Selected Criticism

Lindner, Carl Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

When with characteristic insight Emerson recognized "the wonderful gift of 'LEAVES OF GRASS'" in his letter of July 1855 to Whitman, it was the freedom of the poetry that spoke most powerfully to him. He responded to Whitman's "courage of treatment" and its effects on the reader, "namely, of fortifying and encouraging" (Whitman 729–730). Freedom is central to Whitman's vision of life—the artistic life, the individual life, and the life of the society.

As artist, Whitman demanded and demonstrated a new freedom in poetry. Breaking with tradition, he moved toward a more open, organic poetry (so-called free verse), allowing his thoughts and feelings to find expression in lines and stanzas of varying lengths. While his greatest poems exhibit the qualities of musical composition (fluidity, melody, recurring motifs), rhyme and meter went by the wayside. The line became the basic unit for Whitman—virtually all his lines are end-stopped—and this technique, which he derived from the Hebraic tradition, is in keeping with Whitman's sense of the poet as seer. The poet was also a creator, god-like in bringing—out of the divine imagination—new things into being. Each poem had its own form to find, and that form would emerge in the writing of the poem (Coleridge's "organic form"). Sensing new possibilities for poetry, Whitman married freedom of imagination to the courage of creative action, personifying what Rollo May called "the courage to create"—the artist exercising creative freedom and thereby living a fuller, more genuine life. Whitman's freer verse powerfully influenced the course of Western poetry, and he still remains its most impressive practitioner.

In his poetry's spontaneity, movement, and scope, Whitman sought to represent the life process itself, a process whose very essence is freedom. Besides openness of form, then, Whitman's freedom of language, subject matter, and tone infused energy and originality into American poetry. Whitman's words came from everywhere—opera, carpentry, science, city and country, other languages; if he couldn't find the word he wanted, he invented it. This freedom to employ nonpoetic language to enliven and communicate thoughts and feelings was paralleled by Whitman's determination to include people, topics, and experiences previously considered inappropriate or downright taboo. Consequently, the reader finds in Whitman's poems the downtrodden and denied (prostitute, drunkard, lunatic, slave, venerealee) along with the respected and attractive (president, deacon, bride). Desiring a poetry representative of actual life, Whitman acknowledged painful and repressed elements of mid-nineteenth-century America. The reader encounters dramatizations of slavery, the dead and dying of the Civil War (along with primitive surgical procedures), and, of course, human sexuality. Whitman celebrated the senses and invited the reader to do the same, rejoicing courageously in the libido and all its manifestations. And, to communicate this material so new to American poetry, Whitman broke poetic ground again by establishing a personal relationship between poet and audience by addressing the reader directly—as "reader" or "you"—sometimes asking questions to elicit responses, sometimes reaching out and hooking the reader around the waist or otherwise embracing him. Furthermore, Whitman's tone draws the reader in, as the poet speaks nonjudgmentally, tenderly, supportively, seductively, ecstatically, despairingly by turns. The "voice" in Whitman's poems is decidedly human, and it speaks in all the keys of life.

Even as he created a new poetry, Whitman's work revealed his hortatory purpose. The openness and inclusiveness of his verse encouraged the reader to live autonomously. Thus, Leaves of Grass was not only an example of artistic freedom; it was also a dramatization of a free life. As such, it invited the reader to examine and to liberate his life from fears and inhibitions that obstructed personal growth. In "Song of Myself" (sections 6, 7, 52) and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," for example, the poet raises the issue of death, explores its mystery and attempts to alleviate the reader's fears about it. In "Song of Myself" (sections 5, 24, 28, 29) and the "Children Of Adam" poems, the speaker not only addresses sexuality (a courageous act in itself, considering Puritan and Victorian repressiveness), but he glorifies it, hymns it. Again, in "Song of Myself" (section 46), the "I" speaks in the voice of a counselor, friend, teacher, or parent regarding the courage to live. Not only does the speaker assure that all will be well, but he offers to accompany the reader part way, and at the poem's end, after his own death, to await the reader's arrival. Fear of death, fear of sexual desire, fear of life—all these Whitman addresses, as well as fear of the self in regard to denying or disowning unattractive personal qualities. Whitman portrays his own humanity by presenting his faults ("The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me" ["Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," section 6]). This is hardly boasting, but rather an attempt to model self-awareness and self-acceptance. Just as Whitman anticipates Freud regarding the unhealthiness of sexual repression, so too Whitman anticipates Jung regarding the shadow aspects of the psyche, aspects which must be acknowledged if the individual is to progress toward wholeness or integrity. Whitman understood that freedom becomes real only when translated into action. He dramatized, then, the courage necessary to do this in his art and in his life.

Ultimately, Whitman's vision of individual freedom (including artistic freedom) culminates in his hope for a truly democratic society. In such a culture, people are equal, unique, and free to become themselves. Yet, as much as Whitman celebrates the autonomous life, he unfailingly connects the individual to his community. Whitman's individual is no loner. Rather, he is one of the strands in a large living tapestry, one of the "leaves of grass." In Whitman's dream of America, all people are equal (men and women, poor and rich, black and white, professor and mechanic, Christian and non-Christian), all have maximum opportunity for self-development resulting in distinct and fully-realized identities (individuation), and all share in the culture's life. Of all Whitman's poems, "Song of Myself" most fully expresses this vision. The catalog sections (15 and 33) parade an extra-ordinary and representative variety of individuals going about their business in this new country. Each belongs. Each contributes to the picture. There is no hierarchy here.

Finally, then, Whitman's art and vision are expressions of hope and love—his hopes for America to achieve its potential as a truly democratic land, and his love for all people, starting with himself. Out of this healthy self-love, a person can love others, all others, by virtue of their common humanity. For Whitman, then, freedom is central to being. This tenet he embraced in his art, his sense of the individual life, and his dream for America.


May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: Norton, 1975.

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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