Walt Whitman's Modernisation and Individualisation of Epic Poem
Into the early 19th century, even with sonnets, metaphysical poetry, and romantic poetry at their pinnacle, the epic poem was still the major form of poetry. In fact, the 19th century produced almost 60 epics, topping most other centuries. With epics being written that often, it is imperative to stand out and adapt. Geoffrey Chaucer tried modernizing The Canterbury Tales by adapting the developing language, English, into his epic. As well, Chaucer incorporated the social norms of the day, from the large, red-bearded, gaping-mouthed Miller to the chivalric and prideful Knight. John Milton adapted Paradise Lost by focusing on particular religious concerns of the 17th century. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Queen Mab, combined William Godwins’s idea of “necessity” with nature to claim that the evils in society will ultimately disband. But above all poets, with a true modernization of the epic, is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published on July 4, 1855. With obvious intent to publish on America’s celebration of independence, Whitman provided the nation with an epic designed for Americans—Leaves is an adaption of mid-nineteenth century American values, carved into a booklet with only 12 poems on 95 pages.
Critics have condemned Leaves as “beastly,” as “foolish prose,” and as something “to expose and denounce, not commend” (Bayne 49). Critics have also revered Whitman’s poetry, claiming it has “fathered many of the popular poets of the day” (Brown 33). That Whitman’s modernized epic was the father of all the new schools of verse in the 19th and 20th centuries is improbable. However, based on his malleability, Whitman was one of the most powerful poetic influences in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. He appealed to elite and common audiences alike—Whitman never elevated himself above the common man. Whitman never held fast to tradition for tradition’s sake. And, above all, he did not identify with Europe, its land, people or society—Whitman was American through and through. The poetry is witty and intellectual; however, the simple verses and everyday topics make it accessible to the masses. As well as mixing the traditional epic form with a new radical poetic style, Whitman combines spiritual force with natural world, giving poetic expression to the transcendental movement.
Before taking a closer look at Whitman’s epic, there first must be an exposition of his life leading up to his self-publication of Leaves to look at Whitman’s progression of American standards and values. In 1819, the man often called the “Bard of Democracy,” Walt Whitman, was born in West Hills, New York. Whitman grew up in a modest Quaker home with his six siblings. Three were named after famous American leaders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson—Whitman’s love for America and democracy can partially be attributed to his upbringing. Whitman, at the age of eleven, was forced to drop out of school and work at an attorney’s office to help his family, whose wealth decreased as Whitman’s father slowly burrowed himself into alcoholism and conspiracy theories. From that moment on, the future “bard” was self-taught—he never returned to a classroom to learn. He did, however, end up teaching intermittently throughout schools in Long Island. Whitman was unsatisfied with being a teacher in the country (Long Island in the 19th century was mostly rural), eventually claiming: “O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching” (Delbanco). After the disgusting working conditions Whitman endured, such as classrooms filled with almost 80 students, Whitman’s excitement for country education was completely furrowed. To his friend, Abraham Leech, Whitman wrote “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here” (Folsom 3). There are only a few accounts of his teaching career. Most reports are from prior students, who claimed Whitman employed open-minded teaching techniques—students were encouraged to think for themselves and not simply revere the texts in the classroom (Folsom 4).
Again, it is his background that can be attributed to Whitman’s progressive identity, eventually claiming: “I have no patience for people who start out to blacken the face of the earth. Whether it is constitutional or what not with me, I stand for the sunny point of view” (Miller 255).
As Whitman continued to grow in years, he continued to grow in his understanding of true democracy, something he developed throughout his entire life. Whitman’s mindset, particularly concerning racial attitudes, became the focus of his democratic work. Whitman became increasingly frustrated with the Democrats handling of the slavery crisis. In his original manuscript of section 21 in his poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman focuses directly on the central issues of the U.S., trying to connect opposing parties:
I am the poet of the body and I am the poet of the soul
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters
And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike
While many Americans either supported slavery and racism or opposed, Whitman placed himself directly in between the two. His strange position pulled him further into experimental poetry, a poetry that would hopefully be read by thousands of Americans—not just the elite, but the average American. In his poem, “For You O Democracy,” Whitman tried to mitigate the rising tension:
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the
shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks, by the love of
comrades, by the manly love of comrades (4-5).
Whether the issues are teaching, slavery, or something else, Whitman’s progressive poetry begins with a reaction to an issue.
Leaves of Grass was a 95-page poetry book with 12 poems, but the long poem, “Song of Myself” accounts for almost half the poetry in the book. “Song of Myself” is both about Walt Whitman, the man, the poet, and America his country. The poem remains significant because Whitman speaks directly of the individual and the aggregate. He speaks for the singular Walt Whitman but also for the American people, for the artist, but also the populace. When we need to be reminded of the breadth of 19th-century American identity, we can pick up a copy of “Song of Myself,” and Whitman will tell us in remarkable language that everyone has an important place in America:
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanks-giving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye (264-271).
The simplicity of Whitman’s poetry achieves depth and complexity in terms of the content. But ironically, Whitman achieves more with the form of “Song of Myself.” He uses a number of different rhetorical devices to accomplish his poetry. Overall, the poem lacks traditional form, but Whitman still made mindful choices with the structure and meter. In particular, Whitman does not obey the typical breaks in lines as seen in traditional poetry—Whitman lets the words decide the theme:
Come my children,
Come my boys and girls, and my women and household and intimates,
Now the performer launches his nerve, he has passed his prelude on the reeds within (1056-1058).
Whitman strategically ends the first line with “children.” By doing so, there is a focus on “children” overall, not just “boys and girls.” The deliberate choice by Whitman creates an effect, an emphasis on all his children, “boys,” “girls,” “women,” household,” and “intimates.” By choosing to pick where he ends the line, Whitman sets a standard for his individualism within poetry.
There are not many instances of steady rhyme in Leaves of Grass—it was written in free verse. Like the may poets before Whitman, he does not adhere to strict iambs such as a Longfellow poem: “Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!” Written in iambic pentameter, Longfellow’s lines flow. Whitman’s lines, however, have no set rhythm. Not to say, “Song of Myself” lacked rhythm, but there is no natural required rhythm—the poem has an organic rhythm. In terms of form, Whitman is playing an iconoclastic game. Whitman will, and does, not write poetry like other people have written. Whitman does not want to emulate the past with authors like Longfellow who represent an elitist society writing poetry to the less literate—Longfellow had excellent education that lead him to teach at Harvard University, a highly selective college. Whitman, however, was not an elitist—he dropped out of school at eleven years old. Whitman writes to the less literate from himself who was less literate than his predecessors.
Moreover, it was Whitman’s overall modernization of the traditional epic that lead to his reverence. The epic, which had been toyed with over the last few centuries, is nothing compared to the radical poetry of Whitman. Combining the utilization of nature from the romantics with the progressive tendencies of the transcendentalist movement, Whitman individualized and modernized a few-thousand-year-old tradition into something for the people, by the people; yet still showing individuality: “I celebrate myself” (Whitman 1).
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