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The American Romantic Movement

Walt Whitman
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Biographical Information

whitmanhouse.jpg
The house in witch Whitman grew up.

Walt Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892, during his 76 year life Whitman, created some of the most influential works of literature known to America. He changed the way of poetry, breaking traditional styles, and opening the poetic world to change humanity. Not only was Whitman’s life as an author superb, his life as a man was different than most.

 Born near Huntington, New York, Whitman was the second in a family of nine. He had some enmeshment issues with him, Mom. when he was four he moved to Brooklyn, New York, Where he attended public school for six years. At the age of ten he was accepted as an apprentice to a printer and within two years he was working in New York at printing shops. At 19 he was teaching at a country school but soon changed his career path and began editing a newspaper called the Long-Islander in Huntington. However he soon became bored with this job and moved to New York to work as a printer and journalist; he was more entertained there. He enjoyed theater, opera, and loved to read in the various libraries of the city. At this point in his late twenties, Whitman had not yet started his writing career, he wrote various poems, and stories for popular magazines. He also wrote political speeches for Tammany Hall Democrats, a society which controlled the Democratic Party; for this he was rewarded editorship of several short lived newspapers. For a few years Whitman edited for the Brooklyn Eagle, but was fired for his views on the Free-Soil Party. Giving writing up temporarily Whitman took a break from everything. He visited New Orleans and Louisiana. Upon returning to Brooklyn he started a short lived Free-Soil newspaper. He did other various jobs with newspapers, and building houses. After five years of piddling Whitman was about 35. It was then that he began writing a new kind of poetry, and from then on that was his job. During his life time Whitman wrote hundreds of poems, and many prose, most of which focused on the nature of humanity. During The Civil War Whitman tended to injured soldiers at one of the Union’s hospitals in Washington D.C. During this time he suffered from a stroke and soon after retired from military service. He bought a house in New Jersey where he lived out the final 21 years of his life. During this time he continued writing poetry, prose and politics based essays. (John Ashworth)

In 1855 he published his first book Leaves of Grass a collection of his poetry. Many did not accept the poetry for it did not rhyme like the poetry from the 1840’s and before. Whitman had to do much of the printing himself because none of the printers would take his book. Upon receiving praise from his fellow writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman continued writing and updating Leaves of Grass which he updated 6 times over his life. The original contained the most famous of his poems, Song of Myself,” As later versions emerged Whitman added poems such as “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d”, “Starting from Paumanok”, “Children of Adam” and “Calamus,” these are some amongst many. The final version of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892. (John Ashworth)

Analysis of Walt Whitman

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Whitman had a strong belief that nature was the root of all beautiful things, whether it was the smell of a flower, or the light of the moon anything that was natural had internal beauty and thereby had the possibility to make humanity beautiful.  In many of his poems Whitman depicts that nature is what depicts the true soul of a man and has the power to both display it and control it. These aspects of nature were large parts of the American Romantic movement, which shows Whitman’s relationship to the American Romantics. (Whitman 1855)

“O powerful, western, fallen star!

O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!

O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!

O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!

O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!”

 (http://www.everypoet.com)

This illustrates the power that Whitman believed the natural world had over him and the rest of humanity. It also shows the dark and sinister thought that he had as a Romantic writer. The sun falls in the west, and the darkness of the night takes over. It is because of the blackness of nature that comes with night which holds the soul of a human. Aspects of solitude are also common in Whitman’s writings. Very often do they go hand in hand with dark aspects showing the relation between the darkness where they provoke the exploration of self and the ability to find ones true soul. 

“Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk,
And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars,
Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,” (Leaves of Grass)

whitman2.jpg

This shows that some man, presumably Whitman, has spent some amount of time in a dark and somber swamp, a place in which people do not usually live, the gloomy and dark aspects are expressed by the sheer fact that it is a swamp. During his time there he studies nature, plants and animals helped him unravel himself. With this new sense self he immerges to head for the real world. Under his belt the knowledge of victory, union, faith, time, and most importantly, identity, since identity is the soul of a human and everything about it.

Common in not only to Whitman’s writing but to writings forms of this time was the belief in the natural goodness of man, that man left by himself would be good, moral, and fair. The aspects of civilization and the influence of one human on another is what changes this for each individual.

 

“Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it! “

The body is everything that involves a human, including the soul. Since the body is something which is naturally good, and incorporates soul, then the soul is good as well. If the soul is what represents human nature, or a human’s way of being then by nature the soul is good. It is not until the corruption of civilization that changes the good nature of the mind.

As stated before there are other elements of Romanticism, used by Whitman: the  use of nature solitude, and darkness the most however he did sometimes use the aspect of art as a part of humanity and life. Art represents creation of man, nature is what man is trying to create, and so without one another they are all nothing.

“The straying thence, the separation long, but now the wandering done,
The journey done, the journeyman come home,
And man and art with Nature fused again.” (http://www.everypoet.com)

As someone discovers oneself by separating themselves from everything, they learn to understand themselves as they return to a normal life man, nature and art are all assembled again. These three key elements of life are all assembled together again and make up the nature of life and humanity.

A display of darkness in American Romanticism comes from Whitman writing about the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman states that the action of a person are more important that the word or art of a person. That Lincoln’s death or the death of any man in the action of what he or she believed speaks more than any of the works of literature or art that person created.

“I repeat it—the grand deaths of the race—the dramatic deaths of every nationality—are its most important inheritance-value—in some respects beyond its literature and art—(as the hero is beyond his finest portrait, and the battle itself beyond its choicest song or epic.)”  (http://www.bartleby.com)  

As somber this is following the somber writing style of much or romanticism, this also displays what Whitman wanted people to do. He wanted people to do the right things even if death came because of it, as happened to Lincoln.

Not only was Walt Whitman an incredible writer, and poet, but he was one of the most influential writers of the time. He changed many people’s ways of looking at life and changed the views of the American people. He gave many what they were looking for by through his works and his creation of a new style of poetry helping create America’s first writing style. His writing were all in themselves different styles of Romanticism though they all used common themes of nature, and solitude. Whitman’s goal in his writing was to get the people of the world to change in their belief. He did this through more than just his political essays but his poetry and prose as well.  The revolution which he began changed the world of poetry forever due to this man.

References and Links

Whitman, (1855) Leaves of Grass excerpts of poetry, such as: “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d”, or “Starting from Paumanok”

John Ashworth, Columbia University, Encyclopedia Americana, information on the life of Whitman from childhood to the days of his writing.

Ed Folsom, University of Iowa, http://encarta.msn.com/text_761596671___0/American_Literature_Poetry.html, history of Walt Whitman, and the history of leave of grass.
http://www.bartleby.com, a complete or almost complete collection of Whitman’s writings of poetry and prose.

http://www.everypoet.com/Archive/poetry/Walt_Whitman/, another good source of the complete collection of Leaves of Grass.

Collection of writings