from: "Fields of Vision” by D.Delaney
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!”
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.
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.
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
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