2. “ I celebrate myself…”
Walt Whitman was born May 31, 1819 on
South Huntington, Long Island, New York.
He was almost entirely self-education,
especially admiring the work of Dante,
Shakespeare, and Homer.
His mother described him as “very good, but
His brother described him as being “stubborner
[sic] than a load of bricks.”
Apprenticed to a printer.
Taught school at 17.
Editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, a
respected newspaper, but was fired for
his outspoken opposition to slavery.
Civil War nurse.
4. Whitman’s Poetry
Whitman declared his poetry would have:
Long lines that capture the rhythms of
Vocabulary drawn from everyday speech.
A base in reality, not morality.
5. Leaves of Grass
The first version of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass,
appeared in 1855.
Emerson praised Whitman’s poetry as “the most
extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has
yet to contribute.”
Whitman used these words, written by Emerson in a
letter to Whitman, in a later introduction to Leaves of
Grass. Emerson was not amused.
John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy of the book into
Another critic dismissed it as “just a barbaric yawp.”
Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell were equally
Even Thoreau was appalled by Whitman’s poetry, and
he was certainly no conformist!
6. What’s his deal?
Why were so many writers shocked by
His lack of regular rhyme and meter (free
verse) and nontraditional poetic style and
subject matter shocked more traditional writers.
He also wrote poetry with unabashedly sexual
imagery and themes, some of them
homoerotic. Examples include the Calamus
poems and “I Sing the Body Electric.”
7. O Captain! My Captain!
Whitman wrote poetry in praise of
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
(an elegy written after Lincoln’s
“O Captain! My Captain!” memorializes
Lincoln’s passing as the death of a great
man and the death of the era he dominated.
It was used to great effect in Dead Poets’
8. Whitman’s Influence
Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands as
one of two giants of American poetry in the nineteenth
Whitman’s poetry would influence such Harlem
Renaissance writers as Langston Hughes and James
Whitman influenced Beat poets such as Allen
Chilean writer Pablo Neruda claimed to have been
influenced by Whitman.
Whitman’s poetry was a model for French symbolists,
such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur
Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and
W.H. Auden were also influenced by Whitman.
9. “ Out of the Cradle,
Whitman died on March 26, 1892, one
year after the final edition of Leaves of
Grass was published.
His autopsy revealed his cause of death
10. The Least You Need to
Whitman created new poetic forms and
subjects to fashion a distinctly American type
of poetic expression.
He rejected conventional themes, traditional
literary references, allusions, and rhyme—all
the accepted forms of poetry in the 19th century.
He uses long lines to capture the rhythms of
natural speech, free verse, and vocabulary
drawn from everyday speech.