In 1855, with little fanfare and only a few printed copies (which barely included the author’s name), Leaves of Grass was published in the United States. It was, as author Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) expected, poorly received.
Bothered not, was he.
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
Leaves of Grass was free verse. It did not rhyme or contain rhythmic features like the poetry of Whitman’s contemporaries Longfellow and Tennyson. It was a collection of fifty-two untitled poems, and the most cohesive came to be known as “Song of Myself.” Its first lines firmly asserted: “I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
The epic poem was sexually explicit and contained unbridled joy of life and love, admiration for the immediate and profound, and a call for human connectedness beginning and ending with Whitman’s own self.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean, Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
Whitman’s first poetic work nevertheless caught the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was the foremost philosophical idealist and writer in the United States.
In response to receiving a copy of Leaves, Emerson wrote: “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.”
Loafe with me on the grass . . . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I included Emerson’s words for two reasons. First, Whitman’s poetry was deeply sensual, dealing with what is perceived in sight, sound, touch, etc., and how that data imprints itself in our body of knowledge. Emerson’s word choice “not blind” was thus particularly apt, and it shows just how affected he was by the poem.1
Second, Transcendentalism, something Emerson and others like Henry David Thoreau had developed and promoted in hundreds of sermons and lectures, might not have been as long-lasting had it not been for Whitman’s poetry.
Swift wind! Space! My soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at;What I guessed when I loafed on the grass,
What I guessed while I lay alone in my bed. . . .and again as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
“The great function of poetry,” wrote French academic Gaston Bachelard in his study of poetics and place, “is to give us back the situations of our dreams.” Whitman writes from the height of the feeling of transcendence, in the first-person singular. Something Emerson and Thoreau never quite achieved.2
Emerson once wrote that when looking at a horizon he felt “joy to the point of sadness.” Whitman brings us into the feeling.
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart
And reach till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
To be held thus, to be cradled and penetrated by feeling and light—Whitman returns emotion to our hands and hearts. He expands his own self-awareness outside of time and existence: “My foothold is tethered and mortised in granite, I laugh at what you call dissolution.” Yet, Whitman simultaneously conveys containment and its handmaiden, contentment: “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
Whitman was deeply influenced by Emerson, his communion with nature, his need for solitude, his belief that stars ground our positions in both temporal and spiritual worlds.
Equally, the relationship between Whitman and later poets (like contemporary American poet Mary Oliver, who cited both Whitman and Emerson as influences) cannot be ignored. All wrote of a great connective continuum of humanity, and each contributed to it in their own way.
Learn more about free verse and rhythm and why Whitman’s Song of Myself was unusual (and initially disliked) in Stephen Fry’s highly accessible study of reading and writing poetry. Thoreau’s early work “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River” is also excellent and gives us a sense of what Whitman himself was reading.