Whitman’s Poetry

Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Lists

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.