Whitmanís 1855 Leaves of Grass as an
Embodiment of Emersonís ďThe PoetĒ
ďAt the Beginning of a Great CareerĒ:
James C. (Jay) Leach
Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey's, Unitarian Universalist History,
ďI am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of ĎLeaves of
Grass.í I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that
America has yet contributed.Ē
from Emersonís 21 July 1855 letter to Whitman
"I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me
to a boil."
Whitman on Emerson
July 1855. Lydia Jackson (Lidian) Emerson, an ardent abolitionist who had
been active in the anti-slavery movement for years, (beginning at a time when
her husband was still maintaining his position of "wise passiveness,") stepped
outside of their home in Concord, Massachusetts on the route of Paul Revereís
celebrated ride, and draped the gate and fence posts in black for the July 4th
holiday. It was her personal expression of somber protest against the continued
presence of slavery in the United States. Her funereal bunting matched the mood
in the Emerson household: Lidian was not in good health; Emersonís brother
William continued to struggle with debilitating headaches; even his friend
Thoreau was ailing.
Despite his earlier equivocation, by this point it had been eleven years
since Ralph Waldo Emerson had relinquished his detached role as scholar-poet and
actively assumed the mantle of vocal abolitionist as well. His lectures, in
addition to addressing his usual philosophical and aesthetic topics, were now
often about the evils of slavery. In response to the passage of the Compromise
of 1850 which had included the Fugitive Slave Law, he had unleashed the most
acerbic speech of his career, reserving his most ardent vitriol for Daniel
Webster who had supported this legislation. And now, five years later, the Union
was careening towards dissolution. The imposing clouds of civil war gathered on
the horizon. The pall in the Emerson household mirrored a mounting sense of
July 1855. In the city of New York, thirty-six-year-old Walter Whitman, Jr.,
an itinerant newspaper journalist, shopkeeper, house builder, and free-lance
laborer, completed the process of writing, revising, editing, proofing,
designing, and even partially typesetting his ninety-five page book of poems. He
had registered its title, Leaves of Grass, with the clerk of the United
States District Court, Southern District of New York two months prior. This new
volume appeared with a green cloth cover embossed with gold letters entwined
with foliage. Inside, the frontispiece offered an untitled Holyer engraving of
Whitman, a bearded man in working class garb, left hand in his pocket, the right
one on his hip. The facing page repeated the title, added "Brooklyn, New York:
1855," and credited the copyright to Walter Whitman. The author is not cited,
"an omission not unusual in an era when many books appeared anonymously."
(1) The poems themselves appeared without title, the long,
initial entry rambling for 1336 lines before giving way to other shorter, but
At this point in his literary career, Whitman had produced an assortment of
relatively mundane newspaper accounts, a pulp novel, and a scant body of
unremarkable stories and poems. In April 1843, for example, he wrote
"Blood-Money," a poem that begins with these less than memorable lines:
- Of olden time, when it came to pass
That the beautiful god, Jesus, should finish his work on earth,
Then went Judas, and sold the divine youth,
And took pay for his body.
- Cursíd was the deed, even before the sweat of the clutching hand grew dry;
And darkness frowníd upon the seller of the like of God,
Where, as though earth lifted her breast to throw him from
her, and heaven refused him,
He hung in the air, self-slaughteríd. (2)
Though a shameless self-promoter, there was nothing about Whitmanís writings
to date to suggest that this new volume would be worthy of note. He brought the
first of the 795 original copies of Leaves of Grass home to show his
brother George. Later, his sibling reviewer would recall: "I saw the
book--didnít read it at all--didnít think it worth reading--fingered it a
July 1855. Ralph Waldo Emerson goes to the Concord Post Office on the very
day of Lidianís dark draping to retrieve an unsolicited package. In it he will
find a copy of Leaves of Grass sent directly by Whitman. He returns
home and, amidst the gloom, reads the unattributed volume. Making his way
through the rambling twelve-page introduction and well into the long opening
poem, he finally encounters, on page twenty-nine, in the 499th line, an
attestation to its source:
- Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or
apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest. (4)
By the time he has finished reading this collection, Emerson is ecstatic.
Here at last, he believes, is his long-awaited, uniquely American poet.
Despite the attribution within the first poem, Emerson continues to wonder
about the real name and location of his enigmatic poet benefactor. A couple of
weeks later he reads a newspaper advertisement for the book confirming the name
of Whitman and providing the location of Fowler and Wells, a book distributor in
New York. On July 21 he pens, in his large script, a five page response to
Walter Whitman, Esq., a missive almost always referred to now with veneration:
"the most famous letter in American literary history" (5)
or some similar such superlative. In it, Emerson is effusive in his praise of
Whitmanís work, announcing famously:
- I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a
long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see
if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober
certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.
So enthused was Emerson that he concluded: "I wish to see my benefactor, &
have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my
respects." (7) Of this distinguished letter,
Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan writes:
- In the annals of literary partisanship and the laying-on of hands,
Emersonís words are unmatched for their generosity and force, their shrewdness
and simple justice. (8)
Emerson did not stop with this single epistolary homage; he added other words
of commendation to friends and associates. He lauded Leaves of Grass to
those in his immediate circle--Thoreau, Alcott, Furness--and beyond. To Sam
Ward, a poet who had been published in the Dial, he hailed Whitman as
"an American Buddh." He celebrated Whitman to Moncure D. Conway, a young
Virginia Unitarian minister. And, to his friend Caroline Sturgis Tappan who was
setting sail for Europe he wrote:
- One strange book that you ought to see before you go, or carry with you--a
thin quarto called íLeaves of Grass,í printed at Brooklyn, N.Y., apparently
not published and sent to me thro the Post Office. íTis the best piece of
American <philosophy> Buddhism that anyone has had strength to write, American
to the bone and with large discourse before and after, and in spite of some
crudeness and strange weary catalogues of things like a warehouse inventory,
and in spite of an unpromising portrait on the frontispiece, contains fine
strokes of genius and unforgettable things. (9)
Two months after his first reading Emersonís enthusiasm had not waned; he is
still enthusiastically touting Whitman. In a letter to James Eliot Cabot, dated
September 26, 1855, he writes:
- Have you seen the strange Whitmanís poems? Many weeks ago I thought to
send them to you, but they seemed presently to become more known & you have
probably found them. He seems a Mirabeau of a man, with such insight & equal
expression, but hurt hard by life & too animal experience. But perhaps you
have not read the American Poem? (10)
July 1855. Let us now look more closely at this epochal moment in American
literary history and at this particular intersection in the lives of two of the
nineteenth centuryís premier men of letters. The one, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was
born in 1803, the fourth child and third of six sons of William Emerson, an
austere father and Unitarian minister at the First Church in Boston who died
when Emerson was but eight, and Ruth Haskins Emerson, a piously religious woman
who read extensively and who influenced her sonís religious understanding much
more than did his distant father. In his childhood he "was thought to be the
least promising of the Emerson children." (11)
Harvard educated and then ordained in the Unitarian church, he relinquished his
own Boston pulpit over theological quandaries and pastoral ineptitude. He
thereafter maintained an ambivalent role toward Unitarianism, a relationship
however, which he never fully severed. He traded in his ministerial robe for the
role of public lecturer and by July 1855 was hailed throughout the United States
The other, Walt Whitman, the second son of Walter Whitman, Sr., a
malcontented, brooding Long Island laborer who spent his free time reading the
works of dissenters and critics of Christianity and supernaturalism, and Louisa
Van Velsor Whitman, a woman given to storytelling and folk wisdom whom Whitman
idealized and attributed as his muse. Sixteen years Emersonís junior, he had
spent the time leading up to his magnificent literary breakthrough in a series
of ordinary professions in and around Brooklyn. It was on that momentous day in
July that Whitman would so impact Emerson. But Emersonís influence on Whitman,
his bringing him from a simmer to a boil, had begun years before.
So now, as we examine this specific intersection in these remarkable,
complex, often enigmatic menís lives, let us do so with two questions in mind.
First, why would Whitman send one of the few copies of his new book to Emerson?
And secondly, why did Emerson respond with such unabated enthusiasm to these
In order to derive some response to the first of these queries we must
consider Emersonís standing in July 1855. In 1832 the young widower Emerson
stepped down from his position at the Second Church in Boston after only three
years as its minister. A mid-May journal entry of that year asserts his
Is it not better to intimate our astonishment as we pass through this
world if it be only for a moment ere we are swallowed up in the yeast of the
abyss? I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos. (12)
Five months later, his formal resignation having been accepted, he would
- I will not live out of me
I will not see with othersí eyes
My good is good, my evil ill
I would be free. (13)
Despite his exuberant self-declared emancipation, his ecstatic intention to
intimate his astonishment, Emerson was, at this point, embarking on an uncharted
course that many, including his family, considered unwise. This daunting
prospect unnerved him and for a time rendered him physically and emotionally
Then, with little planning or forethought, he impulsively set sail for Europe
on Christmas Day, 1832. It was as if he needed to make the break complete,
leaving not just profession but the very shores of the familiar in his search
for some new way. The trip would change him, deepen him, focus his thoughts and
ambitions. By the time his ship arrived back in Boston on October 9, 1833,
Emerson was ready to embark, with cautious resolve, on a new career as a Lyceum
lecturer, essayist and poet.
The young man Emerson, who had turned thirty while abroad, could not possibly
have imagined how far this newfound ambition would carry him by the time
Whitmanís package arrived in Concord in the summer of 1855. Now "Emerson was
dangerously famous." (14) He is hailed
throughout the United States, celebrated in the English press and journals,
touted by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and by Edgar Quinet in France. His
lectures are delivered to large audiences wherever he goes and reported in
detail in the press the next morning.
Emersonís reputation and fame alone would have been reason enough for Whitman
to send his poems to Concord in the hopes of a reading. As Moncure Conway
- Emerson had been for many years our literary banker; paper that he had
inspected, coin that had been rung on his counter, would pass safely anywhere.
And in England, a reviewer for the London Weekly Dispatch, William
Howitt, declared: "What Emerson has pronounced to be good must not be lightly
treated." (16) So, as Whitman no doubt knew,
having Emerson regard oneís work positively was no small thing, and, of course,
Whitman was certainly not averse to trying to attract such attention. While that
may, in part, explain why he would have sent his poems to Emerson, the story of
these intersecting literary lives is more complex than that. It can be traced
back more than a decade before the July 1855 encounter.
In March 1842 the New York Society Library had engaged Emerson for six
lectures over a two-week period on "The Times." It was during one of the lowest
periods in Emersonís life. Less than two months earlier, his and Lidianís first
child, his young son Waldo, had died of scarlet fever. He wrote in his journals
mournfully of "the wonderful Boy" and of "this beloved and now departed Boy."
Nonetheless, though beset by yet another grief, he carried on.
On March 5 the topic for the second of these lectures was "Poetry of the
Times." In the audience, amidst the fashionable of New York society, was a
twenty-two-year-old free lance writer, soon to be chief editor for the New
York Aurora, Walt Whitman. That night Whitman heard Emerson voice hopes for
the appearance of a truly American poet. Of such a one, Emerson said:
- He worships in this land also, not by immigration but he is Yankee born.
He is in the forest walks, in paths carpeted with leaves of chestnut, oak, and
pine he sits on the mosses of the mountain, he listens by the echoes of the
wood; he paddles his canoe in the rivers and ponds. He visits without fear the
factory, the railroad, and the wharf. When he lifts his great voice, men
gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the
hearers, pictures of all history; and immediately the tools of their bench,
and the riches of their useful arts, and the laws they live under, seem to
them weapons of romance. As he proceeds, I see their eyes sparkle, and they
are filled with cheer and new faith. (17)
The March 7, 1842 edition of the Aurora included this item penned by
- . . . the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions,
both for its matter and style, we have ever heard anywhere, at any time.
So it is we find an earlier intersection: Whitman in Emersonís audience, no
doubt attending with rapt interest to his prophetic description of Americaís
poet. Already, the seeds are being planted for their July 1855 encounter.
But, as powerfully impacted as he was, a single eveningís lecture was hardly
the totality of Emersonís personal influence on Walt Whitmanís thinking and
eventual poetry. As early as 1835 Emerson had set about to create a wide-ranging
series of his essays. It was difficult work for him and would consume years
before taking a shape with which he could be modestly satisfied. An October 7,
1840 journal entry bemoans:
- I have been writing with some pains Essays on various matters as a sort of
apology to my country for my apparent idleness. But the poor work has looked
poorer daily as I strove to end it. My genius seemed to quit me in such a
mechanical work, a seeming wise--a cold exhibition of dead thoughts.
After several weeks more effort, Emerson would record, on New Yearís Day,
- I begin the year by sending my little book of Essays to the press. What
remains to be done to its imperfect chapters I will seek to do justly.
The Essays were finally in print on March 20 of that year and
Emerson, as Whitman would do with Leaves of Grass, sent out multiple
Though it may have been as much as thirteen years before Whitman would read
it, this collection of Emersonís writing and thinking impassioned Whitman. Late
in his life, Whitman would claim in a letter that he had not read these essays
before starting the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. As with much else
that Whitman said as he aged, that assertion is highly suspicious. "Certainly,
all the evidence tends to discredit Whitmanís letter of 1887."
According to an earlier and more reliable claim from Whitman himself, he not
only read Emersonís Essays in 1854, he was dramatically influenced by
the thinking put forth in this collection.
John Townsend Trowbridge who would later write of his conversations with
Whitman, recalled that, in 1860, Whitman "freely admitted that he could never
have written his poems if he had not first ícome to himself,í and that Emerson
helped him to ífind himselfí . . . " (22) A manuscript
excerpt that Richard Maurice Bucke, in his 1890 Notes and Fragments,
dates from the "early fifties" reveals Whitmanís estimation of Emerson:
- He has what none else has; he does what none else does. He pierces the
crusts that envelop the secrets of life. He joins on equal terms the few great
sages and original seers. He represents the freeman, America, the individual.
He represents the gentleman. No teacher or poet of old times or modern times
has made a better report of manly and womanly qualities, heroism, chastity,
temperance, friendship, fortitude. None has given more beautiful accounts of
truth and justice. His words shed light to the best souls; they do not admit
of argument. . . . (23)
Thus, despite certain contradictions from Whitman himself, it seems quite
clear that Emerson had rather dramatically shaped Whitmanís thinking in the
years leading up to his 1855 release of Leaves of Grass. Emersonís
powerful standing in the literary world, Whitmanís opportunity to hear him
lecture as a young man, and Emersonís writings all combined, not only to help
shape Whitmanís writing, but also to help make Emerson an obvious recipient of
Whitmanís first collection. That Whitman would forward his anonymous package to
Concord in July 1855 is, in light of this marked influence, hardly surprising.
But why, then, was Emerson so ecstatic upon receipt of these poems? To try to
formulate a response to that question we should examine one particular text of
Emersonís. Less than a year after the publication of his Essays,
Emerson envisioned another collection and set to work on what would appear as
the opening entry when Essays: Second Series was eventually printed in
October 1844. This article would be titled simply "The Poet." Its subject was
"Emersonís oldest and at some level his most urgent." (24)
Though he had recently completed another lecture on this same topic, the one
Whitman had heard in New York, he returned to it yet again for what is regarded
as one of his most impressive literary contributions. Of this essay Robert D.
Richardson in Emerson: The Mind on Fire writes:
- "The Poet" is arguably the best piece ever written on literature as
literary process, and it is the major statement of international romantic
expressionism, the idea that expressing our thoughts and feelings is not only
one of the fundamental and given aspects about human nature--a basic drive,
like sex--but also one of the main purposes of human life. The essay
is full of verve and fire . . . (25)
In this acclaimed essay, Emerson offers a sweeping, celebratory image of the
poet. His writes both generally of the poet as an ideal, as the one standing
"among partial men for the complete man," (26)
and particularly of his unfulfilled longing for the distinctively American poet,
bemoaning, "I look in vain for the poet whom I describe." (TP, p. 336).
- We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, who knew the
value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism
of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose pictures he so much
admires in Homer, then in the Middle Ages; then in Calvinism. . . . Our
log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and
Indians, our boats and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the
pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the
western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in
our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait
long for metres. (TP, p. 337).
This was Ralph Waldo Emerson writing in the early 1840s, giving expression to
his poetic anticipation. For more than a decade his expectations, though
unsatisfied, would not be compromised. So it is that the Emerson of July 1855
did not receive his anonymous poetic benefaction neutrally. While he obviously
could not have known to await the completely unconventional poems of a New York
newspaperman, he is still on the lookout for a particular and new kind of
poetry, one that will attend in both form and content to the spirit and
geography of the nation. In no small measure, this long-standing expectancy
shapes how he reads Whitmanís work and offers a springboard from which his
enthused response takes its exuberant flight.
And yet, it was not just any American poet Emerson awaited. He had in his
mind a clear notion of what it would mean to be just that kind of poet
particular to the nineteenth century U.S. experience. At the risk of
overstatement, it might even be argued that with "The Poet" Emerson offers, in
very broad and itself poetic terminology, something of a outline for whom this
poet would be and for how this poet would present the U.S. poetically.
So we come at last to the heart of our matter. I contend that Walt Whitmanís
1855 edition of Leaves of Grass embodies Ralph Waldo Emersonís notion
of what it means in general to be the poet and what it means in particular to be
the American poet as described in Emersonís essay "The Poet." And, further, I am
suggesting that it is this synchronicity between Emersonís ideals and Whitmanís
actual poetry that led to Emersonís enthusiastic response upon reading those
poems for the first time.
Let me be clear: I now am attempting to account for Emersonís celebrated
response to these poems. Though it appears almost certain that Whitman had read
Emersonís "The Poet" before 1855, I am not contending that Whitman simply used
this essay as a blueprint for his poetry. While an indisputable case for
Emersonís influence on Whitman can be made, a case I have attempted to offer
briefly above, I in no way want to appear to be overstating that case by
claiming that Whitman merely transposed the prose of Emersonís essay into the
poetry of Leaves of Grass. No matter the influences that may have aided
Whitman in his writing of Leaves of Grass, it is, on its own, a
remarkable and unprecedented sort of poetry. So, just to reemphasize, I am, at
this point, attempting to offer a supposition about Emersonís response to
Whitman and not about his influence on Whitman.
Rather than continue to examine the records and resources of secondary
accounts, let us now turn to the two documents themselves. Both Emersonís essay
"The Poet" and Whitmanís 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass are rich and
complex works. I do not presume in any way to exhaust their meaning herein.
Rather, I will attempt to offer certain excerpts from the essay and then to
demonstrate ways in which the poem seems to embody what the essay proposes. In
this effort, I am now narrowing my focus to the initial poem in the collection,
that long, rambling lyric titled, in later editions, "Song of Myself." While the
same case might be made by attending to others of these poems, the scope and
content of the yet untitled first offering makes it especially appropriate for
this kind of undertaking.
Emerson begins "The Poet" with a tone of disappointment. There are those
aesthetes, he observes, whose sense of beauty is secondhand, based on "some
study of rules and particulars." (TP, p. 316) He then extends this
judgment to poets who "are contented with a civil and conformed manner of
living" and who "write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own
experience." (TP, p. 317) He further contends that, while "all men live
by truth and stand in need of expression," (TP, 317) "the great
majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of
their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they had with nature." (TP,
It is these two related and regrettable conditions--the frequent appeal to
secondhand experience and the widespread inability to engage in
self-expression--that create our need for the true poet, the poet of Emersonís
ideals. Of such a one, he writes:
- The poet does not wait for the hero or the sage, but, as they act and
think primarily, so he writes primarily what will and must be spoken . . . (TP,
The key here is the word "primarily." This poet is not writing from some
secondhand perspective or from the safety of distance, but rather is offering
her own personal witness to her own "conversation with nature."
- The poet has a new thought; he has a whole new experience to unfold; he
will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his
fortune. For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the
world seems always waiting for its poet. (TP, p. 320)
Again, the true poet is the one attesting to personal experience. However,
that sort of attestation must not be confused with solipsistic prolixity; poetry
as mere cathartic confession fails to fulfill this crucial Emersonian ideal.
Rather, through risking personal expression this poet also meets the needs of
those who "stand in need of expression" so that, through her one telling, all
Aware of the challenges of this role, toward the end of the essay Emerson
offers encouragement to his poet:
- Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say "It is in me, and shall out." Stand
there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand
and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power
which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and
privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of
electricity. (TP, p. 338)
Anyone at all familiar with Emersonís thinking will recognize in these
collective citations his essential notion of self-reliance, an idea that he had
long discussed and written about, including in an essay by that title in the
first series. An early journal entry offers a succinct synopsis of this concept
as he saw it:
- Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence, and, just as much, his own
sort of love and grief and imagination and action. Let him scorn to imitate
any being, let him scorn to be a secondary man, let him fully trust his own
share of Godís goodness, that, correctly used, it will lead him on to
perfection which has no type yet in the universe, save only in the Divine
This is at the heart of Emersonís thinking. Therefore, it ought not to surprise
us that extended descriptions of self-reliance appear in "The Poet" as one of
his primary means of describing the true poet. With this notion guiding his
anticipation of the long-awaited poet, is it also no surprise that Emerson would
react with such enthusiasm to a poem that begins "I celebrate myself." (LOG,
Whitmanís "Song of Myself" might just as aptly be entitled, or perhaps
subtitled, "Paean to Self-Reliance." This concept appears throughout the poem
and no doubt fueled Emersonís delight upon reading it. Just a page into the
poem, Whitman invites:
- Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there are millions of
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand
. . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres
You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself. (LOG, p.
The reader is invited to attend to Whitmanís expression. But, the value in
accepting this invitation is not so that one may learn from him about the way
things are sub specie aeternitatis. Rather, in this hearing one will be
summoned away from secondhand experience, away from what Emerson had bemoaned as
"some study of rules and particulars," and toward the capacity to listen and
discern for oneself.
Acclaiming his power, with characteristic Whitmanesque bravado, he writes:
- I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize,
I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by after all.
- I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content. (LOG, p. 46)
- Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity,
What I give I give out of myself. (LOG, p. 72)
- I know I have the best of time and space--and that I was
never measured, and never will be measured. (LOG, p. 82)
- nothing, not God, is greater to one than oneís-self is (LOG, p.
Which he then echoes with:
- I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. (LOG,
Whitmanís grand claims are not for himself alone. He may, as Emerson would
have it, enrich those who hear his "Song," but he insists that, in the end, they
too must sing for and of themselves.
- My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it for yourself. (LOG, p. 82)
- You are also asking me questions, and I hear you;
I answer that I cannot answer . . . . you must find out for yourself. (LOG,
One can imagine Emerson on that grim July 1855 day reading these lines. He
had for so long proclaimed the value of, indeed the necessity of self-reliance.
And here, in line after line, he reads long awaited poetry singing his very
song. Were there just this one correlation between his ideals and Whitmanís
writing, that, in and of itself, may have sufficed to engender his enthusiasm.
But, the congruity does not end with this single connection.
In his essay, we find the Emersonian poet characterized in at least three
explicit ways. In the first of these, Emerson writes:
- . . . the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the
complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth. (TP,
After suggesting that "The man is only half himself, the other half is
expression," (TP, p. 317) Emerson contends that the power of natureís
impression upon us should result in our power to attest to that experience. And
yet, in "the great majority of men" that, regrettably, is not the case. That
capacity, he asserts, is what distinguishes the poet.
- The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man
without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses
the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of
being the largest power to receive and to impart. (TP, p. 318)
The true poet, for Emerson, is a representative person. Again, the poet
transcends her own experience in an attestation to the "common wealth." She is,
as it were, a spokesperson on behalf of humanity, giving expression not only to
herself but also for all those who are less than whole because of their
inability to adequately express themselves.
Once again, we need look no further than Whitmanís opening lines for an
intoning of the poet as representative person:
- I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (LOG, p. 27)
In Whitman, there is a kind of radical representationalism: the self that is
being sung is an individual with all of his particular experiences as well as
all other individuals who are caught up in that portrayal. As such, the benefit
is to the common wealth. Again and again in Leaves of Grass, Whitman
assumes identification with and bears witness to himself as more than himself.
In these frequent passages, he assumes the standing of representative person.
In one of his sweeping catalogues, Whitman runs through a widely variant
listing of persons, professions, and personalities. Beginning with "The pure
contralto," he includes "the carpenter," "the married and unmarried children,"
"the pilot," "the mate," "the duck-shooter," "the deacons," "the spinning-girl,"
"the farmer," "the lunatic," "the jour printer," the one with "malformed limbs,"
"the quadroon girl," "the machinist," "the young fellow" driving the "express
wagon," "the half-breed," "old and young" contestants at the "turkey-shooting,"
"the groups of newly-come immigrants," "the woolypates," "the overseer," and at
this point is but a third of the way done. On and on it goes, acclaiming
everyone from "the dancers" to "the deckhands," "the canal-boy" to "the
conductor," "the prostitute" to "the President," "the one-year wife" to "the
opium eater," before concluding with old and young husbands with their wives. (LOG,
pp. 39-42.) Without pause, Whitman then acclaims:
- And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.
- I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is
One of the great nation, the nations of many nations--the
smallest the same and the largest the same . . . (LOG, p. 42)
Then, he breaks into another catalogue, claiming identity as "A southerner as
soon as a northerner" and so on until "A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer,
physician or priest." (LOG, p. 42-43) As if to sum it all up, he
attests: "I resist anything better than my own diversity."
So it is that with this and other similar inventories Whitman places himself
in the position of representative man. His is truly a song which "traverses the
whole scale of experience." In this role, he sings, ultimately, not of his own
partial perspective, but of the common wealth, of an incredibly wide range of
human experiences and expressions:
- In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them. (LOG, p. 45)
- I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men. (LOG, p.
- Whoever degrades another degrades me . . . . and whatever is done or said
returns at last to me,
And whatever I do or say I also return. (LOG, p. 50)
And, in something of a summary statement of this representative position:
- I become any presence or truth of humanity here. (LOG, p. 70)
Emerson offers a second explicit characterization of the poet. "The poet," he
writes, "is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty." (TP, p. 318)
" . . . [S]ome men, namely poets, are natural sayers, sent into the world to the
end of expression." (TP, p. 319) Then, in his fullest explication of
this particular description, Emerson explains:
- . . . the poet is the Namer or Language-maker, naming things after their
essence, and giving to every one its own name and not anotherís, thereby
rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment or boundary. (TP,
What does it mean to be the sayer or namer or language-maker? For Emerson
this is about much more than simply expressing oneself, giving creative names to
things, or playing with language. He makes a sublime, preexistent claim for
- For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely
organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we
hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever
and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus
miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more
faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the
nations. (TP, p. 319)
To be the poetic sayer or namer then is to be a transcriber, keenly attuned
to that profound and primordial poetry sensually available but rarely
apprehended. The true poet is celebrated less for unique insights or compelling
ideas and more for accurate transcriptions, faithful to the cadences of
With this concept in mind, Emerson must have heard in "Song of Myself" lines
that indeed become "songs of the nations." For all of his bluster, Whitman
exhibits a surprising humility, owning his role as the one saying and naming,
the one, as it were, transcribing something more expansive than himself. So, he
- These are thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing. (LOG,
Whitman heard "those primal warblings" and attempted to "write them down."
- And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. (LOG,
- I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself . . . . and let sounds
contribute to me. (LOG, p. 53)
He assumes the role of Logos, interceding for those persons of less "delicate
ear" who may hear but cannot say:
- It is you talking just as much as myself . . . . I act as the tongue of
It was tied in your mouth . . . . in mine it begins to be loosened. (LOG,
With yet another verse, he sings again of his true source, portraying his
words as but an echo of "that region where the air is music:"
- If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation and a drop or the motion of waves a key . .
. (LOG, 84.)
And then, modestly confesses in the waning lines of the poem:
- I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns . . . . O grass of graves . . . . O perpetual transfers
and promotions . . . . if you do not say anything how
can I say anything? (LOG, p. 86)
Poets are representative persons. Poets are names, sayers, transcribers. And
too, to hear Emerson tell it, there is a third role for the poet: "Poets are
thus liberating gods." (TP, p. 332) So sure is he of this that, a page
later he repeats it: "Poets are thus liberating gods." This time he continues:
- The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, "Those who are
free, and they make free. (TP, p. 333)
He hails "the magic of liberty, which puts the world like a ball in our
hands." (TP, p. 334) Again Emerson refers to those bereft of the
capacity to offer adequate expression. For them, he says, "Every thought is a
prison, every heaven is also a prison." (TP, p. 334) And, out of our
need for expression . . . we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form,
whether in an ode or in an action or in looks and behavior, has yielded us a new
thought. He unlocks our chains and admits us to a new scene.
- This emancipation is dear to all men, and the power to impart it, as it
must come from greater depth and scope of thought, is a measure of intellect.
(TP, p. 334)
Just after his identifying lines, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the
roughs, a kosmos . . . " Whitman insists:
- Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! (LOG, p. 50)
In a very real sense, that is the project of the whole poem. For Whitman it
is not enough simply to unlock the door; to bring about full emancipation one
must go so far as to remove the door itself.
Like a true Transcendentalist, Whitman literalizes the notion of the poet as
not simply a liberator but as a liberating god. In a celebrated passage
of almost humorous self-assertion, he proclaims:
- Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds. (LOG, p. 51)
And yet, again this kind of assertion, this laying claim to divinity, is not
only or ultimately in service of self. As a true liberating god, he becomes the
voice of the voiceless:
- Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars--and of wombs, and of the
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised . . . (LOG, p. 50)
The poet of Leaves of Grass exemplifies freedom, models for those
yet imprisoned the possibility of complete emancipation.
- My ties and ballasts leave me . . . . I travel . . . . I sail
. . . . my elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt the sierras . . . . my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision. (LOG, p. 59)
- I fly the flight of the fluid and swallowing soul,
My course runs below the soundings of plummets. (LOG, p. 63)
- I am a free companion . . . . I bivouac by invading watchfires. (LOG,
As the liberating god, the poet acts on behalf of the imprisoned, offering a
kind of emotional resurrection or, at least, resuscitation:
- I seize the descending man . . . . I raise him with resistless will.
O despairer, here is my neck,
By God! you shall go down! Hang your whole weight upon me.
I dilate you with tremendous breath . . . . I buoy you up . . . (LOG,
- Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself . . . .
bestowing them freely on each man and
woman I see . . . (LOG, p. 74)
Then finally, the liberating godís intercession on behalf of those in need
turns, once again, into a commissioning, a sending forth. He cannot forever
secure their freedom for them; eventually they must be free for themselves.
- Sit awhile wayfarer,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourselves in sweet clothes
I will certainly kiss you with my goodbye kiss and open the gate for your
- Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your
- Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash with your hair. (LOG, p. 83)
With this triune characterization of the poet grounding Emersonís thinking
about poetry and informing his expectations about the arrival of the true poet,
we can see again why Whitmanís poetry would have excited him so. Where Emerson
offers a sweeping idealization, Whitman offers line after line fleshing out
those ideals in one image after another. Emerson sounds the claim for the poet
as representative man and Whitman echoes with his song of "I am . . . "
encompassing an amazingly wide spectrum of humanity. Emerson hails the poet as
the namer and sayer, the transcriber of "primal warblings," and Whitman sings
then to the stars and the sun and the grass whose saying enables his song.
Emerson acclaims the poet as a liberating god and Whitman, touting his divinity,
trumpeting his freedom, first gives a voice to those deprived of a voice, and
then releases his emancipated ones to live out their own freedom.
Emersonís "The Poet" also reflects on the source of poetic inspiration. He
- So the poetís habit of living should be set on a key so low that the
common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of
the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be
tipsy with water. That spirit which suffices quiet hearts, which seems to come
forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine stump and
half-imbedded stone on which the dull March sun shines, comes forth to the
poor and hungry, and such as are of simple taste. (TP, p. 332)
In the grand and sweeping conclusion to the essay, Emerson presents the
result of this sort of "habit of living." This wonder-filled exultation must be
quoted at length:
- And this is the reward; that the ideal shall be real to thee, and the
impressions of the actual world shall fall like summer rain, copious, but not
troublesome to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for
thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and
without envy; the woods and rivers thou shalt own, and thou shalt possess that
wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord!
air-lord! Wherever snow falls or water flows or birds fly, wherever day and
night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds or sown
with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are
outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love,--there is
Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldst walk the
world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.
(TP, p. 339-340)
Even a cursory reading of Whitmanís initial poem in Leaves of Grass
would elicit a sense of the symmetry between these passages in Emersonís essay
and that poem. Whitman attests in line after line, image after image to those
"common influences:" sunlight, air, water, and, of course, grass. Emersonís
ideal was indeed real to him, evidenced in his manifold "impressions of the
- From the outset he rejects domestic settings in favor of a different
"habit of living:"
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
- The atmosphere is not a perfume . . . . it has no taste of the
distillation . . . . it is odorless,
It is in my mouth forever . . . . I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me. (LOG, p. 27)
Echoing Emersonís high valuation of "common influences," Whitman attests "The
insignificant is as big to me as any," (LOG, p. 56) and reports with
regularity throughout the poem on his delight in such things. "A morning-glory
at my window," he proclaims, "satisfies me more than the/ metaphysics of books."
(LOG, p. 52) In awe-filled amazement, he writes, in the section from
which the collection draws its title:
- A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any more than
He reports on the "common" sights and sounds of his sauntering:
- My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and daylong
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
. . . . I believe in those winged purposes,
And acknowledge the red yellow and white playing within me,
And consider the green and violet and the tufted crown intentional;
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the mockingbird in the swamp never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty
well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.
- The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.
- The sharphoofed moose of the north, the cat on the housesill, the
chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,
The brood of the turkeyhen, and she with her halfspread wings,
I see in them and myself the same old law. (LOG, p. 37-38)
I will not attempt to offer an exhaustive accounting of Whitmanís delight in
these "common influences" which Emerson commends to the poet for such examples
appear in one form and another on every page of this poem. Perhaps one more
example will suffice. In the heart of the poem, Whitman offers his own credo,
bearing witness to the source of his faith:
- I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the
And the tree-toad is the chef-díouvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmerís girl
boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking
I find I incorporate gneiss and coal and long-threaded moss and fruits and
grains and esculent roots,
And am stuccoíd with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
And call any thing close again when I desire it. (LOG, p. 57)
For all of his celebration of nature, Emerson did not limit poetic influence
to the natural. In his well-known essay 1836 "Nature," he makes a clear
distinction between "the stick of timber of the wood-cutter and the tree of the
poet." (28) He also writes:
- The tradesman, the attorney, comes out of the din and craft of the street
and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he
finds himself. (29)
And yet, the Emerson of "The Poet" did not perceive nature as the sole domain
of the poetic nor did he see urbanism as a threat to the poetic. Instead he
- Readers of poetry see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that
the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these; for these works of art are
not yet consecrated in their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the
great Order not less than the beehive or the spiderís geometrical web. (TP,
Yet again we hear Whitman singing of Emersonís ideals. He too, as we
discussed above, found great inspiration in the natural world. But, like a true
Emersonian poet, he does not limit his scope to natureís arena. From the outset
he will celebrate "The delight alone or in the rush of the streets . . . " (LOG,
p. 27) In an extended section he particularizes that delight:
- The blab of the pave . . . . the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and
talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the
shod horses on the granite floor,
The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes and pelts of
The hurrahs for the popular favorites . . . . the fury of the roused mobs,
The flap of the curtained litter--the sick man inside, borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oaths, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd--the policeman with his star quickly working is passage to
the centre of the crowd;
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,
The souls moving along . . . . are they invisible while the least atom of the
stones is visible?
What groans of overfed or half-starved who fall on the flags sunstruck or in
What exclamations of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here . . . . what howls
restrained by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections
with convex lips,
I mind them or the resonance of them . . . . I come again and again. (LOG,
He celebrates the butcher-boy, blacksmiths, and "those ahold of fire engines"
and then, in much the same way that he earlier identified with the tree-toad,
the running blackberry, and the mouse, he attests:
- This is the city . . . . and I am one of its citizens;
Whatever interests the rest interests me . . . . politics, churches,
Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories,
Stocks and stores and real estate and personal estate.
- They who piddle and patter her in collars and tailed coats
. . . . I am aware who they are . . . . and that they are not worms or fleas,
I acknowledge the duplicates of myself under all the scape-lipped and pipe
legged concealments. (LOG, p. 76)
In his amazing amalgam of rural and urban, of the call of the wild and the
cry on the streets, of the appeal of nature and the attraction to the heart of
the city, Whitman indeed offers an expansive vision of what Emerson called "the
great Order." His quiet, solitary song alongside the grass gives way to an
operatic cry amidst the masses thereby encompassing the fullest possible
spectrum of human experience and expression. He transcends either/or thinking by
bringing widely variant elements into some greater synthesis, as he wrote:
- Do you see O brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death . . . . it is form and union and plan
. . . . it is eternal life . . . . it is happiness. (LOG, p. 87)
Emerson acclaims that work of synthesizing, of fashioning some new union as
one of the tasks of the poet:
- For as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes
things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the
Whole,--reattaching even artificial things and violation of nature, to nature,
by a deeper insight,--disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts. (TP,
The poet, through poetic insight and by engaging in the act of re-attachment,
fashions a new Whole which represents a reunion of the divine, the natural, the
artificial, and even that which is in "violation of nature."
Whitman takes quite seriously this summons to the task of re-attachment and
responds by calling upon his immense sexual energy. In so doing, he fully
embodies both senses of the word "intercourse:" he employs both communication
and sexual union to aid him in the poetic task of mending dislocation and
detachment. With a kind of literalizing of the work of creating reconnection, he
describes a series of acts of physical union. For example, Whitman recalls a
curious instance of fellatio that occurred between himself and his soul:
- I believe in you my soul . . . . the other I am must not abase itself to
And you must not be abased to the other.
- Loafe with me on the grass . . . . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
- I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
- Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that
pass all the art and argument of the
earth . . . (LOG, p. 30)
He also engages in a series of explicit sexual unions with nature:
- I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me. (LOG, p. 27)
- Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth! . . .
Smile, for your lover comes. (LOG, p. 47)
- You sea! I resign myself to you also . . . . I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back with feeling of me;
We must have a turn together . . . . I undress . . . . hurry out of sight of
Cushion me soft . . . . rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet . . . . I can repay you. (LOG, p. 47Ė48)
Even God becomes one of Whitmanís sexual partners:
- I am satisfied . . . . I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As God comes a loving bedfellow, and sleeps at my side all night and close on
the peep of the day . . . (LOG, p. 29)
In his call for the poet to fashion an all-inclusive new union, Emerson
asserted that no element ought to be excluded. Whitman responds:
- Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar
than the rest. (LOG, p. 29)
- I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality;
And am not the poet of goodness only . . . . I do not decline to be to poet of
wickedness also. (LOG, p. 48)
Then, in his broadest sweep of all, he launches into another of his
- By the cityís quadrangular houses . . . . in log-huts, or camping along
Along the ruts of the turnpike . . . . along the dry gulch and rivulet bed . .
. (LOG, p. 59)
He will continue this ramble between the city and nature, between animals:
the panther, buck, rattlesnake, otter, alligator, black bear, beaver, and then
plants: sugar, cottonplant, rice, persimmon, corn, flax, buckwheat, rye, and
then a diversion into more animals, a brief scene of domesticity, then to
industry. As exemplary of his inclusiveness, in consecutive lines he writes:
- Where the she-whale swims with her calves and never forsakes them,
Where the steamship trails hindways its long pennant of smoke,
Where the ground-sharkís fin cuts like a black chip out of the water,
Where the half-burned brig is riding on unknown currents . . . (LOG,
From Manhattan to Niagara, "a good game of base-ball" to the "lonesome
prairie," from "the sweating Methodist preacher" to the "print of animalís
feet," this amazing catalogue continues in the Emersonian act of re-attachment,
bringing widely disparate elements back into some greater Whole.
Finally, we recall again that Emersonís essay concerned not just his thoughts
regarding the ideal poet, but his expectations regarding the truly American
poet. These expectations yet go unmet:
- Time and nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man, the new
religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. (TP, p. 336Ė337)
And, in a passage cited above, he laments: "We have yet had no genius in
America . . . " (TP, p. 337) But, hope remains strong in Emerson:
- Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the
imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. If I have not found that
excellent combination of gifts in my countrymen which I seek, neither could I
aid myself to fix the idea of the poet by reading, now and then in Chalmerís
collection of five centuries of English poets. (TP, p. 337)
There are those explicit portions of Leaves of Grass to which we can
now refer to exemplify how distinctly American Whitmanís poetry is. He
identifies himself as:
- A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the
limberest joints on earth and the sternest
joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . . a Hoosier, a Badger,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from the sandhills and pines . . .
- At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or on the Texas
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northeasterners, loving their
big proportions . . . (LOG, p. 42)
- We walk the roads of Ohio and Massachusetts and Virginia and Wisconsin and
New York and New Orleans and Texas and Montreal and San Francisco and
Charleston and Savannah and Mexico,
Inland and by the seacoast and boundary lines . . . . and we pass the boundary
line. (LOG, p. 71)
We can also cite his references to clearly American phenomena like the
"Yankee clipper," "the runaway slave," "the Wolverine" setting traps on the
Huron, "the cleanhaired Yankee girl," the President holding a "cabinet council,"
"the Fourth of July," the Tennessee and Chattahoochee and Altamahaw, Manhattan,
Niagara, "the fall of Alamo," "Mount Vernon," and "the Brooklyn boy." And, of
course, most explicit of all is that identifying line: "Walt Whitman, an
But, in addition to these more explicit passages, perhaps there is another
way in which Whitman becomes Emersonís much anticipated American bard in
Leaves of Grass, one that has less to do with content than with form. When
Emerson called America "a poem in our eyes," he added "its ample geography
dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." It is this sense
of Americaís "ample geography" and her "incomparable materials" that rendered
old forms of poetry inadequate. The song of this pluralistic, multi-faceted and
still wild nation could not be sung by way of the usual form, it demanded some
Emerson had suggested such a form earlier in the essay:
- For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,--a
thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal
it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (TP,
In an extended passage, he amplifies that suggestion:
- The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat
wildly, or "with the flower of the mind;" not with the intellect used as an
organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take
its direction from its celestial life . . . For if in any manner we can
stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature; the mind
flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is
possible. (TP, p. 330-31)
This is Emerson, true to his Romantic influences, in the full flush of
Transcendentalism. The poet must not be constrained by dispassionate
rationalism, must not allow the intellect to hold the reins. Instead, the poetís
mind should be led by passion and instinct thereby adorning "nature with a new
This view must surely account for a portion of Emersonís enthusiasm upon
reading Whitmanís poem "which spills erratically down the page in long flaglike
lines, shifting elliptically from theme to theme, image to image, over fifty
undivided, apparently indigestible pages." (30)
Emerson only had to see the poem on the page to realize this was a new kind of
poetry, unconstrained by the fixed form of prior poetry, virtually unprecedented
in its vast and ebullient presentation.
At the end of the poem Whitman attests to just the sort of wild passion
- The past and the present wilt . . . . I have filled them and emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold in the future.
And, as if representing the whole nation, he proclaims:
- Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.
And then, admitting what is, by this point in the poem, quite obvious:
- I too am not a bit tamed . . . . I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. (LOG, p. 87)
Here indeed is an "architecture of its own," a new creation sung into being
by an impassioned poet saying, as Emerson had urged, "It is in me, and shall
out." Is it any wonder, then, that Emerson would hail Whitmanís poetry in that
famous letter by writing:
- It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and
stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament,
were making our western wits fat and mean. (31)
Things would not remain as they were in July 1855. The celebratory tone in
this mid summer intersection of the lives of Emerson and Whitman would give way
to a complex and ambivalent relationship. Emerson would, with time, question his
early enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass. Whitman would, without Emersonís
permission, print Emersonís letter in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass
and would even emboss an excerpt on the bookís binding. In a walk together on
the Boston Common, Emerson would urge Whitman to edit out some of the more
sexually explicit portions of the third edition. Whitman would eventually
equivocate about Emerson, downplaying his influence on the writing of Leaves
A century and a half later, that complexity still does not obscure the fact
that, on that dark day in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emersonís spirits soared, carried
aloft on the wings of his belief that, in the pages of Leaves of Grass,
he, at last, had encountered both a true poet and his long awaited American
At the conclusion of the Preface to Leaves of Grass,
Whitman wrote: "The proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as
affectionately as he has absorbed it." (LOG, p. 26) Walt Whitman would
have to wait years before being affectionately absorbed by his country and, in
truth, he would never really receive the kind of affectionate outpouring that he
both wanted and needed. But, in July 1855, no less a critic than Ralph Waldo
Emerson, a beneficiary of a complementary copy of his newly published Leaves
of Grass, would respond "I find incomparable things said incomparably
well." No matter what Whitman would later claim, that affirmation would help
initiate a thirty-six year old itinerant newspaper journalist on his journey
toward becoming a great poet. No matter how Emerson would later alter his
opinion, true to his initial inclination, Whitman would, in time, become the
first U.S. poet to gain an international reputation. And, due in no small
measure to Emersonís influence on Whitman and blessing of Whitman, "Song of
Myself" would become not just a national ode but a hymn for all of humankind.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York
University Press, 1975.
Anderson, John Q. The Liberating Gods: Emerson on Poets and Poetry.
Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971.
Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 1999.
Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics. New York: Viking, 1996.
Bergman, Herbert, ed. The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The
Journalism Volume I: 1834Ė1846. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: The Seabury
Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1985.
Cook, Reginald L. ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Poetry and Prose.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1950.
Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of
Leaves of Grass. Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1970.
Donadio, Stephen, Railton, Stephen, Seavey, Ormond, eds. Emerson and His
Legacy: Essays in Honor of Quentin Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1986.
Gourgeon, Len and Myserson, Joel, eds. Emersonís Antislavery Writings.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in
Leaves of Grass. Baton Rogue:
Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
----------, ed. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Library
Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of
Leaves of Grass: The Organic
Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, Inc.,
Marki, Ivan. The Trial of the Poet: An Interpretation of the First Edition
of Leaves of Grass. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1976.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitmanís "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of
Interpretations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
Miller, Jr., James E. A Critical Guide to
Leaves of Grass. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Neufeldt, Leonard. The House of Emerson. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1982.
Porte, Joel, ed. Emerson in His Journals. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1982.
Porte, Joel and Morris, Saundra, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph
Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Reynolds, David S. ed. An Historical Guide to Walt Whitman. New York
and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Richardson, Jr., Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1995.
Thurin, Erik Ingvar. Emerson as Priest of Pan: A Study in the Metaphysics
of Sex. Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1981.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. New York: Rowman and
Littlefield, Inc., 1961.
Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explanations in Form. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Yoder, R.A. Emerson and the Orphic Poet in America. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1978.
1. Edwin Haviland Miller, Walt Whitmanís "Song of
Myself: A Mosaic of Interpretations," (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press,
1989), p. xi.
2. Justin Kaplan, ed. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose,
(New York: Library Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996), p. 1155.
3. Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life, (New York:
Bantam Books, 1980), p. 184.
4. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, p. 50. All
citations from Leaves of Grass are hereafter cited as LOG and
5. Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire,
(Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 527.
6. Whitman, p.1350.
7. Whitman, p. 1350.
8. Kaplan, p. 203.
9. Carlos Baker, Emerson among the Eccentrics, (New
York: Viking, 1996), p. 365.
10. John Q. Anderson, The Liberating Gods: Emerson on
Poets and Poetry, (Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press,
1971), pp. 87Ė88.
11. Richardson, p.19.
12. Richardson, p. 122.
13. Richardson, p. 126Ė127.
14. Richardson, p. 522.
15. Kaplan, p. 203.
16. Kaplan, p. 203.
17. Kaplan, p. 101.
18. The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The
Journalism Volume 1: 1834-1846, ed. by Herbert Bergman, (New York: Peter
Lang, 1998), p. 44.
19. Emerson in His Journals, ed. by Joel Porter,
(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 246.
20. Journals, p. 249.
21. Thomas Edward Crawley, The Structure of Leaves
of Grass, (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1970), p. 29.
22. Gay Wilson Allen, The New Walt Whitman Handbook,
(New York: New York University Press, 1975), p. 19.
23. Kaplan, p. 210.
24. Richardson, p. 371.
25. Richardson, p. 371.
26. Reginald L. Cook, ed, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Selected Poetry and Prose, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1950), p.
317. All citations from "The Poet" are hereafter noted as TP and page
27. Quoted in Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable
Imagination, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976), p. 47.
28. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature," in Selected Poetry
and Prose, ed. Reginald L. Cook, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
1950), p. 5.
29. "Nature," p. 10.
30. Paul Zweig, "The Generation of Whitman" in Emerson
and His Legacy: Essays in Honor of Quentin Anderson, ed. Stephen Donadio,
Stephen Railton, and Ormond Seavey, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
Press, 1986), p. 110.
31. Whitman, p. 1350.