Selected Criticism

"I Was Looking a Long While" (1860)
McWilliams, Jim
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Walt Whitman began working on it as early as 1856 or 1857, this ten-line poem was not published until the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, when it appeared as "Chants Democratic" number 19. Whitman subsequently gave the poem its current title in 1867, and later made a handful of minor revisions before considering "I Was Looking a Long While" finished in 1881.

As he does in so much of his work, Whitman pays homage in this poem to the "average man of to-day," arguing that the key to a brilliant future for humanity lies not with "fables in the libraries" but with a modern democracy in which all people live life to the fullest through a free exchange of ideas. He suggests that since the present is so wonderful, even though the past seemed to promise little, the future must be even better than the present.

"I Was Looking a Long While" is certainly a minor poem, and as such it has not attracted much critical commentary. Indeed, Whitman explains his belief in a positive future for humanity in greater detail, and with considerably more artistry, in poems such as "Passage to India." Still, it is difficult indeed not to be impressed by Whitman's sense of optimism in this short poem.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

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

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

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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