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.

Read about how Whitman’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, had a slightly different view of democracy in this mini essay on Civil Disobedience.

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.

Read about the related motif of life from death in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

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.

Read about a similar theme, the assertion of the self, in the poetry of Whitman’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson.