Whitman’s poetry is democratic in both its subject matter and its language. As the great lists that make up a large part of Whitman’s poetry show, anything—and anyone—is fair game for a poem. Whitman is concerned with cataloguing the new America he sees growing around him. Just as America is far different politically and practically from its European counterparts, so too must American poetry distinguish itself from previous models. Thus we see Whitman breaking new ground in both subject matter and diction.
In a way, though, Whitman is not so unique. His preference for the quotidian links him with both Dante, who was the first to write poetry in a vernacular language, and with Wordsworth, who famously stated that poetry should aim to speak in the “language of ordinary men.” Unlike Wordsworth, however, Whitman does not romanticize the proletariat or the peasant. Instead he takes as his model himself. The stated mission of his poetry was, in his words, to make “[a]n attempt to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the 19th century, in America) freely, fully, and truly on record.” A truly democratic poetry, for Whitman, is one that, using a common language, is able to cross the gap between the self and another individual, to effect a sympathetic exchange of experiences.
This leads to a distinct blurring of the boundaries between the self and the world and between public and private. Whitman prefers spaces and situations—like journeys, the out-of-doors, cities—that allow for ambiguity in these respects. Thus we see poems like “Song of the Open Road” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where the poet claims to be able to enter into the heads of others. Exploration becomes not just a trope but a mode of existence.
For Whitman, spiritual communion depends on physical contact, or at least proximity. The body is the vessel that enables the soul to experience the world. Therefore the body is something to be worshipped and given a certain primacy. Eroticism, particularly homoeroticism, figures significantly in Whitman’s poetry. This is something that got him in no small amount of trouble during his lifetime. The erotic interchange of his poetry, though, is meant to symbolize the intense but always incomplete connection between individuals. Having sex is the closest two people can come to being one merged individual, but the boundaries of the body always prevent a complete union. The affection Whitman shows for the bodies of others, both men and women, comes out of his appreciation for the linkage between the body and the soul and the communion that can come through physical contact. He also has great respect for the reproductive and generative powers of the body, which mirror the intellect’s generation of poetry.
The Civil War diminished Whitman’s faith in democratic sympathy. While the cause of the war nominally furthered brotherhood and equality, the war itself was a quagmire of killing. Reconstruction, which began to fail almost immediately after it was begun, further disappointed Whitman. His later poetry, which displays a marked insecurity about the place of poetry and the place of emotion in general (see in particular “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), is darker and more isolated.
Whitman’s style remains consistent throughout, however. The poetic structures he employs are unconventional but reflect his democratic ideals. Lists are a way for him to bring together a wide variety of items without imposing a hierarchy on them. Perception, rather than analysis, is the basis for this kind of poetry, which uses few metaphors or other kinds of symbolic language. Anecdotes are another favored device. By transmitting a story, often one he has gotten from another individual, Whitman hopes to give his readers a sympathetic experience, which will allow them to incorporate the anecdote into their own history. The kind of language Whitman uses sometimes supports and sometimes seems to contradict his philosophy. He often uses obscure, foreign, or invented words. This, however, is not meant to be intellectually elitist but is instead meant to signify Whitman’s status as a unique individual. Democracy does not necessarily mean sameness. The difficulty of some of his language also mirrors the necessary imperfection of connections between individuals: no matter how hard we try, we can never completely understand each other. Whitman largely avoids rhyme schemes and other traditional poetic devices. He does, however, use meter in masterful and innovative ways, often to mimic natural speech. In these ways, he is able to demonstrate that he has mastered traditional poetry but is no longer subservient to it, just as democracy has ended the subservience of the individual.