Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"I Hear America Singing" (1860)
Author:
Mignon, Charles W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"I Hear America Singing" appeared first in the 1860 (third) edition of Leaves of Grass as number 20 in "Chants Democratic" with the first line "American mouth-songs!" and an awkward final stanza, both of which Whitman wisely deleted for the next version of the poem in "The Answerer" cluster of 1871. His revision of the first line to "I Hear America singing, the varied carols I hear" (1871) provided what would become its title in his final placement of the poem in "Inscriptions" (1881).

When this poem first appeared in the 1860 edition, Whitman placed it between "I was Looking a Long While" and "As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days." In this context, "I Hear" found a place in Whitman's announcement of the great theme of freedom and in his early invention of new literary techniques. In its "Inscriptions" surroundings, this poem is thematically related to "To Thee Old Cause" (1871), "America" (1888), "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" (1872), and the prophetic nationalism of "To-day and Thee" (1888).

The idea of "America" in "I Hear" is that of the poem "America" (1888), conceived of as the Mother, source of the themes of freedom, law, and love expressed by her children. These children are the daughters and sons who find voice in "I Hear." The songs they sing are those described in "Starting from Paumanok" (1860): the poems of materials that are the most spiritual poems. To the expanding and rhapsodic ego discovering the universal immanent in each particular, Whitman found appropriate the catalogue of parallelisms contained in a thematic envelope. But in "I Hear" the abbreviated exploration of this method restricts expansion.

Isadora Duncan, calling herself "the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman" (39), was inspired by this poem and sought commensurate dance and music. Critical response notes this poem's nonmusicality, its vagueness, sentimentality, and folksy nationalism, yet places the poem in the category of dilation, transport, and amazement. "I Hear" is the exploration of a method, not a full literary development of it; the poet is still in his workshop, but the themes, materials, and method are all in plain view.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Bradley, Sculley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Introduction. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Bradley, Blodgett, Golden, and White. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1980. xv–xxv.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. London: Victor Gollancz, 1928.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Stovall, Floyd. Introduction. Walt Whitman: Representative Selections. 1939. Ed. Stovall. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. xi–lii.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. "'I Hear America Singing': Whitman and Democratic Culture." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 22–28.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.