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Walt Whitman

(1819-1892)

from: "Fields of  Vision” by D.Delaney

Life

Early jobs Walt Whitman was born in 1819 into a working-class family on Long Island, New York. He completed his institutional education at the early age of twelve and worked as an office, a printer’s apprentice and a wandering school teacher. He then became the editor of two local newspapers and began writing poetry and short stories. In the late 1840s he spent a brief period as an editor of a newspaper in New Orleans, which ended when his opposition to slavery became an issue of friction with the owners. He traveled through the South and Midwest and was deeply impressed by the vastness of the American landscape and the variety of its people. He was also influenced by the work of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and the revolutionary ideas of the American Transcendentalist movement.

Writing poetry Not much is known of what he did in the early 1850s apart from the fact that he returned to New York and started writing poetry. In 1855 Leaves of Grass, a collection of twelve poems, was published with a portrait of the anonymous poet in working man’s clothes on the title page. Whitman’s mentor, the influential poet Ralh Waldo Emerson, hailed his work as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that an American has yet contributed”. However, other literary critics and the reading public were unimpressed.

The Civil War years During the Civil War, Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals and as a correspondent for The New York Times. His experience among the wounded inspired him to write two collections of poem: Drum Taps (1865) and Sequel (1865-1866), which includes his famous elegy to Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!”

Last years Whitman spent the rest of his life working on the six subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, which grew to include 400 poems. His literary achievements were largely disregarded by the public of his day, which was shocked by his frankness in sexual matters and his rough working man image. He held a series of minor posts in Washington and struggled to survive on a meager income. In 1873 he suffered a paralyzing stroke. He continued to add to Leaves of Grass right up until his death in 1892.

Works

Father of American poetry Walt Whitman was the first distinctly American voice in poetry. Like Mark Twain in prose, he broke with the British literary tradition which had influenced American poetry up until that point.

Style He was boldly experimental in his work. He believed that American poetry should be like the country it represented – free of restrictive riles and repression. Instead of the tightly constructed sentences of his contemporary poets, he used long, loosely rhythmic lines that replicated the natural stresses of ordinary speech. Whitman believed that a poet should be a man of the common people. He wrote in strong, declarative sentences, avoiding rhetorical figures such as metaphors and similes.

Leaves of Grass Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman’s masterpiece, is the work of a lifetime. Originally published with just twelve poems, it eventually grew to include 400 in what is now referred to as the "Deathbed” edition, published just before his death in 1892.

Themes Many of the poems in this collection are a celebration of America – its landscape, its people and the democratic principles on which it was founded. The poet himself is the subject of other poems in which he explores his own feelings, perceptions and intuitions, and his task as a poet of giving voice to his people. He also deals with physical love and the celebration of the body. His frank openness about sexual matters and his exaltation of both the male and female body shocked contemporary audiences.

Reputation At the time of its first publication in 1855, only a handful of intellectuals expressed favorable opinions about Leaves of Grass. The average reader was shocked and outraged both by Whitman’s innovative form and controversial content. In many respects he was half a century before his time. The changes in social and literary attitudes which took place towards the turn of the century led to a reappraisal of his work. Today he is considered to be the father of American poetry, a daring innovator, and a major influence on later poets.

External Links:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Whitman 


 
 
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