for nature and the peacefulness that it represents, Whitman’s mood remains unalterable, due to the fever pitch created by the Civil War in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City, for he has accepted, without reserve, the chaotic, turbulent society inherent in the city.


Bradley, Scully & Harold W. Blodgett, Eds. “Whitman on His Art: Comments, 1855-1892.” Leaves of Grass. NY: W.W. Norton, 1973.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. NY: Oxford UP, 1979.

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Homophobia, Moral Norms and Censorship in Critical Evaluation of Poetry

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Generations of readers and critics alike have denigrated the works of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, both equally brilliant poets, separated by a century, yet sharing a poetic vision of both political and sexual freedom, simply because the language and lifestyle represented in their work happens to conflict with the “moral norms” of society. Both Whitman and Ginsberg faced charges of obscenity upon publication of their most famous works. Public outcry began the first moment these two poets appeared on the literary scene, and continues, even today, when textbooks and library books containing Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” are pulled from the classrooms and library shelves after parents and administrators label them “inappropriate” (often without having read the work in question) due to the explicit language and homoeroticism expressed in the poems. Legislators have gone so far as to file criminal charges against those who published the works. Such blatant censorship merely proves these poems are being suppressed or reviled due to the rampant homophobia (often concealed under the cloak of religious respectability) in our society rather than any real, justifiable claims of obscenity in the works.

On July 4, 1855, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first appeared, eliciting mixed critical reviews because “the poems shocked America Puritanism and English Victorianism, although Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to the New York Times, calling the book ‘the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.’ The Library Company of Philadelphia was the only American library known to have bought a copy of the publication” (Haight and Grannis). Other reviews claimed, “His poems are not really poems, and whatever they are, they are dirty” (Street). A subsequent edition of the collection in 1881 provoked the district attorney in Boston, Massachusetts, a leader of the Society for Suppression of Vice, to “threaten criminal charges unless the volume was expurgated. The book was immediately withdrawn from the public venue in Boston” after Whitman refused to allow its publication there, saying, “Damn all expurgated books. The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book” (Ellison). John Greenleaf Whittier, in rage of indignation, threw his first edition into the fire, although he himself had suffered persecution for his abolitionist poems. Wendell Phillips, another abolitionist orator, said of Whitman’s book, “Here be all sorts of leaves except fig leaves”(Haight and Grannis).

Similarly, a century later, Collector of Customs Chester McPhee confiscated 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems printed by Villiers in England, as they came through customs. His intention was to “keep what he considers obscene literature away from the children of the Bay Area” (Ginsberg 169). On May 29, Captain Hanrahan of the San Francisco Juvenile Department arrested bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his clerk, Shigeyoshi Murao, for distributing obscene literature by offering Howl and Other Poems for sale in their City Lights bookstore. They were charged with knowingly distributing literature that contained “coarse and vulgar language . . . and mentions of explicit homosexual acts” (Ginsberg 173). This action served to make the poem “Howl” even more famous after news of the arrests and subsequent trial appeared in the national newspapers. Multitudes of self-righteous people secretly examined the poem for obscene details and publicly castigated the author for his vulgarity and “queer” lifestyle. Few critics read the poem in the way Ginsberg intended, as “one of the symbols of the liberation of American culture in the 1950s from an academic formalism and political conservatism” (Weir 7).

Whitman and His Critics

From Whitman to Ginsberg, the critics have had a hard time separating their personal prejudices from their professional critiques when it comes to the homosexual lifestyles of the two poets, explicitly detailed in the poetic works. In the case of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the critics have had much longer to try and find an acceptable method for critically evaluating what they see as “problematic” subjects in his poetry, including homosexuality, homoeroticism, and “outright masturbatory descriptions of the male body” included in “Song of Myself.” This claim is in sharp contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages, praising chastity and denouncing onanism. However, the modern scholarly opinion tends to be that these poems reflected Whitman’s true feelings towards his sex and that he merely tried to cover up his feelings. (Walt)Many critics felt the safest way to deal with the homosexuality in Whitman’s poetry was to ignore or deny it completely, which started a “critical tradition that has insisted on silencing, spiritualizing, heterosexualizing, or marginalizing Whitman’s sexual feelings for men” (Street 2).

Whitman was always an outspoken man, and a staunch abolitionist. He fired from his job at The Brooklyn Eagle when he used his position as editor to make a strong statement for abolishing slavery. His outspoken nature cost him a job at The Brooklyn Times as well, when religious leaders became offended by what they considered sexually inappropriate statements attributed to the poet (Binns 47-48). Whitman felt no need to apologize, stating his poems celebrated the body as well as the mind, and he spoke of the love of men for each other as a foundation of the American democracy he dreamed of. Ralph Waldo Emerson read Whitman’s portrayal of “the parting of two men on a pier with a lingering description of their passionate kiss” and other “descriptions of relationships between men, men he (Whitman) called comrades and lovers” and presumed that when Whitman wrote about “boatsmen and other roughs walking hand in hand” that Whitman was talking about the chaste love of friendship between men. This kind of friendship was common in the nineteenth century, and “the idea that some men are exclusively homosexual would not appear in America until about 1900, so deep emotional attachments between men weren’t stigmatized as they are today.” The Emerson thought the emotional bonds of male friendship in Whitman’s work were akin to the “Boston Marriage” between women in the nineteenth century. This term was used to describe “households where two women lived together, independent of any male support. Whether these were lesbian relationships — in the sexual sense — is debatable and debated” (Lewis).

Of course, those deep attachments Emerson referred to never crossed a moral line, obviously Emerson viewed Whitman’s love of comrades as platonic friendship. He wrote to Whitman, praising his earthy and sensual poetry, calling the collections “an extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom” that marked “the beginning of a great career” (qtd. in Rotundo 56). Seizing the opportunity for some good promotional press for his book, Whitman had the letter printed in the New York Herald Tribune without consulting Emerson. Emerson responded by writing to Whitman that the letter had been written as encouragement for a promising writer, not to promote the sale of Whitman’s work. The Emerson letter prompted one reviewer, Rufus Griswold, to publish his own vitriolic review of Leaves of Grass. He called the work “a mass of stupid filth . . . muck . . . that detailed the horrible sin not to be named among Christians” (Allen Readers Guide 56). Even the few reviewers who liked Whitman’s work and “admired his simplest, truest, and often most nervous English” had to warn readers that the poems were “indelicate” (Kaplan 87).

Of course, considering the Victorian audience Whitman was writing for, it is not hard to see how poems such as “Spontaneous Me” filled with earthy phrases like “love-thought, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap,” could have shocked the delicate sensibilities of his readers. Even Emerson tried to convince Whitman to drop the phrase “the limpid liquid within the young man” from his poem. Whitman refused to change a word. These were the very phrases that led the Boston district attorney to file his obscenity charges (Weir 10). A more recent biographer, Jerome Loving, noted that in the Victorian era, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would most definitely have been considered a dirty book. “Remember,” Loving says, “It was a time when they even draped piano legs” (Hartman 146).

More vicious critical attacks on Whitman came from Secretary of the Interior James Harlan and the Boston district attorney, Oliver Stevens, who violently objected to Whitman’s subject matter and dismissed him as “simply a libertine or pervert” (Reynolds 455). Perhaps one of the reasons the critics attacked his subject matter so brutally was because according to Robert K. Martin, before Whitman’s frank discussion of homosexuality and his poetic celebration of that lifestyle there were “homosexual acts, but no homosexuals” ( Martin 51). In Whitman’s time, homosexuality was becoming a distinct identity rather than a behavior. As Foucault says, “Where the sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species,” and someone to be feared by society (Reynolds 396).

Societal pressures may have forced Whitman to lie about his sexual preferences. He wrote a letter to John Addington Symonds in response to pointed questions as to the nature of his Whitman’s “adhesiveness”.

My life, young manhood, mid-age, times south, (sic) etc., have been jolly bodily, and doubtless open to criticism. Tho’ unmarried I have had six children—two are dead—one living, southern grandchild, fine boy, writes to me occasionally circumstances (connected to their fortune and benefit) have separated me from intimate relations. (Holloway xvii-xviii)

Later critics, uncomfortable with the idea of Whitman’s expressed homosexuality, used this letter not only to heterosexualize Whitman, but to make him an advocate of the family as well. In the first Whitman biography, A Life of Walt Whitman, Henry Bryan Binns tried to prove that Whitman had at one time been in love with a high-ranking socialite in New Orleans, who gave birth to Whitman’s child. Binns claimed “that he was prevented by some obstacle, presumably prejudice, from marriage or the acknowledgment of his paternity” (51). Binns also pointed to Whitman’s poem “Children of Adam” and stated that the attitudes toward having children were “only possible to a man who has known true love, and has lived a chaste and temperate life” (159). Binns shared Emerson’s belief that the love of man Whitman celebrated so explicitly in his writing was merely that of close comradeship, the kind of friendship shared by great Americans with a strong love of man and country (149).

Another Whitman biographer, Basil De Selincourt, author of Walt Whitman: A Critical Study (1914),uncomfortable with the idea that his subject was a “deviant,” defended Whitman against the charges of perversity, yet refused even to name the deviant behavior Whitman was being accused of. Instead, he explained away the “Calamus” poems by saying that Whitman advocates and to a certain extent himself practiced an affectionatedemonstrativeness which is uncongenial to the Anglo-Saxon temperament and which those Englishmen who forget that there are two sides to the Channel find even shocking. The result . . . is that he is quite generally suspected of a particularly unpleasant kind of abnormality.” (204)

De Selincourt addressed the issue of Whitman’s suspected homosexuality by carefully examining the poems, searching for allusions to such behavior. He concluded that only one poem, “Earth My Likeness,” contained any passage that could remotely be considered an allusion to homosexuality “For an athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him . . .”(ln 6) but he interprets the poem as a condemnation of “that particular impulse” and asserts his notion that Whitman’s expressions of love in the poem are “the celebration of the ideal relationship of soul to soul . . . equally of course the relation of woman to woman, or of man to woman” (207). He also goes on to claim Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is really just an expression from a husband mourning for the death of someone who was his wife in all but name. De Selincourt insisted that Whitman focused on the procreative function of men and women in his poetry and that that alone should prove Whitman’s devotion to the idea of his being a family man (23).

Betsy Erkkila, professor at Northwestern University, abhors the continued efforts of modern critics to preserve a distinction between Whitman as a private, gay poet, and Whitman, the poet of Democracy. In her opinion, his view of adhesiveness is an integral part of his conception of democracy, a means by which, in Whitman’s words, the United States of the future … are to be most effectively welded together. Consequently, Whitman’s sexuality is not, as many recent critics say, a ‘single, transhistorical monolith” but instead a “complex, multiply located, and historically imbedded sexual, social, and discursive phenomenon.’ Thus, the usual distinction between private gay poet and public democratic poet is false: “the homosexual poet and the American republic refuse any neat division; they intersect, flow into each other, and continually break bounds” (155-168).

Clearly, the hide-bound critics of Whitman’s time were distressed and offended when confronted with the truth of what the author’s work revealed the clear depiction of homosexual love–in addition to his celebrations of life, nature, and his country.

The homophobia that greeted the distribution of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would unquestionably have impaired the abilities of the critics to render a fair appraisal of the poet’s work. Perhaps because they understood the impossibility of discussing such themes in a public forum, the critics felt it necessary to re-invent a heterosexual or even a non-sexual Whitman. Or perhaps it was just that the general tendency of Transcendentalism was away from materialist interpretations of anything. Regardless, without such avoidance tactics, there could have been no discussion of the works at all.

The next generation of critics, while acknowledging Whitman’s obvious homosexuality, downplayed the fact, choosing to focus on the ideas of comradeship, love of country, and nature that permeated the poetry. Newton Arvin, who published his biography Whitman in 1938, was himself a homosexual, and he had no doubts where Whitman’s tendencies lay: “The fact of Whitman’s homosexuality is one that cannot be denied by any informed and candid reader of his “Calamus” poems, of his published letters, and of accounts by unbiased acquaintances: after a certain point, the fact stares one unanswerably in the face” (274). However, Arvin claimed the poems only expressed a tendency of Whitman’s and demonstrated no proof that he had ever acted upon his impulses. Other critics of this era took a similar tack, dismissing Whitman’s attachment to Peter Doyle, meticulously detailed in Whitman’s personal journals, as “the outpourings of a thwarted paternalism” and theorized that Whitman held a deep “fatherly love of innumerable sons,” which he wrote about in his “magnificent poems of the comradeship of true democracy”(Canby 201).

Even critics in the post-war period avoided the issue of Whitman’s obvious dedication to homoerotic love. One of Whitman’s better biographers, Gay Wilson Allen, who published The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman in 1955, tempered his admission of Whitman’s homosexuality with careful study of the dates of the correspondence between Whitman and his supposed lover, Peter Doyle. Allen concluded, “Whatever the psychologist may think of this abnormally strong affection of the two men for each other, these dates make actual perversion seem unlikely” (226). Apparently, Allen believed readers were not ready to accept a fully homosexual poet, and so constructed one who, though he might have had homosexual tendencies, remained mostly unaffected by it.

Critics, in the age of gay liberation and gay pride have chosen to center their readings on the fact that after Whitman was admitted to “the American canon . . . he was then subject to a homophobic critical examination that diluted or frankly eliminated the homosexual content of his work” (Martin xix). This group refused to make a neat distinction between Whitman the private gay poet and Whitman the public democratic poet. In The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, Robert Martin explains the necessity of reading Whitman’s poetry as a whole, claiming his separate personas “intersect, flow into each other, and continually break bounds” (168).

David S. Reynolds’s book Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, published in 1995, presents a much more detailed critique of Whitman’s work, made possible by the growing public acceptance of homosexuality. Reynolds points out Whitman’s need to deny his sexuality during his lifetime and claims the letter to Symonds was merely an attempt to deflect public scrutiny of his sexual preferences. He also points out that the work must be read, as Whitman suggested, “within its own atmosphere and essential character” (198). During the Victorian era, there were no publicly accepted sexual distinctions—homo, hetero, or bi and same-sex affection was widespread and regarded as comradeship. Only the modern era has made close same-sex relationships into something salacious and sexual (391). Reynolds further argues that in Whitman’s day the 1882 obscenity charges that were brought against Leaves of Grass resulted in the deletion of several poems about heterosexual love, including “A Dalliance of Eagles,” while only one of the homosexual Calamus poems was removed. According to Reynolds,” Whitman’s America was far more prudish about heterosexuality than same-sex eros” (540). Around the turn of the century, audiences began to turn away from the idea of same-sex relationships when they realized that these relationships often included genital contact. Once the idea of a purely homosexual relationship became a red flag, critics returned to the literature of the previous era and a subjected it to severe homophobic scrutiny (391).

The trend toward acceptance of Whitman’s homosexuality in the critical evaluation of his work has produced a plethora of critical reviews focusing on homosexuality as a basis for the work. Just as previous critics attempted to ignore or minimize Whitman’s sexuality, the early reviews of later critics often “read like catalogs of sex acts” (Reynolds 490). Current approaches appear to reflect the social consciousness with regard to homosexuality. With the advent of gay pride and queer studies, the critics have come to consider Whitman’s sexuality as part of the work. If the current trend continues, Whitman may eventually be viewed as “a poet who was a homosexual, not a homosexual who wrote poems” (Street 12).

Ginsberg’s Turn to “Howl”

The honesty and openness of Whitman’s poetry and his public celebration of love for all, be they women or men, inspired future poets to express their own uninhibited views on life. Allen Ginsberg, in particular, took Whitman’s advice in “Song of Myself” to “get outside and become undisguised and naked: ‘Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’” (lns 5-6). One hundred years after the first appearance of Leaves of Grass, Allen Ginsberg, recognized as the “prophet of cultural revolution,” used Whitman’s phrase as an epigraph to “Howl,” the poem made famous after charges of obscenity resulted in public castigation of both the work and the vociferous poet (Nineteenth Century Precursors). Ginsberg, who held Whitman in high esteem, explained his connection to the poet in sexual terms, saying he “once slept with Neal Cassady, who slept with Gavin Arthur (grandson of President Chester A. Arthur), who slept with the Victorian gay-lifestyle advocate Edward Carpenter, who once slept with Walt Whitman” (Sullivan).

Ginsberg offered the Western world a gift the naked truth, or full disclosure when he published his deeply confessional poetry. At the beginning of “Ego Confession” he says, “I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America.” Unfortunately, most people in society at the time Ginsberg made his grand appearance at the Six Gallery reading, where he performed the first part of “Howl” for the first time, in October, 1955, were simply outraged at what they considered crude vulgarity and moral decadence (Sullivan). In Allen Ginsberg in America, Jane Kramer said that Ginsberg has been the “subject of more argument between the generations than any American poet since Whitman” but that Ginsberg’s impact on society has been even stronger, because whether people are reacting to his beatnik appearance or the content of his poetry, they are reacting in more energetic and sometimes violent ways (14).

Polite society in the era of McCarthyism disdained the work of Ginsberg, offended at his outspokenness about those social issues he felt most strongly about drug use, being a Jew, “civil rights, gay liberation, pacifism, the environment, and of course, freedom of personal expression.” Throughout the nineteen fifties and sixties, Ginsberg frequently found himself tossed roughly in a paddy wagon and hauled to jail along with the likes of Abbe Hoffman and others who dared to protest what they saw as the restrictiveness of American society. Ginsberg is credited by many as the driving force behind the “uncovering of the gay lifestyle for straight America” through his poems “Howl and “America” (Sullivan).

Although Ginsberg acknowledged homosexual leanings very early in his life, he still experienced a great deal of traumatic difficulty depression, uncertainty, and repressed guilt over this realization. Struggling with his own identity crisis, Ginsberg also had to deal with his mother’s emotional and psychological instability. Naomi Ginsberg was institutionalized for three years during Ginsberg’s adolescence, suffering from paranoid delusions, convinced that people were out to assassinate her. She constantly worried that President Roosevelt was responsible for wire-tapping her head and the ceiling in order to hear her most private thoughts. Ginsberg’s visits with his mother were troubling to the confused boy. When she returned home after her electric and insulin shock therapy, Naomi was hardly recognizable. When the family couldn’t deal with her illness, she went to her sister’s house for a short time. After only a few short weeks there, she was again institutionalized in Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, where her son continued to visit her. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ginsberg’s visits to his mother was Naomi’s thoughtless nudity. She continued to view herself as she had been young, flirtatious, and beautiful and insisted on showing off her bloated, scarred body at every opportunity, even when her son was present. This disturbed Ginsberg greatly, and he found the visits increasingly hard to endure. Later, in his poem “Kaddish,” Ginsberg finally came to terms with his mother’s death and his difficult familial background (Tytell 78-79). A friend, John Clellon Holmes, said, “Ginsberg’s relationship with his mother was the source of his wound, the axis around which his madness, homosexuality, and poet-nature revolved” (90).

Though Ginsberg’s visits to his unstable mother were hard to endure, he found life with his school teacher father equally unbearable. Though he was also a poet, Louis Ginsberg represented everything else his son stood against. He was a moderate liberal who valued culture, appreciated his Jewish heritage, and accepted the role society mapped out for middle-class individuals in America. Louis abhorred his wife’s communist leanings. Allen, however, fueled by his mother’s early leftist affiliations, became outraged at the injustices he perceived in a society where “different” stood on a par with “bad.” His poetry began to shift from the imitation of the more classical forms encouraged by his poet father to the voice of the unheard American, those individuals considered the dregs of society the homosexuals, the drug addicts, the homeless, and the beatniks (80-81).

Ginsberg, seeking the approval withheld by his father, shared some of this early poetry with a few of his professors at Columbia University where, in 1943, at the age of 17, he entered college. However, though several professors saw talent in the young man, they turned away from what they considered deviant writing. Ginsberg, who struggled to find a new form of poetry with which to express his long-repressed confusion, was to devote considerable energy during the following years to finding appropriate psychoanalytic treatment. His most pressing anxiety was due to a sexual confusion that was compounded by his mother’s malady, something which made him mistrust women as vessels of failure. His early inclinations were homosexual—originally he had wanted to attend Columbia because of an unrequited infatuation for a former schoolmate who had enrolled there. But the authoritarian culture of the years after the war had categorized homosexuality as a diseased perversion bordering on criminality. Ginsberg was tormented by a repressed yearning for physical contact which could be relieved only through masturbatory fantasy. (83)

Ginsberg’s sexual confusion continued, despite several homosexual affairs which he found unsatisfactory, mostly because of the guilt he experienced when he thought about how society would view him if they found out he was “queer” (Tytell 84).

After his suspension from Columbia in 1945 for writing filthy remarks in the dirt on his dorm windows, Ginsberg attended the Merchant Marine Academy for four months, where he tried to assume the role of “regular guy;” this attempt failed when his classmates caught him reading Hart Crane’s poems and ostracized him (86). Although the his expulsion from Columbia and his failure at the Merchant Marine Academy was somewhat disturbing, they served to breach the protective walls of academia that had previously surrounded Ginsberg. These incidents precipitated him into the real world, where real people experienced real life. These were the experiences Ginsberg needed to fuel his experimental poetry. Seeking answers to his confusion, he consulted a series of psychiatrists.

The first doctor declined to continue treating Ginsberg, who insisted on smoking marijuana and using other illegal drugs against the doctor’s strict orders (Kramer 41). When Ginsberg, “relaxing in bed, reading Blake while masturbating,” heard a deep voice reciting Blake’s poem “Ah, Sunflower,” he had an epiphany about what he was supposed to be doing as a poet and a man2E The epiphany occurred after Ginsberg had placed a panicked phone call to him former psychiatrist saying, “I have to see you! William Blake is in my room!” The doctor shouted back, “You must be crazy!” and hung up. Ginsberg tried to “revoke the Blake spirit” to confirm his sense of being a part of a “shaping intelligence in the universe” (Tytell 89). This visionary experience was the first step toward full acceptance of himself as a poet and a homosexual. It was also the catalyst for an experience that would end with his incarceration in a psychiatric facility for eight months.

Ginsberg knew that before he could fully express his poetic aspirations he would have to “demolish his old self of defensive arrogance and superiority, and attempted (sic) to obviate his ego through drugs, sex, and friends” of a similar nature (91). Much of the distaste for his poetry developed in response to his public persona; Ginsberg became very outspoken about his homosexuality and his belief in the right and duty of every individual to say exactly what was on his mind. Ginsberg’s associations with certain disreputable people made him seem bizarre, at best; at worst, many people thought he was “crazy” like his mother and believed he needed to be institutionalized. Some of his antics were deliberate his way of demonstrating to his father that insanity was preferable to blind acceptance of the social norms2E But some instances were the results of his misguided attempts to befriend individuals he thought worthy of study, people like Herbert Huncke, who introduced Ginsberg to “the world of morphine and the underworld of New York” (89).

In 1949, Ginsberg allowed Huncke and several of his petty criminal friends to crash in his York Avenue apartment. They brought with them a number of stolen items that they stashed in the apartment, waiting for the opportunity to fence them. Ordinarily, Ginsberg would not have allowed this to take place, but he was fascinated with the poetry of Huncke whose “directness of language or . . . naked city man speech, clear and magnanimous as personal conversation” captured exactly the voice Ginsberg was looking for in his own poetry (Tytell 93-94).

While riding in a stolen car with his new “friend,” Ginsberg was injured when the driver crashed during a presumed police chase. The “criminals” fled the scene, leaving Ginsberg wandering around, dazed, and searching without his glasses for his scattered papers. The police showed up next morning with some of those papers that contained Ginsberg’s address. He was arrested and threatened with jail on a felony charge. Faculty friends at Columbia University interceded and arranged for him to have an evaluation and therapy at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, free of charge. Almost immediately, Ginsberg met another man who would be a powerful influence on his writing: in fact he dedicated his poem “Howl” to this man, Carl Solomon. To Ginsberg, Solomon was “an instance of the artist as outrage” because he did thing like “throwing potato salad at Wallace Markfield, who was lecturing on Mallarme, or pretending to be W. H. Auden at an exhibition, gleefully signing Auden’s autograph” for those who asked (94-96). Many of Solomon’s outrageous antics are immortalized in the lines of “Howl.”

Another poet influenced the voice of Ginsberg’s poetry, perhaps even more than Whitman; Ginsberg met William Carlos Williams in Paterson, New Jersey when he returned home to live with his father after his release from the psychiatric facility. Williams read Ginsberg’s early work and though he found potential in the lines, he told Ginsberg the literary language made them stilted and unfeeling. He introduced Ginsberg to what he called “speak-talk-thinking,” language filled with the sounds and rhythms of natural speech” rather than a preconceived literary pattern. Williams also told Ginsberg that the “best poetry resulted from the original impulse of the mind . . . or the first wild draft of a poem (97-98).

This germ of an idea stayed with Ginsberg until the day he wrote “Howl,” his own “wild impulse poem,” for which Williams wrote the preface: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through Hell!” Although several of his poems had been accepted for publication by 1952, Ginsberg was still unhappy with his progress as a poet, and told friends, “I must stop playing with my life in a disappointed gray world.” He believed the only way to get out of the “rut of his existence” was to get out of New York and experience life. To write about life, one had to experience life, Ginsberg thought. So he prepared to move on (99).

In 1953, after abruptly ending his love affair with William Burroughs, author of Junkie, Ginsberg left for Mexico where he stayed for six months before traveling to California via Florida, Cuba, and the Yucatan the following spring. He spent a few months traveling through these places on his way to San Jose, where his friend Jack Kerouac had moved to seriously study Buddhism. Ginsberg moved in first with his buddy Neal Cassady and Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, but found himself less welcome there when Carolyn walked in on him and Neal in bed together. He then moved to a “$6 a week room in a North Beach transients’ hotel” around the corner from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, where all the local poets hung out.

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