Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica Pike for October 6th

Filed under: Uncategorized — October 4, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

The first thought that crossed my mind after reading all of “Drum-Taps” was that the Civil War had humbled Walt Whitman. It is difficult for me to imagine the 1855 Whitman and the 1892 Whitman as the same individual. In the 1855 Leaves of Grass Whitman even admits that he is egotistical and writes, “I know perfectly well my own egotism” (76). Yet, when I compare the pre-war Whitman to post-war Whitman, I can see that his all knowing attitude changed from being a confident poet who thought his poetry would save the nation, to a poet that was reflecting on the devastating effects of war.

Yet, at the same time I feel that Whitman has a distinctive voice that is calling out to his readers. Although he no longer has all of the answers, Whitman wants readers to reflect on the change in the nation by turning to his poetry. I came to this conclusion after reading “As I lay with my Head in Your Lap Camerado”. Reading this poem, and comparing it to pre-war Whitman, his first person “I” is still present. Also, through the usage of “you” there is still the personal invocation to the reader. The usage of the word “confession” further indicates that Whitman is trying to maintain a relationship with his readers, because he is able to expose this personal secret.

Yet the speaker is no longer someone that is confident and all knowing. Immediately, just by looking at the title, the image denotes a change in the position that the speaker is placing himself. No longer the “prophet” authority figure; rather, the title suggests a speaker who is weak and is in a position of submission with their head in a lap. But, when examining the end of the poem, I saw a reference to the “pre-war” Whitman, when the speaker admits “I confess I have urged you onward with me.” These lines echoed Whitman’s 1855 “Song of Myself”, when the speaker utters, “Shoulder your duds, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth” (82). However, in this 1855 poem, Whitman saw a journey that had a rewarding result, as opposed to the 1892 Whitman who ends the poem in a disillusioned state and writes, “without the least idea what is our destination”. After being beside death day in and day out, Whitman no longer had all the answers to the journey of life, therefore his poetry reflects his disillusioned nature.

At the same time however, Reynolds reminds us that Whitman saw the war as a “purifying fire”. So, although Whitman witnessed the horrors of war, Whitman must have thought of war as a necessary evil that would eventually strengthen the nation. This is reflected consistently throughout Drum-Taps. I saw this most vividly in the poem “Song of the Banner at Daybreak”. First, this poem is unique because it is one of the first times that there is a distinct recognition of speakers and sections. The poet, pennant, child, and farther are all connected because of the commonalities of war and fighting for freedom. Yet at the same time each speaker brings something different to the poem. The child represents the raw innocence and sees the good in the nation and states, “O father it is alive”. Using the childlike figure in this poem, Whitman is no longer putting himself as an all knowing speaker, yet Whitman uses this child’s words to convey the hope for the future of a united America.

Jessica Pike for September 29

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

In the introduction to Memoranda, Whitman expresses his fears of the Civil War being forgotten and writes, “In the mushy influence of current times, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten” (5). However, in the lament Whitman gives, Whitman himself acknowledges that the “real war” can never be captured. Yet, the fact that Whitman put forth his diary entries to the public was his attempt to capture history. As a “Yankee”, (I’m from Massachusetts), I did not have the home of the Civil war at my doorstep like I do now. So, my sense of the Civil War came solely from textbooks. So it was more of a “factual” knowledge of dates, locations, and generals, never the nitty gritty details that Whitman provides in Speciman Days.

Working in the makeshift hospitals, Whitman witnessed death everyday. But, was Whitman, truly capturing all of the horrors of death and war in his prose? Or was Whitman like the textbook’s filtering what the public can see? I would like to think that Whitman included to his best ability everything that he witnessed. However, even Whitman acknowledges that readers can not truly understand the atrocities of war without being in the battlefield. In “Death of A Hero”, Whitman writes, “ I wonder if I could ever convey to another, to you, for instance, reader dear- the tender and terrible realities of such cases” (768). However, Whitman highlights the moments in Fredericksburg and in the war in which he found important and touching. Whether it is describing Abraham Lincoln on a horse or the “Ambulance Processions”, Whitman conveys through the written word what was occurring in the south during the Civil War.

What struck me was how Whitman even throughout his entries in Specimen Days finds his writing talent as important not only to “record history” but as a means of comfort to soldiers. In many of the entries Whitman describes how he would write letters for the wounded soldiers and send them to their family, friends, and loved ones at home. Whitman used writing to unite the nation, both in letters, his prose, and poetry. Whitman did not have much to offer these soldiers, yet he mentions “letters” as one of the gifts and services that he provided. From the way Whitman writes in the entries, it seems as though Whitman became known for his letter writing service. In the introduction to Memoranda Whitman alludes that he wants his written word to withstand time in order to commemorate those that died in the Civil War. Yet, it can be argued that these written letters he wrote for the wounded and dying soldiers are physical evidence, a primary source, which truly captures the feelings and atrocities of the Civil War.

Whitman day in and day out was right beside the soldiers as they died. However, although he could have left and gone back to New York, he remained in the mist of the battles. Whitman reflects on his personal commitment to stay and writes, “I do not see that I do much good to the wounded and dying; but I can not leave them.” (Erkkila 198). Nonetheless, witnessing these deaths obviously had a great affect on him, as it would anyone. Therefore, Whitman used both his observations and feelings that these observations sparked as his muse. While taking care of the soldiers in the hospitals, Whitman assisted both men and young boys from the North and South. Thus, as we discussed in class last week, in his poetry after the war there are more nationalistic words and phrases. Whitman, witnessing as many deaths as he did, saw how precious and fragile life was. Therefore, Whitman wanted his readers to not only to remember the war and many soldiers that died, but to also learn from the war and unite as a nation.

Photographs of Fredericksburg During the Civil War

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 23, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

Part of the 6th Maine Infantry after the battle of Fredericksburg

FreddyThe town from the east bank of the Rappahonnock River, Fredericksburg, VA March 1863
The town from the east bank of the Rappahonnock river, Fredericksburg, VA. March 1863

Photographer: Timothy O' Sullivan ( a member of Brady's staff) May 1864 outside a Fredericksburg, VA hospital

Photographer: Timothy O' Sullivan ( a member of Brady's staff) May 1864 outside a Fredericksburg, VA hospital

These are just some of the many pictures of Fredericksburg that were taken by Matthew Brady and his associates during the Civil War years.

Jessica for September 22

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 19, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

After comparing the two versions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass I find Walt Whitman more intriguing than ever. When noticing the differences in the poems, I thought to myself, “Why would Whitman do that?” “What is his purpose in changing just one little coma or word in the poem?” All of these questions heighten the mystery and intrigue around Whitman, and thus my curiosity to discover more about Whitman’s life and literary career continues.

The most noticeable difference I noticed was the constant change of punctuation between the 1867, 1855, and 1891 editions. Throughout the 1867 version, there was frequent use of the dash. For example in  “Spontaneous Me” written in 1867 ,  “The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds— the private untrimm’d bank—the primitive  apples—the pebble-stones”  (110)  demonstrate how the dash is used. However, in Spontaneous Me written in 1856 the dash is replaced with commas. Another example of punctuation change is found in Leaves of Grass part 3 compared toAboard a Ship’s Helm. In  the 1867 poem Whitman writes, “The bows turn,—the freighted ship, tacking, speeds  away under her gray sails, The beautiful and noble ship, with all her precious  wealth, speeds away gaily and safe”.(250). ). However in  the the 1891 “Aboard a Ship’s Helm”, a dash is removed and there are significantly less commas. Whitman describes the ship in the 1891 edition and writes, “the bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her gray sails, The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds away gaily and safe” (398).The 1867 example with the dash and commas creates a choppy sentence whereas the 1891 version provides a clearer description of the ship rather than listing the characteristics. The subtle difference between punctuation marks can change the meaning of the poem. In the first instance the sentence is choppy which can symbolize the waves that the ship is sailing on. However, the 1891 version focuses on the description of the ship itself and when read aloud creates a smooth fluid reading.

Another difference that interested me was the change of titles in some of the poems. With a new title, I feel that Whitman wanted readers to focus on a different aspect of the poem. For example, the change of title from “A Word Out of the Sea to Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” creates a different visual image for readers to imagine. Another title change that I found fascinating was “Leaves of Grass part 4” changed to “To You”. The later title invokes the reader personally while the title Leaves of Grass part 4 is indifferent to the reader. The “You” in the title can refer to any individual reader who happens to pick up Leaves of Grass at the moment, thus the title “T o You” is inclusive. The thoughtful call out to the reader can also be found in Whitman’s title “Poets to Come”  as opposed to “Leaves of Grass, part 4 “. The change in title allows readers to take a more active approach when reading and analyzing the poem because it is more specific.

Yet, when specifly looking at changes that demonstrate Whitman’s Civil War experience, there are many instances where additional asides have been added and tenses are changed. In “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I heard the Mother of All”,  an aside within parentheses is added when Whitman writes, “As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d)”. Furthermore, there is a change of tense from  “fight” to “fought” in “Camps of Green” . These additional thoughts, changes in tenses, changes in parentheses, and changes in titles demonstrate Whitman’s  changing motives. I feel each change was deliberate. These changes could be due to his change of opinions brought about by the Civil War,  his thoughtful reflection on life and death, or a technique to expand and maintain his readership.

Question on Walt Whitman

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 15, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

I was wondering what Walt Whitman’s religious upbringings were? We have talked a lot about him as a prophet-like figure, so I did not know what religious influences he had growing up.

Jessica Pike for September 15

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 13, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

In Walt Whitman’s letter to Emerson, Whitman discusses the lack of sexual description within literature and states, “This filthy law has to be repealed- it stands in the way of great reforms” (Whitman 1358). After reading Whitman’s thoughts regarding the suppression of sex within texts in his letter to Emerson, I believe Whitman placed an emphasis on the body and sexual experiences for a specific reason, mainly to demonstrate that sex is natural and should be included in literature.  When I read Whitman, I try to think of  Whitman’s poems serving as a model in which he wants the readers and thus the American people to follow. Thus, in “Children of Adam” and “Calamus” the focus is on love and relationships. Whitman wants readers to see that sexual experiences and friendships are a way to bind together as a nation and when there is friendship and love the product is equality.

Since we, as a class have discussed Walt Whitman as a prophet-like individual, in this section he is preaching that love can solve some of the injustices in the world. In “I Dream’d in a Dream”, Whitman describes a utopian city that was invincible to attacks and states, “Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest…”(Whitman 284). Also, in “To the East and to the West”, Whitman further illustrates the intersection between love and the nation when he writes, “I believe the main purport of these States is to found a superb friendship” (Whitman 285).  In these lines, Whitman does not specifically mention what kind of love, if it be hetero- or homosexual it does not matter, merely Whitman focuses on the importance of friendship.

Whitman finds pleasure in companionship and in “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” Whitman uses nature to describe the power that friendship has. Whitman expands on this idea when he reflects, “I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not” (Whitman 279). Whitman highlights experiences with women and men through the many poems in “Children of Adam” and from each poem readers can see that physical intimacy goes hand in hand with companionship. Whitman writes:

To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then? I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea (253).

This physical intimacy and touch is something that binds humans together as well. Placing an emphasis on the body in “I sing the Body Electric”, Whitman lists parts of the body from both women and men. Whitman does not state, which he believes is greater, yet he states that each “please the soul” (253). Whitman uses these lines and describes physical intimacy and sexual experience as a natural part of friendship that can be not only pleasing to the soul, but also can create a common equality among all humans.

Image Gloss

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 7, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

“The camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerreotype” (Whitman 41).

1850 Daguerreotype Camera

The daguerreotype is a type of photograph that was invented in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. The photographic image is made on a photo-sensitive silver compound, silver halide, and developed by exposing the image to mercury vapor. The image produced is extremely delicate and many of the pictures are sealed in glass cases.

Daguerrotype is an important vocabulary word to know when studying Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass because it shows the inventions and developments that were popular around 1855.


Jessica Pike for September 8

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 6, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

In Walt Whitman’s America, David S. Reynolds indicates that Walt Whitman saw both great promise and profound defects in the American urban scene and in working-class behavior (Reynolds 83). Since Whitman was a keen observer of the world around him, Whitman used writing as a tool to share his observations to the rest of America. Throughout “Song of the Open Road”, “Song of the Broad Axe”, “Song for Occupations”, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman describes his observations and thoughts concerning the American nation. Although we are contemporary readers, Whitman advocates the importance of “constructing” the poem, and thus these selections from Leaves of Grass offer us a chance to analyze the American nation that Whitman describes.

In “Song of the Open Road”, Whitman uses nature to focus on the idea of a developing nation and freedom. The title itself is an image that invokes feelings of independence and adventure. Whitman celebrates the opportunity to create your own destiny in the lines, “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” (Whitman 299). Also Whitman comments on expanding America and searching out undeveloped lands when he exclaims, “I in hale great draughts of space, The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine” (Whitman 300) Yet, America was a land of contradictions and Whitman includes these contradictions throughout his poetry. For example, although America was the “land of the free” many individuals were unable to experience such freedoms. At times, Whitman describes an inclusive America and states, “The black with his wooly head, the felon, the diseas’d , the illiterate person, are not denied” (Whitman 298). Then a few pages later he goes on to describe the segregated America and argues, “No diseas’d person, no rum- drinker or veneral taint is permitted here (Whitman 303). In addition, these lines can also be related to the temperance movement that was occurring at the time, and Whitman is expressing his position against excessive drinking. But, the notion of freedom is something Whitman dwells on and is one of the many questions he mentions when he asks, “What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good will? What gives them to be free to mine?” ( Whitman 302).

Furthermore, in “The Song of the Broad-Axe” and “Song for Occupations”, Whitman describes characteristics of America that he hopes for. The Broad-Axe is described as a powerful tool that has the ability to create buildings but in the same time can bring about destruction and violence. This axe could be viewed as a metaphor for what the American people can choose to do. Whitman describes the strength of the axe when he states, “What invigorates life invigorates death” (Whitman 334). Whitman also recognizes the importance of the American people and their role in society. Walt Whitman describes the fleeting nature of a great city, but says the solution is to have the “greatest men and women”. When discussing the government, Whitman explains that the citizen is the most powerful and elected officials are workers for the American citizens. He continues to pursue this idea in “A Song For Occupations” when he states, “The President is there in the White House for you” (Whitman 359). Yet, Whitman sees his role in America as someone that is there to promote literature and in effect change America. Whitman tries to make a connection to all American people, and he sees his poetry as a way to connect the American nation.

Jessica for September 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — August 30, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

To be honest, I do not have much background knowledge of Walt Whitman or his works. However, after reading the preface to Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself” I was overwhelmed at the powerful connection I felt to this poem. The speaker immediately establishes an intimate relationship with the reader and states, “And what I assume you shall assume” (27). After reading these lines in the opening stanza, I deduced that Walt Whitman himself was the speaker of Leaves of Grass. This command like nature of this line placed Walt Whitman, as the speaker, in a position of authority. Accordingly, the reader is looking up to Whitman for guidance, advice, and insight. But, since each reader takes a unique approach to the poem Whitman must find something with which people will relate to and he must establish creditability. Thus, through Whitman’s description of himself, the reader is able to recognize similar characteristics, thoughts, feelings, and emotions and can connect to the poem.

The constant repetition of “I am, I breathe, I meet, I live, I believe…” exposes innermost characteristics of the speaker and allows for trust in his authority. Taking this trust into a deeper level, readers can draw parallels to the biblical nature of the language that the speaker uses throughout “Song of Myself”. For example, Jesus as the all knowing prophet stated, “I am the vine, you are the branches; He that Abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”  Throughout the ages people have put their trust in God and feel his powerful presence. Therefore, the speaker mimics this biblical speech to further establish trust with the reader.

Like God, Whitman makes promises to his audience and writes, “You shall possess the good of the earth and sun” (28). This line is similar to Matthew 5.5 “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Furthermore, like God, Whitman references all people throughout the poem. Women, men, slaves, children, and people of different occupations are constant images. Yet, Whitman does not say that he is God. Rather, Whitman references God throughout the poem. However, since many individuals have some background knowledge about God and the Bible This religious presence further allows readers to connect to the piece.

However, when the speaker addresses himself by stating, “Walt Whitman, an American” (50) this line challenged my original assumption that Whitman himself was the speaker. After reading this line and continued to see the religious parallels, I thought that the speaker was another part of Walt Whitman. Much like the trinity, Jesus being the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, another essence of Whitman was the speaker. Whitman “the man” is a part of the speaker but does not have the same authority as Walt Whitman’s poetic voice. The speaker continues to describe himself as “the poet of the soul” (46), which creates the image of Walt Whitman’s inner soul speaking to readers. This Whitman biblical soul wants readers to trust in his authority, take his hand, and continue on to the journey of experiencing “The Leaves Of Grass”. So, let us continue on this path.

Song of Jessica

Filed under: Uncategorized — August 25, 2009 @ 7:52 pm


“In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less, And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

And I know I am solid and sound, To me the converging objects fo the universe perpetually flow, All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.”

-Walt Whitman

Skip to toolbar