Selected Criticism

Style and Technique(s)
Warren, James Perrin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

From the publication of the first Leaves of Grass in 1855, Walt Whitman has been justly honored as the first great innovator in American poetry. Indeed, persistent innovation marks Whitman's style in every phase of his long career, though many readers find Whitman's most characteristic style in the poems of 1855–1865, from "Song of Myself" to "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman himself stated, "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment" (qtd. in Traubel viii), and the experimental spirit imbues both his poetry and his prose.

One area of particularly successful experimentation, in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass, is poetic diction. Whitman creates a rich mixture of words borrowed or adapted from foreign languages, colloquialisms, Americanisms, geographical place names, and slang expressions. Some of Whitman's characteristic foreign borrowings in the 1855 "Song of Myself" include omnibus, promenaders, experient, savans, embouchures, vivas, venerealee, amies, foofoos, en-masse, kosmos, eleves, promulqes, accoucheur, and debouch. Even this brief list suggests a range of stylistic choices, from the commonly accepted borrowing to the surprising adaptation or coining. The stylistic texture created by other dictional elements can be fairly suggested by four lines from "Song of Myself" in which the speaker attempts to answer the child's question, "What is the grass?":

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

(section 6)

Whitman combines the more formal language of "uniform hieroglyphic" with colloquialisms, Americanisms, and slang to create the figure of a democratic speaker who answers the child inclusively and familiarly.

Whitman's exotic and familiar words exist alongside a host of standard English words used in grammatically surprising ways. Thus the processes of word formation in the English language become a resource for Whitman's experiments. In particular, he employs the processes of suffixation, conversion, and compounding in remarkable ways. He creates new words by grafting the -ee and -er suffixes to lexically established words, by converting verbs into nouns, and by synthesizing compounds from temporary, ad hoc relations. The result of these grammatical experiments is a dynamic, verbal style in which agents and activities coalesce.

Perhaps the most obvious stylistic trait of Whitman's poetry is the long line, written in free verse. Whitman abandons, almost completely, the metrical tradition of accentual syllabic verse and embraces instead the prosody of the English Bible. The most important techniques in Whitman's prosody are syntactic parallelism, repetition, and cataloguing. These stylistic innovations combine to create an expansive, oracular, and often incantatory effect.

Syntactic parallelism has rightly been seen as the basic technique of Hebrew poetry, and Whitman's innovative free verse owes a fundamental debt to the rhythms of the Bible. That being said, the nature of the poet's debt remains far from clear. Bishop Robert Lowth's early attempts to classify the types of biblical parallelism have, according to modern scholars, proven limited in usefulness. Similarly, Gay Wilson Allen's accounts of biblical analogies for Whitman's unconventional prosody, based on Lowth's taxonomy, do not describe the variety and complexity of Whitman's poetic practice. More important than the types of parallelism, in any case, is the basic structure of syntactic parallelism itself. Whitman tends to establish a sequence of coordinate clauses, from two to four lines long, based on the parallelism between syntactic units within lines. So, for example, this stanza from "Song of Myself" features coordinate syntax both within and between lines, employing a subject-verb parallelism: "I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" (section 1).

The second, related technique is repetition. The three techniques of repetition usually carry their Greek names from Demetrius and Longinus. Anaphora (or epanaphora) refers to the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of lines. Epistrophe (or epiphora) refers to the repetition of the same word or words at the end of lines. Symploce (or complexio) refers to the combination of anaphora and epistrophe. In the lines quoted above, anaphora names the initial repetition of the word "I." A lengthier stanza from "Song of Myself" shows the complexity and variety of Whitman's repetitions:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells be- neath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.

(section 5)

The repetition of "And" at the beginning of lines sets a firm rhythmical frame based on anaphora, but Whitman employs symploce, elision, variation of line length, and variation of syntactic structure to create a complex weave of assertion.

The third technique, cataloguing, can be seen as the expansive synthesis of syntactic parallelism and rhetorical repetition. The catalogue typically expands beyond the rhythmical frame of two to four coordinate clauses, it features parallelism of clause, phrase, or some mixture of the two, and it employs the full repertoire of rhetorical devices of repetition. The catalogue is particularly important in the first three editions of Leaves of Grass, and it functions significantly in long poems such as "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Song of the Open Road," "Salut au Monde!," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," "Song of the Broad-Axe," and "Starting from Paumanok." A representative example of the clausal catalogue appears as section 15 of "Song of Myself," while an example of the phrasal catalogue appears as section 41. Whitman's most extensive catalogue, section 33 of "Song of Myself," is a complexly ordered composition of phrasal and clausal lines.

A final element of Whitman's free verse relates to the effective irregularity of stanza form. In contrast to a regular repetition of a given stanza, usually marked by a definite pattern of meter and rhyme, Whitman's style features the persistent irregularity of stanza length. In this respect, Whitman's practice with stanzas parallels his treatment of the poetic line. The stanzas tend to form units of expression, elaborating on a figure or theme that is announced in the first line of the stanza. The length of the stanza is thus a function of the poet's expressive thought, not a formal requirement. The stanzas vary from one line to dozens of lines, and at these two extremes the word "stanza" hardly seems descriptive. Between the two ends of the spectrum, however, Whitman displays great artistry in the play of stanza form. Section 11 of "Song of Myself," for instance, owes much of its dreamlike tone to the delicate play of tercet and couplet.

In the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman begins to show his concern for larger units of poetic form. Always conscious of the printed format of the poems, Whitman numbers stanzas in the 1860 edition, and in the 1867 edition he first uses section numbers (as well as stanza numbers) in the long poems. By 1881, in the sixth edition, he deletes stanza numbers but preserves the section numbers. The fifty-two sections of "Song of Myself" are thus a postwar revision of the poem.

A second and perhaps more important concern also appears in 1860: Whitman begins to organize poems into special groups he calls "clusters," and this technique of arranging poems persists through the remaining editions of Leaves. Although many poems occupy a rather stable position in a given cluster, Whitman goes through a long, complicated process of arranging and rearranging the poems into thematic, figural, or topical clusters. The titles and contents of a particular cluster go through a constant process of experimentation, and in many cases the cluster disappears altogether, its contents dispersed to form some other arrangement. Although Whitman claimed that the cluster arrangements of the 1881 edition are definitive, the annexes that appear after 1881—"Sands at Seventy" and "Good-Bye my Fancy"—suggest the same method of organization and the same restless spirit of experimentation. Indeed, in the preface to the second annex (written in 1891) Whitman calls it "this little cluster, and conclusion of my preceding clusters" (Whitman 537), as if he recognizes a formal similarity between the patterns of the definitive edition and those of the two later additions.

The idea that there is stylistic and thematic continuity between the poems of 1855–1865 and those of Whitman's last twenty-seven years has remained a minority view throughout the twentieth century. The general tendency of criticism has been to tell a tragic story of decline and failure, seeing the three postwar editions of Leaves of Grass, the Deathbed edition of 1891–1892, and the voluminous prose of Democratic Vistas, Specimen Days, and Prose Works 1892 as somehow inescapably tinged by Whitman's life of illness, depression, and artistic isolation. The problem with the tragic narrative is its implied value judgment concerning Whitman's postwar style, for there is certainly a palpable change in the style. For instance, Whitman employs archaic forms of direct address much more frequently in the postwar poems than in the first three editions of Leaves: "thou" and "thee" abound in such poems as "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869), "Passage to India" (1871), "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" (1872), "The Mystic Trumpeter" (1872), and "To a Locomotive in Winter" (1876). Perhaps the only poem to escape censure in this regard is "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865), and its date troubles both the neatness of the stylistic paradigm and the negative evaluation of archaisms themselves. The new style of address parallels, in most cases, Whitman's focus on the soul's "[p]assage to more than India" ("Passage to India," section 9). He often addresses abstract, spiritualized entities, such as democratic America or an idealized past, as if his poems were an attempt to call them into being.

A stylistic corollary to this form of address is the withdrawal of the poet from the physical, material world he describes so luxuriantly in the 1855–1865 poems. In "Proud Music of the Storm," for instance, the speaker is less an active participant or dynamic observer, more a passive receiver of sonorous, otherworldly intimations. A fine dramatic monologue like "Prayer of Columbus" (1874) dwells more on the abstract, general memories and meditations of the speaker than on the physical, concrete situation itself.

The final stylistic change in the postwar poetry is the increased number of short lyrics. It should be noted, however, that from the very beginning of his career Whitman writes both long and short poems, and it could be argued that a masterpiece like "Song of Myself" is, in some ways, more aptly described as a sequence of short poems than as one single poem. The cluster arrangements of the 1860 edition feature many short lyrics, and the texture of Leaves of Grass from 1860 to 1892 owes a great deal to the mixture of long poems with clusters of short lyrics. The poems of Whitman's last decade tend to run to fewer than twenty lines, and they often run to fewer than ten lines. Because of this reduction in length, Whitman engages in significantly less artistic manipulation of stanza forms. Finally, the subjects in the last decade tend to create an effect of occasional verse, whether the occasion be public or private. Although these facts suggest a waning of poetic power, it is well to note that the long line remains a prominent feature in the late poems, as do the characteristic techniques of Whitman's unconventional prosody.

Whitman's innovative experiments with language extend beyond the rather permeable boundary separating poetry from prose. In this regard, Whitman's prose style is at its best, for many readers, when it most nearly approximates his poetic style. Thus the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass employs the very same techniques that mark Whitman's free verse, and the poet cannibalized the Preface for poems in the 1856 edition, especially "By Blue Ontario's Shore." The 1856 "Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson" and the unpublished pamphlet "The Eighteenth Presidency!" resemble the 1855 Preface in style and technique, and in all three texts the effect is that of language threatening to expand beyond the borders of sentence and paragraph. Some readers have described this effect as the presence or voice of the speaker resisting the confines of written language.

Effects of presence or voice persist in the postwar prose, particularly in Democratic Vistas (1871). Whitman employs syntactic parallelism, catalogue techniques, and compounds to create a complex figure of eloquence, a speaker-writer who is both an active, individualized observer of postwar urban America and a more withdrawn, retrospective, general diagnostician of postwar America's materialistic disease. Though marked by more complex and demanding syntactic structures, Whitman's style in Democratic Vistas recalls the oratorical style of the 1850s. In Specimen Days (1882), as well as in the short essays of the 1880s, Whitman's style parallels the reductions in scale and scope that characterize the poems of the final decade. But like the short poems of the annexes, the wartime memoranda and nature descriptions in Specimen Days maintain a certain stylistic expansiveness on the level of the sentence. The postwar prose awaits an extensive critical analysis and appraisal.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Southard, Sherry G. "Whitman and Language: An Annotated Bibliography." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.2 (1984): 31–49.

Traubel, Horace. Foreword. An American Primer. By Walt Whitman. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904. v–ix.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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