Walt Whitman: Transcendental and Realist Poet

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  • 0:05 Who Was Walt Whitman?
  • 0:56 Leaves of Grass and…
  • 3:08 Whitman's Influence
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Walt Whitman is now considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, but his work was not so well-loved when it first debuted. Find out what made the man and his poems so controversial.

Who Was Walt Whitman?

Walter 'Walt' Whitman was an influential American poet of the 19th century, and a figure of more than a little controversy. As a transcendentalist, he held views that weren't necessarily popular at his time, and his poetry, namely Leaves of Grass, was met with a good deal of criticism when it was first published in 1855. Whitman's own brother George considered it not worth reading. Ouch! Clearly, the critics were wrong; otherwise we wouldn't be studying Whitman today. Let's find out who this intriguing man was and why so many of his contemporaries had issues with his writing.

Walt Whitman was born into a large, poor family in 1819 in New York State. At age 11, he stopped formal schooling and went to work to support his family. He held various office jobs, worked for a printer and eventually became a journalist and teacher, though no occupation would suit him as well as poet.

Leaves Of Grass and Other Works

Whitman was a controversial figure in American literature
Walt Whitman Photos

Whitman began work on the poems that would later comprise Leaves of Grass, including the famous Song of Myself, as early as 1850. Whitman's style of poetry was unique for his time; he wrote in free verse, or poetry without meter or rhyme. As meter and rhyme are what people often use to distinguish poetry from prose, it was often hard for some readers to recognize Leaves of Grass as poetry at all!

Though now it's considered essential American literature, the highly sensual nature of Leaves of Grass, along with its unusual form, made it pretty unpopular at the time it was first published. Though no one knows for certain, most scholars assume that Whitman was either gay or bisexual, and his explicit descriptions of physical pleasure in the book were highly offensive to many. Readers were said to have thrown the book immediately into the fire after reading it.

Like most transcendentalist works, Leaves of Grass explores the relationship between man and nature and the value of the mind and spirit. Transcendentalism placed great value on the self, and in Book 1 of Leaves of Grass, entitled Inscriptions, the first poem is actually titled One's-Self I Sing. Let's take a look at it:

'One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say

the Form complete is worthier far,

The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,

Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,

The Modern Man I sing.'

It's interesting to note that this poem specifically mentions the body (physiology) and not just the mind or the spirit. This is one of the more tame examples of Whitman's emphasis on the physical. If you want to see the more R-rated ones, you'll need to read the book yourself.

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