A reading of a classic short Whitman poem
Anglophone poets discovered free verse twice. The second, more famous time occurred in around 1908, when the Staffordshire-born poet T. E. Hulme began writing short poems modelled on the French vers libre form, without regular rhyme or formal metre. Others, such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, would follow his lead. But in fact free verse had already arrived in English poetry – or, at least, poetry written in English, if not by the English. The pioneer in this first verse revolution was Walt Whitman.
‘I Hear America Singing’ offers a chance to observe and analysis Whitmanian free verse in microcosm. In eleven lines, Whitman offers a hymn of praise to the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
In summary, ‘I Hear America Singing’ sees Whitman celebrating the various ‘carols’ or songs he hears his fellow Americans singing as they go about the work: the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deckhand, the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the ‘young wife at work’, the seamstress or washerwoman. These various workers are offered to us in turn in a way that rhapsodises but doesn’t quite romanticise: Whitman’s exuberant free verse is full of joy and energy, but he doesn’t sentimentalise these trades.
Nor does Whitman deny the individuality of these workers who are grouped together by their jobs: instead, each is ‘singing what belongs to him or her and to none else’. The poem blends individuality with commonality, collective belonging with personal expression. There is something jubilant about Whitman’s celebration of his country’s people and their songs.
But then again, did even Whitman truly invent free verse in ‘English’ literature? Perhaps that honour should go to a mad cat-owner named Christopher ‘Kit’ Smart, whose ‘Jubilate Agno’ is one of the great paeans to cats in English literature. It is also, perhaps, the very first great free verse poem in the language.
Image: Walt Whitman by G. Frank E. Pearsall in 1872, Wikimedia Commons.