In his Introduction to the 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass”, Walt Whitman stresses that the greatness of the country lies in its citizens, first of all, in the common people. To him, the greatness of people lies in their spirit. The President understands it taking his hat off to the people. The striving for equality contributes to greatness. Whitman wants the nation of his country to be free and equal. Those national communities that exercise democracy will be rewarded later with “clean and vigorous children”, implying that living right will bring happiness and prosperity and , so to speak, “green old age” (Whitman, 1855, p. ix). Saying that liberty is the last to go, Whitman implies that people should do their best to make democratic values prevail, at least for the time being to “set slavery at nought for life and death” (p. xii).
Whitman sees the poet as a loudmouth to his/her country. Poets are close to people, and they can be, in some way, close to the authorities through the moral right to speak openly about the problems of the society. It is obvious that all said in the Introduction about the role of a poet can be attributed to Whitman himself. Saying that “a bard is to be commensurate with a people”, Whitman implies that poets are mirrors, which the society is reflected in. A poet is the embodiment of the social and spiritual life of his/her nation. The poet has to illustrate the era he or she lives in. It includes all that exists and happens around, starting from the nature in all its exuberance of “tuliptree”, “qua-bird”, and “pasturage sweet and free as savannah” and people in all their diversity of “red aborigines” and “the New York firemen”, to everyday occurrences, such as “the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports” and “the convening of Congress every December” (Whitman, 1855, p. iv).
However, a poet’s task is not limited to depictions of beauty around only. Whitman aptly remarks that people are able to see by themselves. Poems should help people to understand themselves and the world around, “indicate the path between reality and their souls” (Whitman, 1855, p. v).
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Whitman is a known originator of lists. They allow the poet not only to encompass as much information as possible, but also they are a prototype of democracy, where all people, all rights, and all diversities should be included and not forgotten. Whitman portrays a poet as a person, who is absolutely free from the pettiness of everyday life. His task is to create. “The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured” (Whitman, 1855, p. vi).
The poetry of “Leaves of Grass” is “natural, easy, spontaneous, inviting, yet also defiant and even a bit outrageous” (Folson, 2013, p. 136). “A song for occupation” is a vivid example of it, showcasing all favorite themes and motifs of Whitman. Lists are ubiquitous; it is impossible to imagine Whitman’s poetry without them. By listing and cataloging Whitman creates an illusion of reality and stimulates the senses. The reader is able to picture what the author describes. Through compulsive enumeration, the sense of expansiveness is created reflecting the complexity of the world and diversity of the United States. The excessive use of the inventory conveys the effervescence of life accelerating the tempo of the poem.
The constant theme that is capital in the body of Whitman’s work is equality. On the example of the President, who is not greater than any other person, Whitman persuades the reader that no one should consider oneself inferior to any other person.
The wife — and she is not one jot less than the husband,
The daughter — and she is just as good as the son,
The mother — and she is every bit as much as the father (Whitman, 1855, p. 58).
A person cannot be defined by what one has or what one says. Whitman knows that one needs only to remind people of that important thing, and they will rediscover their dignity:
- I bring what you much need, yet always have,
- I bring not money or amours or dress or eating . . . . but I bring as good;
- And send no agent or medium . . . . and offer no representative of value—but offer the value itself (Whitman, 1855, p. 59).
In the above quote, Whitman is saying that the only important thing for a correct self-esteem is the value of being a human being. Only that makes “the common men and women” as worthy as those, who are better well-off. If people remember about it, then inequality will never happen. It would be unimaginable to make someone a slave or to treat somebody unfairly. Humiliating another one humiliates oneself.
According to Reynolds, in Whitman’s time the words “the United States of America” were “virtually an oxymoron” (2006, p. 66). This period was a time of presidential incompetence, apex of the slavery issue, and collapse of the party system. Whitman saw his mission in creating “a poetic document of togetherness [to offer] to a nation that seemed on the verge of unraveling” (p. 67). Getting disappointed in politicians, Whitman turned his gaze to the common people, who were pure and deep, and to “the power of populist poetry”.
Whitman had lived a long life witnessing both the Civil War and the rise of the United States as political power; he saw both the culmination and the cancellation of slavery.Thus, his calls to equality were conditioned by difficult political situation in the country and extreme separation between races, sexes, and classes. A lot has changed since. Many efforts had been made in regards to equality, and the results are visible. Meanwhile, in the field of justice and democracy, there is still a lot to be done. Therefore, despite embracing the democratic values, the United States are far from Whitman’s ideal vision.
Folson, E. (2006). Appearing in print: Illustrations of the self in Leaves of grass. In E. Greenspan (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Walt Whitman (pp. 135-166). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Reynolds, D. S. (2006). Politics and poetry: Leaves of grass and the social crisis of the 1850s. In E. Greenspan (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Walt Whitman (pp. 66-91). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Pdf e-book.
Whitman, W. (1855). Leaves of grass. Brooklyn, New York. Retrieved from whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1855/whole.html.