Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Pre-Leaves Poems
Author:
Gibson, Brent L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman published roughly twenty poems in various newspapers and magazines before he published his first volume of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

Probably the first poem Whitman published was "Our Future Lot." A conventional poem in rhyme, meter, and content, "Our Future Lot" was first published in the Long Islander, a paper which Whitman founded in the spring of 1838. Although no copies of the paper are known to exist, the poem was reprinted on 31 October 1838 in the Long Island Democrat and labeled "from the Long Islander." The poem was revised and retitled "Time to Come" and was printed in the New York Aurora on 9 April 1842.

Whitman had several poems published in the Long Island Democrat from 1838–1840, including "Young Grimes," "The Inca's Daughter," "The Love That Is Hereafter," "The Spanish Lady," "The Columbian's Song," "The End of All," "The Winding-Up" (a revision of "The End of All"), "We Shall All Rest at Last," "Fame's Vanity," and "My Departure." Many of these early works are reflections on the end of life or the afterlife.

The remainder of Whitman's pre-Leaves poems were all published in or before 1850. Most of the poems were published in various New York area newspapers and magazines. These include "Each Has His Grief" (a revision of "We Shall All Rest At Last"), "The Punishment of Pride," "Ambition" (revision of "Fame's Vanity"), "The Death and Burial of McDonald Clarke. A Parody," "Death of the Nature-Lover" (revision of "My Departure"), "The Play-Ground," "Ode," "The House of Friends" (appears as "Wounded in the House of Friends" in Specimen Days & Collect), "Resurgemus," "Song for Certain Congressmen" (appears as "Dough-Face Song" in Collect), "Blood-Money," "Tale of a Shirt," and "A Sketch." It is easy to see that even at this early stage Whitman was not content to let poems rest but constantly was tinkering with them and revising them and their titles.

The only poem not published in the New York area was "The Mississippi at Midnight," which was printed in the New Orleans Crescent during Whitman's brief stint there. The poem later appeared as "Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight" in Collect.

Other poems deserving special attention are "Resurgemus," "Tale of a Shirt," and "A Sketch." "Resurgemus" was the only poem published prior to 1855 which was incorporated into Leaves of Grass. It appeared untitled as the eighth of twelve poems in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. In the 1860 edition of Leaves it was revised and retitled "Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States." "Tale of a Shirt" and "A Sketch" are the only two pre-Leaves poems which do not appear in the definitive edition of the early works, Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction, edited by Thomas Brasher. "Tale of a Shirt" was discovered in 1982 by Herbert Bergman in the 31 March 1844 issue of the New York Sunday Times & Noah's Weekly Messenger. "A Sketch" was discovered by Jerome Loving in 1993 in the December 1842 issue of The New World.

Whitman's earliest poetry was sentimental in nature and imitative of William Cullen Bryant and other popular nineteenth-century American poets. Whitman did experiment with parody and comic verse but the majority of his earliest poems are indistinguishable from the flood of poetry being produced in the 1840s. Many of them contain four- or five-line stanzas, regular meter, and rhymed verse. The themes are also conventional and revolve around the folly of pride, the brevity of life, and the hope of a life to come.

By 1850, however, Whitman had turned to political themes and his poetry had taken on more of the characteristics of Leaves of Grass. His poetry around this time was often occasional and was angrier and more satirical in tone. He began to experiment with less conventional metrics and abandoned rhyme altogether.

For the most part critics have ignored or given only a cursory glance at the pre-Leaves poems and rightly so. These poems are important primarily for insight into Whitman's origin and growth as a poet. The forms and subject matter of the poetry are conventional and bland at best.

Bibliography

Bergman, Herbert. "A Hitherto Unknown Whitman Story and a Possible Early Poem." Walt Whitman Review 28 (1982): 3–15.

Loving, Jerome. "A Newly Discovered Whitman Poem." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 11 (1994): 117–122.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.


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