Biography of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, on the West Hills of Long Island,
New York. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch descent and Quaker
faith, whom he adored, was barely literate. She never read his poetry,
but gave him unconditional love. His father of English lineage, was a
carpenter and builder of houses, and a stern disciplinarian. His main
claim to fame was his friendship with Tom Paine, whose pamphlet Common
Sense (1776), urging the colonists to throw off English domination was
in his sparse library. It is doubtful that his father read any of his
son's poetry, or would have understood it if he had. The senior Walt was
too burdened with the struggle to support his ever-growing family of
nine children, four of whom were handicapped.
Young Walt, the second of nine, was withdrawn from public school at the
age of eleven to help support the family. At the age of twelve he
started to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written
and printed word. He was mainly self-taught. He read voraciously, and
became acquainted with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Scott early in
life. He knew the Bible thoroughly, and as a God-intoxicated poet,
desired to inaugurate a religion uniting all of humanity in bonds of
In 1836, at the age of 17, he began his career as an innovative teacher
in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He permitted his students
to call him by his first name, and devised learning games for them in
arithmetic and spelling. He continued to teach school until 1841, when
he turned to journalism as a full-time career. He soon became editor for
a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. From 1846 to 1847 Whitman was
the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Whitman went to New Orleans in
1848, where he was editor for a brief time of the "New Orleans
Crescent". In that city he had become fascinated with the French
language. Many of his poems contain words of French derivation. It was
in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of
slavery in the slave markets of that city.
On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil"
newspaper, the "Brooklyn Freeman". Between 1848 and 1855 he developed
the style of poetry that so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson. When the
poet's Leaves Of Grass reached him as a gift in July, 1855, the Dean of
American Letters thanked him for "the wonderful gift" and said that he
rubbed his eyes a little "to see if the sunbeam was no illusion." Walt
Whitman had been unknown to Emerson prior to that occasion. The
"sunbeam" that illuminated a great deal of Whitman's poetry was Music.
It was one of the major sources of his inspiration. Many of his four
hundred poems contain musical terms, names of instruments, and names of
composers. He insisted that music was "greater than wealth, greater than
buildings, ships, religions, paintings." In his final essay written one
year before his death in 1891, he sums up his struggles of thirty years
to write Leaves of Grass. The opening paragraph of his self-evaluation
"A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Road," begins with his reminiscences of
"the best of songs heard." His concluding comments again return to
thoughts about music, saying that "the strongest and sweetest songs
remain yet to be sung."
"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and "O Captain! My Captain!"
(1866) are two of his more famous poems. A poet who was ardently singing
on life and himself, Whitman is today claimed as one of the few truly
great American men of letters. ..
ARM'D year! year of the struggle!
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you, terrible year!
Not you as some pale poetling, seated at a desk, lisping cadenzas
But as a strong man, erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,
carrying a rifle on your shoulder,
With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands--with a knife in
the belt at your side,
As I heard you shouting loud--your sonorous voice ringing across the
Your masculine voice, O year, as rising amid the great cities,
Amid the men of Manhattan I saw you, as one of the workmen, the
dwellers in Manhattan;
Or with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois and
Rapidly crossing the West with springy gait, and descending the
Or down from the great lakes, or in Pennsylvania, or on deck along
the Ohio river;
Or southward along the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers, or at
Chattanooga on the mountain top,
Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs, clothed in blue, bearing
weapons, robust year;
Heard your determin'd voice, launch'd forth again and again;
Year that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp'd cannon,
I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.
A Boston Ballad,
TO get betimes in Boston town, I rose this morning early;
Here's a good place at the corner--I must stand and see the show.
Clear the way there, Jonathan!
Way for the President's marshal! Way for the government cannon!
Way for the Federal foot and dragoons--and the apparitions copiously
I love to look on the stars and stripes--I hope the fifes will play
How bright shine the cutlasses of the foremost troops!
Every man holds his revolver, marching stiff through Boston town.
A fog follows--antiques of the same come limping,
Some appear wooden-legged, and some appear bandaged and bloodless. 10
Why this is indeed a show! It has called the dead out of the earth!
The old grave-yards of the hills have hurried to see!
Phantoms! phantoms countless by flank and rear!
Cock'd hats of mothy mould! crutches made of mist!
Arms in slings! old men leaning on young men's shoulders!
What troubles you, Yankee phantoms? What is all this chattering of
Does the ague convulse your limbs? Do you mistake your crutches for
fire-locks, and level them?
If you blind your eyes with tears, you will not see the President's
If you groan such groans, you might balk the government cannon.
For shame, old maniacs! Bring down those toss'd arms, and let your
white hair be; 20
Here gape your great grand-sons--their wives gaze at them from the
See how well dress'd--see how orderly they conduct themselves.
Worse and worse! Can't you stand it? Are you retreating?
Is this hour with the living too dead for you?
Retreat then! Pell-mell!
To your graves! Back! back to the hills, old limpers!
I do not think you belong here, anyhow.
But there is one thing that belongs here--shall I tell you what it
is, gentlemen of Boston?
I will whisper it to the Mayor--he shall send a committee to England;
They shall get a grant from the Parliament, go with a cart to the
royal vault--haste! 30
Dig out King George's coffin, unwrap him quick from the grave-
clothes, box up his bones for a journey;
Find a swift Yankee clipper--here is freight for you, black-bellied
Up with your anchor! shake out your sails! steer straight toward
Now call for the President's marshal again, bring out the government
Fetch home the roarers from Congress, make another procession, guard
it with foot and dragoons.
This centre-piece for them:
Look! all orderly citizens--look from the windows, women!
The committee open the box, set up the regal ribs, glue those that
will not stay,
Clap the skull on top of the ribs, and clap a crown on top of the
You have got your revenge, old buster! The crown is come to its own,
and more than its own.
Stick your hands in your pockets, Jonathan--you are a made man from
this day; 40
You are mighty cute--and here is one of your bargains.
A child said, What
is the grass?
said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
HOLD it up sternly! See this it sends back! (Who is it? Is it you?)
Outside fair costume--within ashes and filth,
No more a flashing eye--no more a sonorous voice or springy step;
Now some slave's eye, voice, hands, step,
A drunkard's breath, unwholesome eater's face, venerealee's flesh,
Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous,
Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination,
Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams,
Words babble, hearing and touch callous,
No brain, no heart left--no magnetism of sex; 10
Such, from one look in this looking-glass ere you go hence,
Such a result so soon--and from such a beginning!