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Walt Whitman’s Poetry in American Literature Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

‘Leaves of Grass’ is a collection of Walt Whitman’s poems to which he wrote a preface titled “Inscription: To the Reader at the Entrance of Leaves of Grass”. In this he addressed the American reader as a poet stationed at the meeting point between life and literature, waiting to receive the reader with opened arms. He used all his familiar motifs such as the individual and the collective, man and woman, body and soul, art, and America (Greenspan, 1990).

He also used the technique of communicating using active reader involvement. Later, after three editions of ‘Leaves of Grass’, he condensed this inscription into the short programmatic poem, “One’s-Self I Sing,” which later became the lead poem for all later editions of Leaves of Grass. The small poem “One’s Self I Sing” contains the core concepts of his thinking regarding the dichotomy in society between the individual and the democratic whole (the “En-masse”) (Greenspan, 1990).

The difference between the earlier version and this poem is that the cocky personal self-revealed in the prior version is transformed into an earnest Modern Man in this poem. Whitman’s stress is more on modernity than universality (McWilliams, 1989). The entire book “Leaves of Grass” can be seen as an attempt to provide a creative answer to this duality, to locate the individual in the national collective (Greenspan, 1990).

Walt Whitman was a poet who was both a lover of solitude and the crowds. “One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse” – These lines in fact set the characteristic paradox that is inherent through the Leaves. The politics of Leaves of Grass is balanced between the separate person and the en masse. It is neither liberal in approach nor conservative. The poems in the book emphasize contrasting values of independence and community and contrasting notions of personal wealth and commonwealth (Errkila, 1989).

Many of Whitman’s frequently reprinted brief lyrics appear to be partially incomplete, not quite finished. The reason is that the short poems are usually firmly attached to their positions in the structure of Leaves. To remove them is to deprive them of part of their roots, part of their meaning deriving from their relationships with their environment. “One’s Self I Sing,” is a poem of this kind. This short poem is a succinct statement of the poet’s intention to sing “of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power.” When Whitman says, “Of physiology from top to toe I sing,” or “The Female equally with the Male I sing”, his reference is to the whole of his work; indeed, the very form of the phrase “I sing” is meant to suggest the epic quality of Leaves.

“One’s-Self I Sing, a simple separate person,” run the opening lines of Leaves of Grass from 1871 on, “Yet utter the word Democratic.” Terry Mulcaire points out that The word “yet” suggests a ‘poetic universe of productive tension’. The two lines convey that the tense equipoise between individualism and democracy is the foundational theme of Whitman’s book. The reconciliation of the individual to the mass is symbolized by the phrase “physiology from top to toe.” Physically, each individual has a separate identity through the body. But, through emotions such as physical affection, all individuals feel bonded in a sense of common humanity.

Whitman’s by including both the masculine and feminine gender shows that he is ambivalent to the monotheistic tradition and supports the cause of women: “The Female equally with the Male I sing”. He sees in both genders “life immense in passion, pulse, and power” and justifies this equality by declaring that his endeavor to sing of it is the “freest action form’d under the laws divine”.

According to Christopher Beach, in this poem, Whitman introduces distinctions only to collapse them. He talks about dichotomies such as One’s-Self/En-Masse, separate person/Democratic, physiognomy/brain, Female/Male, laws divine/Modern Man (Beach, 1996). Whitman believes, that if each of these pairings is explored, they will ultimately be rejected on the basis of universality. Beach also points out that Whitman’s poetic goal is to describe a basic American way of living.

While being American includes living democratically and in an egalitarian manner, American culture is also one that stands out uniquely among other cultures. And Whitman in this poem, describes in a subtle manner, the tremendous diversity of America that is united in “a common moral, historical, and aesthetic purpose” (Beach, 1996).

Thus, the main theme of this poem is the promotion of a sense of oneness. Whitman in this poem expresses his view that good life is found not in distinction but in oneness with the whole.


Beach, Christopher (1996). The Politics of Distinction: Whitman and the Discourses of Nineteenth-Century America. University of Georgia Press. Athens.

Erkkila, Betsy (1989), Whitman the Political Poet. Oxford University Press.

Greenspan, Ezra (1990). Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

McWilliams, P. John (1989). The American Epic: Transforming a Genre, 1770-1860. Cambridge University Press.

Mulcaire, Terry (1998). Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishers. New York. Page 483.

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