Walt Whitman's Poetry and Transcendentalism

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  • 0:01 Transcendentalism
  • 1:18 Walt Whitman
  • 3:07 Themes in Whitman's Poetry
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we're going to study the poetry of Walt Whitman. We're also going to take a close look at Transcendentalism, a spiritual and literary movement of 19th-century America.


Do you believe that there is more to the world than what we see and hear and feel? Do you believe that there is more to a human being than a physical body? Do you believe that we can catch little glimpses of these deeper realms of the world and humanity through imagination and art?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have something in common with the followers of a 19th-century spiritual and literary movement called Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism may seem like a big, scary word, but really, it simply means a belief that human beings and the created world possess a deep spiritual dimension that is beyond anything we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. People can glimpse this deeper dimension of reality through imagination, intuition, and art.

Transcendentalism started in the first half of the 19th century as a reaction to rationalism, i.e., the idea that human reason and the material world were all anyone needed. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was a major founder of the movement, and other Transcendentalists included Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Transcendentalists believed strongly in the value and creative power of the individual, and they often supported social reforms, including the abolition of slavery and the rights of women.

Walt Whitman

Another prominent Transcendentalist was the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, and spent the first few years of his life on a farm. His family then moved to New York City, where Whitman dropped out of school and went to work at age 11 to help support his family. He experienced the ups and downs of city life as he worked as a printer's helper, journalist, newspaper editor, and schoolteacher. He jumped around the country quite a bit, too, living in both the North and the South, meeting many people, seeing many places, and having many adventures, most of which influenced his poetry.

Whitman published his first book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, in 1855, and he revised, expanded, and republished this book several times throughout his life. During the Civil War, Whitman brought out another collection entitled Drum-Taps, which explores the complexities and emotions of the war and its soldiers. The poet, although not a soldier himself, spent the war tending the wounded and, therefore, got a unique look at the Civil War experience.

After the war, two more collections of Whitman's poems appeared, A Passage to India and Democratic Vistas. The poet also continued to work on Leaves of Grass. Whitman's later life was challenging, however. He had a stroke in 1873 and was often in poor health after that. Also, the American public didn't always appreciate Whitman's work. His poems were different than other poetry. They didn't use the usual rhythms and rhymes, and they tended to be quite direct and often dealt with controversial themes and ideas. Indeed, Whitman, who passed away in 1892, was probably a bit ahead of his time, but he has come to be known and loved as one of America's greatest poets.

Themes in Whitman's Poetry

What is it, then, that makes Whitman's poetry so appealing, and why should we read it today? Well, Walt Whitman explores several themes that get right to the heart of what it means to be a human being living in the world. Let's explore a few of these.

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