A reading of a classic short Whitman poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
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. (We’ve outlined the history of free verse here.)
‘I Hear America Singing’ was added to Whitman’s landmark poetry volume, Leaves of Grass, when it was reprinted in 1860 (the original edition had appeared in 1855). The poem offers a chance to observe and analyse 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.
There is also an emphasis in ‘I Hear America Singing’ on the strength of the songs the American people sing, and the voices which sing them, and by extension, the American people themselves. Note how the songs are not just ‘melodious’ but ‘strong’ in the poem’s last line, and how he had earlier used the word ‘robust’ and, in the second line, how the song of the mechanics was not only ‘blithe’ but ‘strong’.
The poem is not only about ‘carols’ but is a carol itself: that is, ‘a song; originally, that to which they danced. Now usually, a song of a joyous strain’ or ‘a song or hymn of religious joy’ (Oxford English Dictionary). But God is not the subject, and is not mentioned: instead, it is a hymn to the American people.
Note how the emphasis is also on working people throughout: the people of America are busy engaging in their daily tasks, whether they’re mechanics, carpenters, masons, boatmen, woodcutters, plough-boys, mothers, girls sewing. The emphasis is more specifically on manual labour: pen-pushers and even teachers and priests are not mentioned in Whitman’s song to the American people. This is because people performing manual labour are more likely to sing as they work, to pass the time; but it’s also because Whitman wants to sing the praises of the ordinary American.
All of this is described, not using the stricter or more regular forms of the sonnet, rhyming couplet, or quatrain – nor even of the unrhymed but metrically regular (or more regular) blank verse used by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and other English poets. Instead, Whitman breaks with rhyme, and with the English verse tradition altogether, instead taking his cue from the Psalms of David, with their verses of irregular lengths, and lack of rhyme. The form of ‘I Hear America Singing’ is not dictated by rhyme or metre; instead, it is created through Whitman’s succession of images of various working American people going about their work, and singing as they do so.
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. Like Whitman’s verse, it takes its cue from the Biblical Psalms.
You can listen to ‘I Hear America Singing’ being read here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Walt Whitman by G. Frank E. Pearsall in 1872, Wikimedia Commons.