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Whitman, Walt

Category: Poet

Walter Whitman  [1819 to 1892] was an American poet essayist, journalist and humanist. He was a part of the transition between Transcendentalism and Realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse.

His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which [laughably] was described as obscene for its ‘overt sexuality’, although in reality the poem does not describe sexual acts, but the act of union with the spiritual world.

Whitman was deeply influenced by Deism.  The main appeal of Deism for Whitman was its emphasis upon knowledge of the spiritual world via personal experience. [This is in contrast to fideism which is found in many forms of Christianity, Islamic and Judaic teachings, which hold that religion relies on revelation - the testimony of other people].

Whitman denied any one faith was more important than another, and embraced all religions equally. In "Song of Myself", he gave an inventory of major religions and indicated he respected and accepted all of them – a sentiment he further emphasized in his poem "With Antecedents", affirming:
"I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god,
I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception".

In 1874, he was invited to write a poem about the 'Spiritualism Movement' [not spirituality], to which he responded, "It seems to me nearly altogether a poor, cheap, crude humbug

In essence, Whitman was a religious skeptic: though he accepted all churches, he believed in none.

Leaves of Grass begins with the words:

"I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease....observing a spear of summer grass."

Leaves of Grass was the first great American poem and indeed, to this day, the greatest and most essentially American poem in all their national literature.

Whitman in 1872.

The publication of Leaves of Grass in July 1855 was a landmark event in literary history. Ralph Waldo Emerson judged the book "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." Nothing like the volume had ever appeared before. Everything about it--the unusual jacket and title page, the exuberant preface, the twelve free-flowing, untitled poems embracing every realm of experience--was new.

The 1855 edition broke new ground in its relaxed style, which prefigured free verse; in its candor; in its images of racial bonding and democratic togetherness; and in the intensity of its affirmation of the sanctity of the physical world.

And now we come to the sad part.  I’d like to be able to say that he was addicted to love or practised deep breathing – but he didn’t, he was an absinthe drinker.

References

‘Song of Myself’
‘Leaves of Grass’

There is a good reading of the full Leaves of Grass on youtube as well - LINK

Observations

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