Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Democracy As a Way of Life
Whitman envisioned democracy not just as a political system but as a way of experiencing the world. In the early nineteenth century, people still harbored many doubts about whether the United States could survive as a country and about whether democracy could thrive as a political system. To allay those fears and to praise democracy, Whitman tried to be democratic in both life and poetry. He imagined democracy as a way of interpersonal interaction and as a way for individuals to integrate their beliefs into their everyday lives. “Song of Myself” notes that democracy must include all individuals equally, or else it will fail.
In his poetry, Whitman widened the possibilities of poetic diction by including slang, colloquialisms, and regional dialects, rather than employing the stiff, erudite language so often found in nineteenth-century verse. Similarly, he broadened the possibilities of subject matter by describing myriad people and places. Like William Wordsworth, Whitman believed that everyday life and everyday people were fit subjects for poetry. Although much of Whitman’s work does not explicitly discuss politics, most of it implicitly deals with democracy: it describes communities of people coming together, and it imagines many voices pouring into a unified whole. For Whitman, democracy was an idea that could and should permeate the world beyond politics, making itself felt in the ways we think, speak, work, fight, and even make art.
The Cycle of Growth and Death
Whitman’s poetry reflects the vitality and growth of the early United States. During the nineteenth century, America expanded at a tremendous rate, and its growth and potential seemed limitless. But sectionalism and the violence of the Civil War threatened to break apart and destroy the boundless possibilities of the United States. As a way of dealing with both the population growth and the massive deaths during the Civil War, Whitman focused on the life cycles of individuals: people are born, they age and reproduce, and they die. Such poems as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” imagine death as an integral part of life. The speaker of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” realizes that flowers die in the winter, but they rebloom in the springtime, and he vows to mourn his fallen friends every year just as new buds are appearing. Describing the life cycle of nature helped Whitman contextualize the severe injuries and trauma he witnessed during the Civil War—linking death to life helped give the deaths of so many soldiers meaning.
The Beauty of the Individual
Throughout his poetry, Whitman praised the individual. He imagined a democratic nation as a unified whole composed of unique but equal individuals. “Song of Myself” opens in a triumphant paean to the individual: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (1). Elsewhere the speaker of that exuberant poem identifies himself as Walt Whitman and claims that, through him, the voices of many will speak. In this way, many individuals make up the individual democracy, a single entity composed of myriad parts. Every voice and every part will carry the same weight within the single democracy—and thus every voice and every individual is equally beautiful. Despite this pluralist view, Whitman still singled out specific individuals for praise in his poetry, particularly Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, Lincoln was assassinated, and Whitman began composing several elegies, including “O Captain! My Captain!” Although all individuals were beautiful and worthy of praise, some individuals merited their own poems because of their contributions to society and democracy.
Whitman filled his poetry with long lists. Often a sentence will be broken into many clauses, separated by commas, and each clause will describe some scene, person, or object. These lists create a sense of expansiveness in the poem, as they mirror the growth of the United States. Also, these lists layer images atop one another to reflect the diversity of American landscapes and people. In “Song of Myself,” for example, the speaker lists several adjectives to describe Walt Whitman in section 24. The speaker uses multiple adjectives to demonstrate the complexity of the individual: true individuals cannot be described using just one or two words. Later in this section, the speaker also lists the different types of voices who speak through Whitman. Lists are another way of demonstrating democracy in action: in lists, all items possess equal weight, and no item is more important than another item in the list. In a democracy, all individuals possess equal weight, and no individual is more important than another.
The Human Body
Whitman’s poetry revels in its depictions of the human body and the body’s capacity for physical contact. The speaker of “Song of Myself” claims that “copulation is no more rank to me than death is” (521) to demonstrate the naturalness of taking pleasure in the body’s physical possibilities. With physical contact comes spiritual communion: two touching bodies form one individual unit of togetherness. Several poems praise the bodies of both women and men, describing them at work, at play, and interacting. The speaker of “I Sing the Body Electric” (1855) boldly praises the perfection of the human form and worships the body because the body houses the soul. This free expression of sexuality horrified some of Whitman’s early readers, and Whitman was fired from his job at the Indian Bureau in 1865 because the secretary of the interior found Leaves of Grass offensive. Whitman’s unabashed praise of the male form has led many critics to argue that he was homosexual or bisexual, but the repressive culture of the nineteenth century prevented him from truly expressing those feelings in his work.
Rhythm and Incantation
Many of Whitman’s poems rely on rhythm and repetition to create a captivating, spellbinding quality of incantation. Often, Whitman begins several lines in a row with the same word or phrase, a literary device called anaphora. For example, the first four lines of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (1865) each begin with the word when. The long lines of such poems as “Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” force readers to inhale several bits of text without pausing for breath, and this breathlessness contributes to the incantatory quality of the poems. Generally, the anaphora and the rhythm transform the poems into celebratory chants, and the joyous form and structure reflect the joyousness of the poetic content. Elsewhere, however, the repetition and rhythm contribute to an elegiac tone, as in “O Captain! My Captain!” This poem uses short lines and words, such as heart and father, to mournfully incant an elegy for the assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Throughout Whitman’s poetry, plant life symbolizes both growth and multiplicity. Rapid, regular plant growth also stands in for the rapid, regular expansion of the population of the United States. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman uses flowers, bushes, wheat, trees, and other plant life to signify the possibilities of regeneration and re-growth after death. As the speaker mourns the loss of Lincoln, he drops a lilac spray onto the coffin; the act of laying a flower on the coffin not only honors the person who has died but lends death a measure of dignity and respect. The title Leaves of Grass highlights another of Whitman’s themes: the beauty of the individual. Each leaf or blade of grass possesses its own distinct beauty, and together the blades form a beautiful unified whole, an idea Whitman explores in the sixth section of “Song of Myself.” Multiple leaves of grass thus symbolize democracy, another instance of a beautiful whole composed of individual parts. In 1860, Whitman published an edition of Leaves of Grass that included a number of poems celebrating love between men. He titled this section “The Calamus Poems,” after the phallic calamus plant.
Whitman’s interest in the self ties into his praise of the individual. Whitman links the self to the conception of poetry throughout his work, envisioning the self as the birthplace of poetry. Most of his poems are spoken from the first person, using the pronoun I. The speaker of Whitman’s most famous poem, “Song of Myself,” even assumes the name Walt Whitman, but nevertheless the speaker remains a fictional creation employed by the poet Whitman. Although Whitman borrows from his own autobiography for some of the speaker’s experiences, he also borrows many experiences from popular works of art, music, and literature. Repeatedly the speaker of this poem exclaims that he contains everything and everyone, which is a way for Whitman to reimagine the boundary between the self and the world. By imaging a person capable of carrying the entire world within him, Whitman can create an elaborate analogy about the ideal democracy, which would, like the self, be capable of containing the whole world.
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