Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Whitman, Walt

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WHITMAN, WALT, an American poet, born at West Hills, Long Island, May 31, 1819. His education was obtained under difficulties and was not extensive. From twelve years of age he worked for his living, chiefly in printing shops, and soon began to try his hand at writing. He became one of the editors of the Brooklyn “Daily Eagle,” and in 1848 he went to New Orleans, where he worked on the “Crescent.” He returned to Brooklyn in 1850, most of the way on foot, by the Great Lakes, thus he saw at first hand the great variety of the States and came into contact with all sorts of people, laying up material on which much of his future poetry was to be based. He was fascinated by people, masses of them as seen on a Brooklyn ferry or the New York streets, or lonely hunters and trappers, pioneers in the Western wilderness.

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In 1855 these meditations and observations bore fruit in the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” henceforth to be the chief interest of his life and the receptacle for all his most characteristic work. A second edition appeared in 1856, a third in 1860, and others in succession until 1891. In each new edition further material was added. In these poems Whitman departed widely from conventional American poetry both in subjects and in form. His theme may be defined as an attempt to realize the complexity of ordinary American life through his own personal experience, both real and in imagination. More than others of our poets he has expressed a conception of democracy, not as affording opportunity for the development of individuals, nor yet as crystallized in institutions, but as mass. The countless multitudes, living and yet to live, that make up the population of these States, he visualizes in many forms—the pioneers, marching resistlessly to their conquest of lands yet uninhabited; the crowds on the ferry or in the city streets; men and women of all occupations in every part of the country. It is the average man, he says, that he sings; his physical life, his religion, his capacity for friendship. In “the dear love of comrades” he found argument for the coming of a time when wars shall cease and a new golden age be ushered in. Life seemed good to him, all of it, and he spoke with a frankness that has given offense to many. Of himself he speaks much, meaning not merely himself as a type of the average man, but as a personification of all men. He also has a vivid sense of the eternal succession of the generations of the immortality of the race.

While some of Whitman's poems have rhyme, metrical regularity, and stanzas of the usual types, these are not his most characteristic writings. He speaks of them as chants. They are divided into highly rhythmical units, without rhyme, varying in length of lines, held together by some pattern or cadence. In so great a mass of poetry there must be passages that are prosaic, mere catalogues. But there is also abundance of poetry of marvelous variety and beauty. Poems like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” or “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” though differing widely in form and structure from the older English tradition, are instantly felt to be creations of supreme beauty. But he uses little narrative; he is unable or unwilling to give the little pictures of simple life that we find in Whittier, in Riley, and other poets who have phrased the thoughts and lives of the multitude of ordinary men and women; he lacks the expression of simple religious faith and household virtues that we find in Longfellow; and he uses difficult, unusual, often bizarre diction, so that though he sets up the claim to be the poet of democracy he has never found wide audience among the people whom he wished to represent.

Whitman's wide sympathy for all sorts and conditions of men was quickened by experience during the Civil War. He became a hospital nurse in Washington. In his prose “Specimen Days” he has recorded many of his experiences. Others found verse form in a collection named “Drum Taps.” This whole experience was summed up in the series of poems that he wrote on the death of Lincoln, whom he tenderly loved. These portions of his work reveal the kindness and human sympathy of the man, the beauty of humble service rendered to suffering boys on both sides of the great conflict, a deep pathos mingled with “Clear notes of faith and triumph.” In “Democratic Vistas,” a collection of prose pieces, he put his thoughts about America and her destiny, themes also found in “Leaves of Grass.” His vivid sense of the two laws of individuality and comradeship, the keynote of his poetry, finds, when applied to his theory of the nation, a counterpart in his doctrine of the sacred individuality of the States, or separate units, as merged in the larger personality of the nation. This idea he develops mystically and with great earnestness; it becomes the means by which he prophesies a higher evolution in which the nations of men shall be as the states in a larger union, a league of nation-states, uniting all the world in a common brotherhood. “Great as they are,” he says, “and greater far to be, the United States, too, are but a series of steps in the eternal process of creative thought.”

Whitman's rise to fame was slow. As was to be expected in the case of one who so openly flouted convention, he was alternately derided and made the basis of a cult. The poems were recognized sooner in Europe than in America. But gradually his fame has increased. His peculiarities of diction and form, his inequality, his constant repetition, his need of revision and compression, seem less important as the propheti: elements of his work become more apparent. Since his death, at Camden, N. J., in 1892, his circle of readers has constantly increased.