By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Walt Whitman (1819-92), with his innovative free verse and celebration of the American landscape, made his poetry a sort of literary declaration of independence, seeking to move away from the literary tradition associated with the Old World and forge a new, distinctly American literature. Below are ten of Whitman’s greatest poems which demonstrate how he did this.
1. ‘Song of Myself’.
Where better to begin our pick of Whitman’s best poems than here, with the poem which seems best to embody his call for literary independence and self-expression?
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death …
When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems, although he would continue to expand and develop the collection for the rest of his life – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
2. ‘I Sing the Body Electric’.
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
This is perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem, and also featured in the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. It does what its title (added later) announces, with Whitman writing about his own body and its various components – but concluding that these are also part of his soul, since soul and body are one. We especially like the use of the word ‘discorrupt’ …
3. ‘I Hear America Singing’.
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 …
Although Whitman was a pioneer of free verse and often wrote long, expansive poems, ‘I Hear America Singing’ is just eleven lines long, though Whitman crams a lot into those eleven lines. What better way to continue our brief introduction to one of America’s best poets than with a poem praising the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing?
Note that Whitman does not 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’.
One of several poems Walt Whitman wrote about Abraham Lincoln, and probably the best, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ was written in the summer of 1865, in the aftermath of the assassination of Lincoln in April of that year:
When lilacs last in the dooryard 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.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love …
Whitman’s title, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, refers to the moment he learned that President Abraham Lincoln had died, in April 1865. At the time, Whitman was visiting his mother and brother at his mother’s home in New York; he stepped out the door and observed that the lilacs were blooming. This appears to have been the starting-point for Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, although he didn’t actually complete the poem until some months later.
The poem’s structure changed slightly over time. The final version is divided into 16 sections, although originally it had 21; Whitman was known for revising his work after its initial publication. An example of the pastoral elegy, this poem wasn’t considered one of Whitman’s best poems by Whitman himself. However, many of his readers have disagreed, and think this among his finest.
We have analysed this classic poem here.
5. ‘O Captain! My Captain!’.
Even those who aren’t familiar with Walt Whitman’s poems may recognise this, thanks to its use in the 1989 Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead …
Like ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, this poem was written in the wake of Lincoln’s death in 1865, and is slightly different from much of Whitman’s best-known poetry in that it has a more regular rhyme scheme. The poem became among his best-known, to the extent that Whitman almost regretted writing it later.
This short poem is divided into two stanzas. The first observes the ‘noiseless patient spider’ of the poem’s title:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them …
– and the second considers the poet’s own soul and the way it is undertaking a similar attempt to build ‘gossamer’ bridges between things, much as the spider builds a web.
This connection between the spider’s activities and the speaker’s soul – both of which are patiently yet desperately striving to achieve a link or bridge between themselves and something else – is reinforced by the grammar in the opening two lines.
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.
Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections …
This poem addressed to his reader might be viewed as a disclaimer for all of Whitman’s poetry – much as ‘Song of Myself’ can be read as his declaration or credo. It appeared in Leaves of Grass and is charged with erotic, sensual language, suggesting the importance of the physical body to Whitman’s poetics, and the close relationship he envisions between himself and his reader.
Whitman is not desperately seeking followers. Indeed, ‘follower’ is a suggestive word for the poet to use, implying a disciple of sorts and inviting comparisons with religious leaders, even founders or central figures of new religions, such as Jesus Christ. In order to prove ourselves worthy as a ‘candidate’ for the poet’s ‘affections’, we need to show that we’ve got the mettle, the strength, the open mind, the ability to abandon old views and subscribe to new ones, which the poet demands of his readers.
In short, Walt Whitman isn’t simply saying ‘read my poetry’: he’s offering Leaves of Grass as something approaching a new philosophy or religion, almost as if it’s a holy text of sorts.
8. ‘O Me! O Life!’.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) …
One of the shortest poems on this list, this poem was also featured in Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams’s character recites it to his class. It contains many of the features of Walt Whitman’s greatest poetry: the free verse rhythm, the alternation between long and short lines, the rhetorical (or not-so-rhetorical?) questions, the focus on the self.
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot …
A boy watches two mockingbirds nesting on a beach; but one day he notices that the mother bird hasn’t returned to the nest. The cry uttered by the male bird as it calls for its mate awakens something deep within the young boy, in one of Whitman’s most touching poems (although it was branded ‘unmixed and hopeless drivel’ by one reviewer; it’s rumoured that the response published in the same newspaper shortly afterwards, praising Whitman’s poem, was penned by none other than Whitman himself).
10. ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’.
Come, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes? Pioneers! O pioneers!
Another tribute to America as a self-made country and to the pioneering spirit of its people, and a nice counterbalance to the more personal and individual poems on this list.
If you enjoyed this pick of Whitman’s greatest poems, you might also enjoy these classic poems by Wallace Stevens, our discussion of this iconic William Carlos Williams poem, and our pick of Sylvia Plath’s best poems. For a good edition of Whitman’s poetry, we recommend The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics).
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.