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PEOPLE IN AMERICA - November 24, 2002: Walt Whitman, Part 2 - 2002-11-22


I'm Shirley Griffith.


And this is Doug Johnson with the Special English program, People in America. Today, we complete our report about the life and work of nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman.



Last week we told about how Walt Whitman published his book of poems, "Leaves of Grass," in eighteen-fifty-five. He was thirty-six years old.

"Leaves of Grass" was written in a new poetic language as natural as breath. Whitman had created a new kind of poetry, the first true American poetry.


"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,

"And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren ...

"And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue ... "


Whitman's poetry praises and celebrates the natural world of plants, animals, humans, rocks, stars and oceans. The long poem "Song of Myself" is his most famous. It begins:


"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

"And what I assume you shall assume,

"For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you ...

"The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it is odorless,

"It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

"I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

"I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

"The smoke of my own breath ...

"My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs ... "


Some years ago, critic Malcolm Cowley wrote about how Walt Whitman became a poet. It was a mystery, he said. It happened almost overnight.

Cowley said he believes Whitman's need to write poetry developed as he came to recognize his sexual nature. Whitman was homosexual; he loved men. As a poet of praise he wanted to praise his own true nature. But he also wanted to remain partly hidden and protected. So his language sometimes is direct and sometimes is not.


"I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,

"And you must not be abased to the other ...

"I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,

"How 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 bare stripped heart ... "


To some British readers, Whitman's poetry sounded like the true voice of Americans. It was free and powerful. It was common and sweet as the open air. British writer Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that "Leaves of Grass" turned the world upside down for him.

Yet most readers in Britain and the United States rejected Whitman. Many were shocked by the poetry's new form and open sexuality. Many booksellers refused to sell "Leaves of Grass". Most leading critics dismissed it.

Whitman's brother even criticized the poetry. "Walt," he said, "hasn't the world made it plain that it would rather not have your book. Why then don't you call the game off."


America's civil war began in eighteen-sixty-one. The Southern states had broken away to protect their rights against the central government. They especially wanted to protect their legal right to own black slaves. The Northern states fought the South to save the Union and free the slaves.

Walt Whitman had worked for many years for newspapers and groups that wanted the black man to be free. He believed that all people are equal in their humanity. So he supported the northern cause. But at forty-one years of age, he was too old to fight. His younger brother George, however, joined immediately.


In the second year of the war, a big battle was fought near Fredericksburg, Virginia. George Whitman was an officer in the union forces at Fredericksburg. Walt and his mother worried that George might have been wounded in the battle. So Walt went to look for George among the wounded.

He looked for his brother at hospitals in Washington, the nation's capital. He did not find his brother there, so he traveled to Fredericksburg. His brother had been wounded, but not seriously.

George asked Walt to stay at the camp for a few days. Walt stayed more than a week, helping care for the wounded. He even helped bury some of the dead.


Walt found satisfaction in what he was doing. He decided to spend time in Washington helping where he could. There were few nurses or visitors there. And there were hundreds of injured and dying soldiers at army hospitals.

Walt Whitman was a tall, strong man. He was calm and kind. He sat beside the sick and dying men for hours. He wrote letters for them. He gave them water to drink. He brought them gifts of food and money. He hoped that his support and care would help some men to survive.


Whitman received no pay for his work among the wounded. He needed money to live in Washington. A friend found him a part-time job in the army pay office, copying papers for a few hours a day.

The pay was low. But Whitman did not need much money. For three hours each morning, he worked at the pay office. Then he went to one of the many hospitals in the city to visit the wounded. Around four in the afternoon he usually left to eat his dinner. Then he would return to the hospital, staying until nine or ten at night.


Whitman often saw President Abraham Lincoln riding his horse between the White House and a home for soldiers just outside Washington. Whitman wrote: "Mr. Lincoln wears a black stiff hat, and looks as ordinary in dress as the commonest man. I see very clearly Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines ... The eyes, always to me, with a deep hidden sadness. We have got so that we exchange bows, very friendly ones. "

In March, eighteen-sixty-four, Lincoln was sworn in as president for the second time. Whitman was in the crowd of thousands who watched the ceremony.


The days following the inauguration were beautiful spring days. The terrible Civil War was ending. Whitman wrote about the beautiful spring weather that made lilacs and other spring flowers bloom early. The nights were especially nice, he said. And a star in the western sky seemed to glow especially bright, as if it had something to tell the world.

On the Friday before Easter, Whitman and the nation learned that Lincoln had been shot and killed. Whitman felt a deep personal loss. Slowly he built the poem he called "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." This is how it begins:


"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,

"And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,

"I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

"O powerful western fallen star! ...

"Here, coffin that slowly passes,

"I give you my sprig of lilac."


Critic Malcolm Cowley wrote that Whitman's best poems seem to have been made just this morning. They seem freshly painted. And they make us see the world in a new way.


Whitman's last years were troubled by poverty and increasing sickness. He continued to write poetry. Every few years, he published a new edition of "Leaves of Grass", putting in new poems.

Sales of the book increased a little. But few Americans recognized Whitman's greatness. In Britain, however, he was seen as the outstanding voice of the new world.

Whitman's health began to fail when he was in his early fifties. He went to camden, New Jersey to live with his brother George. It was a lonely life in a strange town. To keep himself busy, Whitman wrote for New York newspapers and magazines. And he added more lines to "Leaves of Grass."

Walt Whitman did not fear death, which came in eighteen-ninety-two. He was seventy-three. Many years earlier he had written:


"And as to you, death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me ...

"I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun ...

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

"If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

"You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

"But I shall be good health to you nevertheless. ... "



This Special English program was written by Richard Thorman and Carolyn Weaver. It was produced by Paul Thompson. Rich Kleinfeldt read the poetry. I'm Shirley Griffith.


And I'm Doug Johnson. Listen again next week for another People in America program on VOA.