The best poems by Walt Whitman selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
‘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? When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
‘I Sing the Body Electric’. 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.
‘I Hear America Singing’. 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 America’s best poets than with a poem by one of American poetry’s pioneers, praising the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing?
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. 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. 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.
‘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. 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.
‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’. This short poem is divided into two stanzas: the first observes the ‘noiseless patient spider’ of the poem’s title, 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.
‘O Me! O Life!’. 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’. 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).
‘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.
‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’. 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.
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.