One of America’s greatest and best loved poets is Walt Whitman; 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. His first book of poetry, self-published in 1855, was Leaves of Grass. Experimental and experiential, the poems came from Whitman’s own observations of the world and himself. It was a visionary and ambitious work, employing free verse – new for the time – and an unusual combination of language both florid and down to earth. The book made his reputation, and he revised it and reissued it many times before he died.
Whitman personified the independent and individual spirit seeking to express and understand itself within an American context. If the country’s early history was written in the acts and deeds of the Founding Fathers and its settlers, then Whitman was writing a personal history of the American soul in his poetry. Oscar Wilde, who visited Whitman in 1882, described him as “one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age.”
That spirit of personal freedom, used rightly, is an expansive and inclusive spirit, rather than one which seeks to exclude others. Whitman’s life was varied and colorful: he worked variously as a journalist, typesetter, carpenter and teacher. During the Civil War he volunteered to visit sick and injured soldiers, listening to their stories, reading to them and writing letters home on their behalf – he estimated he made over 600 visits during this time.
A recent article by Mark Edmundson in The Atlantic considers Whitman’s significance today. He writes:
“Whitman speaks to our moment in many ways. One of them is quite simple: At a time when Americans hate one another across partisan lines as intensely perhaps as they have since the Civil War, Whitman’s message is that hate is not compatible with true democracy, spiritual democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. Up to a certain point, Whitman approved of conflict. But affection—friendliness—must always define the relations between us. When that affection dissolves, the first order of business is to restore it.”
Later in the year I hope to provide an opportunity for us to read and discuss one of Whitman’s poems at St Barnabas. In the meantime, have a Happy Fourth of July!
With every blessing