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Leaves of Grass | Context



The first edition of Leaves of Grass was written before the American Civil War, when the South relied on slaves to support its agricultural economy. Although Whitman's poetry empathizes with these enslaved African Americans, his personal views were more complicated and very much a product of his time.

In his poetry, the speaker often declares that he finds all people good and worthy of equality, and his declaration certainly extends to the slave population. In "Song of Myself," the speaker offers an anecdote about taking in a fugitive slave (a slave who has escaped from his master) and caring for him. In "I Sing the Body Electric," the speaker attends a slave auction (where slaves were sold to the highest bidder) of both a male and female slave and declares their value equal to anyone else, saying, "Within there runs his blood ... the same old blood ... the same red running blood."

However, in "A Boston Ballad," Whitman leaves the realm of empathy for one of policy. In 1854 a federal judge decreed that fugitive slave Anthony Burns should be returned to his owner, according to the Fugitive Slave Law (a law existing from 1850–64 where escaped slaves must be returned by other jurisdictions if found). Whitman heavily criticized the federal government's intervention in the case because he saw this law as an issue of states' rights. The Constitution mandated that fugitive slaves from the South found in the North should be returned, and Whitman agreed it should be as decreed, but it was up to the states to define the terms for identification and return. It was understood at the time that northern states would often neglect to identify fugitive slaves since it was at their discretion to do so.

Although he thought slavery went against the egalitarian ideals of a free society, Whitman feared that a war over the issue would damage American democracy. Even as he vocally opposed war when it was theoretical, once the American Civil War broke out, Whitman threw himself into the war effort, reporting from the battlefields and serving as a nurse to wounded soldiers. Whitman was a fan of President Abraham Lincoln and supported his vision for America, mourning him bitterly when he was assassinated just a few days after the end of the American Civil War. He wrote a series of poems eulogizing Lincoln, including one of his most famous poems "O Captain! My Captain!"

New York

Before succeeding as a poet, Whitman worked as a journalist in New York City, and he often reported on its squalid conditions. But in contrast to his reporting, his poetry contains glorified images of the city, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," where he presents a "stately and admirable ... mast hemm'd Manhattan." In his newspaper articles, he decried the kind of mob violence brought about by street gangs populated by "roughs," but in "Song of Myself" he calls himself a "rough" and elevates that type of street culture.

Born on Long Island, Whitman maintained a special relationship with it, fondly calling it by its Native American name, Paumanok, in his poems. Whitman does all his best musing in Paumanok, where the shoreline represents a place of emotional stability for him. More confessional poems, such as his mythical origin poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," in which his speaker tells of his first calling into the poetic life, and "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life," are set there. Also, "Starting from Paumanok" is one of Whitman's many manifestos about his identity as a poet.

Frank Expression of Sexuality

As the self-declared "Poet of the body" ("Song of Myself"), Whitman did not shy away from frank expressions of sexuality. In fact, as evidenced in "I Sing the Body Electric," he relished them. Speaking of human physical connection, the speaker says, "I do not ask any more delight ... I swim in it as in a sea." This delight in expressing eroticism often shocked his contemporaries and resulted in Leaves of Grass being banned on multiple occasions. But Whitman was not interested in carrying on tradition or bending to moral authorities. He was a pioneer and an innovator on a self-proclaimed mission ("Song of Myself") to "sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

The most sexually explicit material is contained within his "Calamus" cluster, a group of poems written for the third edition of Leaves of Grass. These poems are said to express the speaker's homoerotic feelings, though biographers do not agree on whether the author himself acted on these feelings and had physical relationships with other men. The poem "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" seems to express homoerotic desire: both the tree itself and the twig he takes home from it can be seen as phallic symbols, especially as the poem's speaker claims that the twig reminds him of "manly love."

Progression of Publication

In 1855 Whitman first published Leaves of Grass anonymously with 12 untitled poems. In 1856 he republished the original 12 poems and added an additional 20. Not only did he put his own name on the cover for the second edition, he also published a private letter of praise from American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson as an endorsement by a celebrated literary figure. Emerson called the original work "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed," but he did not read the new poems until after publication, and later commented that he had been premature with his praise.

Whitman spent the years between 1856 and 1860 immersed in the literary scene in New York, absorbing the atmosphere of the "common man" and writing poems. In 1860 Thayer and Eldridge published his third edition of Leaves of Grass, which included a number of sexually explicit poems in his "Calamus" cluster.

During the American Civil War, Whitman worked in the Army Paymaster's Office, reported from battlefields, and nursed wounded soldiers. The fourth edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1867 and includes Whitman's "Drum-Taps" collection of Civil War poetry.

Between 1871 and 1891 Whitman wrote more poetry and published five more editions of Leaves of Grass, each with varying content. His last edition, also known as the "death-bed" edition, is the most complete collection.

Literary Devices in Whitman's work

Whitman broke away from traditionally strict rhyme and meter to form a kind of rollicking free verse that is nevertheless euphonic (pleasing to the ear) and takes advantage of numerous literary devices.

  • Alliteration is the repetition of initial letters within a line to create a pleasing sound, such as in the last line of "I Hear America Singing." Whitman repeats both the "s" and "m": "Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."
  • An amphibrach is a word or phrase that contains a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables. Whitman's most famous example comes in the refrain, "O Captain! My Captain!"
  • Anaphora is the repetition of the initial word in phrases or stanzas. This technique adds emphasis to these sections. Whitman makes frequent use of this device, especially in long poems containing lists, such as "Song of Myself," "Song of the Answerer," and "Song of the Open Road." One example from "Song of the Open Road" is the initial repetition of the words "I will": "I will recruit for myself and you as I go, / I will scatter myself among men and women as I go, / I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them ...".
  • Whitman creates many lists, or catalogs, in his poems, arranging them without hierarchical order to symbolize the equality of people, objects, and experiences. In poems such as "Song of the Open Road" and "I Sing the Body Electric," Whitman's lists sprawl and ramble across the page, just as America's people fill its wide-open spaces.
  • Whitman sometimes uses onomatopoeia, in which words sound like what they describe. In "Beat! Beat! Drums!" he uses "whirr" and "rumble" and "rattle" and "thump" to highlight the sounds of war.
  • Personification is a technique that gives human characteristics to a nonhuman being or object to make them more sympathetic or concrete to the reader. When Whitman catalogs nature in "There Was a Child Went Forth," he assigns the waves and the clouds human-like intentions: "The hurrying tumbling waves ... the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself."
  • Whitman peppers his poems with rhetorical questions to his audience, pausing as if waiting for a response and then often providing an answer. For example, in "To Think of Time," Whitman asks, "Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?" He then answers, "I swear I think there is nothing but immortality."
  • Though Whitman mostly eschews traditional meter in favor of free verse, he does not abandon rhythm completely. Whitman organizes his sound patterns to create euphony (harmony) when his poems are read aloud.
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