Leaves of Grass: For the Love of Democracy

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For the Love of Democracy:
Comradery in Poetry During the American Civil War
Walt Whitman stirs up brotherhood while the country stirs up strife

The onset of the American Civil War caused the country to split in two. Through this separation, a writer by the name of Walt Whitman gave meaning and inspiration to the common man, amongst other poets and writers alike, during a time when poetry was stuck in rules and regulations. Through his groundbreaking poetry, Walt Whitman was able to do the impossible by ripping up the rulebook and giving into his idea of how poetry should be written. His ability to foster comradery during a time of war and encourage individualistic thinking helped usher in a new era of American writing, creativity, and expression. Walt Whitman was able to inspire a new generation to write war poetry in all forms of expression, but especially through their own experience, depicting what happens inside of a man during a time of war. Whitman successfully managed to spread his prose not just by himself, but with the same comradery he preached to the masses about, with the special help of a fellow peer and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their relationship helped to solidify Whitman’s role as America’s new poet. The poetic freedom in Leaves of Grass was revolutionary and pioneered a whole new pathway for poetry and prose, no longer would poetry stick to laws of old. Whitman was not rigid, nor was he a conformist, and his poetry was carefully concocted to be unorthodox and witty. Whitman dedicated himself to writing down his own soul on paper. As Hemingway once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” His poetry defined himself as a man, and the man helped to define the poetry he wrote, which was something that no one at that time was doing. This process of writing was not confined and it allowed for self-discovery and self-expression in its most transparent of forms.

Whitman was by all accounts a writer for the common man. Brash, arrogant, romantic, witty, obscene, self-reliant, experienced a tough upbringing but became strong by it, inventive, creative, inwardly focused and outwardly quiet, and a product of gregarious New York City. He was free love before the era of the 1960’s coined the phrase. He was challenging and rebellious, but he was also confident and smart. A transcendentalist and a romanticist, a true poet. Walt Whitman was a lover of many and compassionate to all men and had an adamant love for democracy, but he also believed in self; self-sustaining reassurance, self-proclamations, self-service, self-reliance. This in turn, over time and aging, most assuredly led to extensive self-examination. These things helped to shape, mold, and build up Whitman. In its truest and simplest terms, this is the Romanticist way of thought. Romanticism is described by Dr. Anna Lillois in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, as having “Emphasis on the individual subjective self, belief in the feeling, emotional self vs. the reasoning self, Preoccupation with human development through time, especially of childhood, Sense of union with nature; events of nature are mirrored in psyche.  Belief in fusion, synthesis, harmony—part of the chain of being, Sympathy with the common person and his/her humble life, Organization of poetry and the novel around central myths, images, and symbols.” (Lillois, 832).

During battle, one truly must get to know oneself, one’s brother next to him, the enemy, and the territory. Much like all of the symbols found in Whitman’s writings; Individualism, Transcendentalism, Romanticism, and Democracy. Whitman knows that although not everyone will experience war, most of us will experience love of country, love of self, and love of another person. His writing contributed vastly in creating individuals through comradery, whether it is through men at war (man and man), as a religious relationship (man and God), or even a romantic relationship, which in turn contributes to the cultivation of a thriving society and more intellectually rounded individuals. America’s society is to become united in spirit when it becomes Whitman’s utopia. Searching for the betterment of self through philosophical thinking, education, art, love, democracy, and honoring oneself and one’s country through service of some kind. He helped to foster thoughtful individuals by creating thought-evoking poetry in his groundbreaking publication of Leaves of Grass. This publication spurred a new generation of thinkers and writers alike; radicals such as Henry David Thoreou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, and the President of the United States himself, Mr. Abraham Lincoln were hooked on the free verse and transparency Whitman delivered. During the Transcendentalist movement, Walt became the centerpiece, mascot, and for some, even as a muse, for the new age of poetry and prose. Walt sparked the Transcendentalist fire that would later become a collection of some of the most explosive poets and scholars of that time by unifying his fellow man by appealing to their heart through comradery.

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During a time of genuine upheaval in America after the Civil War, one thing that most men could relate to was the crucible of combat. This burden was something all men would carry with them to their graves – the times spent both on and off the field. Walt used this special comradery that existed amongst soldiers and men and shared it clearly and without reserve to the political thinkers of the world, in this era, that may not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience it outside of Walt’s writings. Different from all other wartime poetry can be found in the pages of Leaves of Grass. The wartime prose and depictions of what went on during a time of battle can be a way for the soldier or writer to ease their mind from worry while on the battlefield, or while one’s country is in war. Leaves of Grass resulted in a new generation of wartime poets. Whitman’s influence would spread beyond his own generation and into the next. World War I soldier poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon battled and wrote haunting and unforgettable poetry depicting the Great War. The beneficial work of Leaves of Grass made poetry palatable to everyone, even the man on the battlefield. Whitman’s influence would spread beyond his own generation and into the next.

Walt Whitman made his living humbly as a printing apprentice and wrote for several papers. He published the first copy of Leaves of Grass himself in 1855 and he was met with hostile words and overall public disdain, not to mention the country was well on its way to a bloody civil war. Comradery-driven, outspoken, and erotic even, during a time of strict conservation. Despite the naysayers, eventually the book would spread amongst literary figures and common men alike, not as wildfire, but as a simple spark. Whitman decided he would take it upon himself to write anonymous reviews touting Leaves of Grass as something magical, while in actuality it was something his peers taunted and jeered at. Whitman, being the true inventive American that he was, took it upon himself to deliver a copy of Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, among several other prominent literary figures of the time.

Whitman’s approach to spread the word about his beloved work of art was a scheme that could only be described as crafty and brilliant (and I must say, so very New Yorker). Whitman earned a golden reputation from one of his peers by taking a direct, daring out-of-the-box approach. The art of persuasion paid off when his work was taken seriously after Emerson wrote him a letter touting Leaves of Grass as an achievement. This move, made by Whitman at a time when he could have hung his head in defeat, was crucial in his journey to popularity in the literary world. Emerson resounded over Walt in a letter that Leaves of Grass was indeed a “wonderful gift” and the “most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” (NY Tribune Oct. 10 1855).

Whitman had a manly, artistic roughness that ruffled feathers, however, his work was undeniably unique. Whitman’s reputation was scandalous, but he was also an innovator. After Emerson’s praise, Whitman used the letter to promote a reprint of the book, unendorsed by Emerson. Emerson never actually agreed to allow Whitman to use it as a foreword, but the rebellious writer did it anyway, showing his boldness rather candidly. Whitman had a lot of nerve and courage to take such a step as to involve a prominent scholarly figure of the time in one of his re-issues, without even a heads-up, notice or notification that he was going to publish it. Whitman was on a mission to get his voice heard and his poetry read, and the act served to skyrocket his career into a form of fame. He was singing the song of himself as loudly as he could, and when no one heard him he stood right outside their doorway and turned up the volume, screaming loudly and boldly.

Ralph Emerson, a man inspired by Whitman, was at the forefront of the Transcendental movement and was keen on self-reliance to better oneself and one’s society. He even wrote an entire essay called “Self Reliance”. Another literary venture by Emerson was a book entitled Society and Solitude, which is rich in prose about the inward struggle of self, versus the need for companionship. The similarities between the two men’s views are blatantly obvious. To Emerson’s generation, Whitman was a superhero. Emerson was a minister’s son and was destined for the same profession of his father until 1932 when he quit the life of ministry to pursue a more meaningful spirituality – poetry.

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The core concept of Transcendentalist thinking is the idea that truth goes beyond physical touch and sense in this world. “Trust yourself” would be an appropriate slogan for today’s standards. After becoming deeply entrenched in a sort-of self-reform, most Transcendentalists of the day became politically active and involved in social infrastructure and reformation. Walt Whitman became a muse for Emerson, and the ability to ignite the fire of inspiration amongst poets brought forth a new type of poetry and a new type of brotherhood and comradery amongst the poets and free thinkers of the generation. Free verse was given a whole new meaning. Whitman wrote without rhyme, but with many reasons.

Leaves of Grass, written and re-published a multitude of times ever so carefully by Mr. Whitman, empowered a new generation of thinkers to believe in not only themselves, and comeradery, but in democracy as well. During the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman chose to nurse wounds and take care of injured soldiers on both the Confederate and Union sides in hospitals in the capitol city of Washington, D.C. He let his words grow legs and become action. Then he decided to run with the democracy he loved so fiercely and work for the cause he carried such a glowing affliction for. He practiced what he preach to those around him, solidifying for them that unity amongst humanity was possible, even in such a tumultuous time. Whitman’s love for service, patriotism and his brotherhood in humanity kept him in America’s capital for eleven years.

During his time of civil service, Whitman worked at three different government positions. But, while he was working, he crossed paths with someone who did not agree with the type of democracy that Whitman so zealously preached. Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman while he was working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a government clerk when it was found out he was the author of Leaves of Grass. Harlan deemed it too offensive and fired him for his ostentatious views of showering of unity amongst all Americans. What a way to be fired! Whitman was provocative without shame in order to support his love of unity and democracy. Once again met with criticism, he unwaveringly continued in his quest.

Luckily, Whitman had many friends; one of which was a man named William Douglas O’Connor, who took it upon himself to defend and support Whitman. He managed to find a new job for Whitman at the Attorney General’s Office and he even published a pamphlet entitled The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication. This move helped Whitman immensely, as it is still said to this day, any publicity, good or bad, is still publicity. The poetic works of Walt Whitman emboldened a new generation that rhyming was only a rule. Free verse became his way to fully express the freedom and love he felt. Whitman was revolutionary in the way he wrote, thought, and believed.

In “Song of Myself”, Whitman describes his thoughts, raw and untamed for the world to read. He empowered his readers to bear their souls, at the expense of getting hurt, if at least you learn something out of it.

“Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.” (Whitman 23).

 

He celebrates his inward life in the first lines of the poem, “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” (22) and goes on to describe the scenery of Brooklyn and how outwardly superficial it all feels. Whitman is starting to look at every flaw, but instead of pitying himself he celebrates every atom of weakness and breathing in every moment through the eyes of an enthusiastic dreamer and eclectic visionary.

He invites his readers to see the world through eyes of radicals, dreamers, rebels, stargazers, and idealists. He invites one’s soul to express whatever it was put on this Earth to express. He looks for his divine purpose. His roots were firmly planted with the publication of Leaves of Grass. During a time of chaos, judgement, political uprising, and war, Walt ravished the literary scene with poetry free of judgement or criticism. Democracy, plainly, is the radical approach that friendship and comradery are essential for any nation or human to strive. In “Song of Myself” you can almost feel as if his words are being shouted from a bohemian New York City rooftop. Whitman longs to befriend everyone, strangers becoming the closest of confidants; unity through comradery. His ideals and vision of a country enriched by diversity was beyond progressive. He believed that democracy was not just for the political system, but a lifestyle of which to partake. Whitman chose to drink the juice of life by sipping it fast and loud, for all to hear and see. Oh, how our generation now would benefit from such advice!

The love of democracy, nature, and owning an adventurous soul is what brought Whitman life experiences that allowed him to write so eloquently. Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass for the people who wanted more out of life and who saw more in America and the potential of her future. The idea that comradery could be felt more than just by men at war, but it could be experienced by two women, a man and a woman, two men, a group of people was his goal. Democracy, to Whitman, was the idea that love was equal, but must be sought out and discovered for oneself so it can then become a cause to truly stand behind and fight for. Whitman believed that to experience unity, democracy and freedom one must first believe in it, which beckons the soul to strive and fight for it, which turns into an ideology. He also thought that everyone, even the common man, should have access to poetry and the ability to write freely. Before Whitman, a long line of European descended poetry rigidly structured with rules and pentameters and guidelines made up the repertoire of what was considered beautiful and acceptable forms of poetry.

European poetry functioned as a staunch set of rules to Whitman, not a freedom of expression. For our rebellious and patriotic Whitman, this was another opportunity to break the rules and show his true self. He broke the mold and wrote beautifully welded lines of poetry, staying true to his form of writing; free verse. He toyed with rhyming structures in one poem, which just so happens to be one of the book’s most famous poems, “O Captain!My Captain”. In the first verse alone we can see Whitman’s argument for loyalty and comradery uniting any and all who allow it to, especially through democracy as this was included in his section on remembering Lincoln:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

            But O heart! heart! heart!

                            O the bleeding drops of red,

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.           

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Whitman conjured delicate and wounded lines to deliver a rich analogy of a war he was a part of and shares grievous words for a man he loved. Whitman’s treasured utopia was shattered when Abraham Lincoln, the captain of his beloved ship, America, was savagely gunned down.  Democracy was still to be celebrated, even in death, and Whitman implores that even though his captain is dead, the ship is anchored safe and sound from her voyage. The captain paid the ultimate price, while the ship was docked safely to her shore. Was that not the true calling of every soldier on the battlefield? To finish his orders and serve his country?

Whitman felt the sting of grief through losing Abraham Lincoln and other comrades during the Civil War, and it pulled him to write two of the most remembered and remarkable mourning poems of all time. His comradery with Lincoln can be felt in the lines of the poem “O Captain, My Captain”. The reader is pulled emotionally into the relationship the writer has with his captain of whom he distinctively adores. Whitman speaks as a soldier in this poem, speaking to the hearts of men specifically. Men who would understand the righteous and high calling of the servitude of being a soldier and a protector of democracy.

The solemnity can be felt through the poem’s structure, as it mimics men marching in sync with one another. A beautiful analogy of sullen soldiers walking step by step to the cadence of their drummer on their way to battle. The elusive rhyming structure Whitman ran away from he welcomed with opened arms for his captain. Whitman also utilized the theme of individualism and democracy. He was celebrating the end of the war and the win for democracy, but struggling to balance it with the grief and pain he felt from losing Lincoln. The end of the Civil War brought a stabilization of the Union, a desperate longing for Whitman and most of America during that time. Whitman believed that integrated beliefs in something as pure as a state of democracy could change an entire generation.

In some form or another, spirituality always came up as a recurring subject to Whitman. He was intrigued and fascinated by it, as so many of his poems speculate and contemplate heavenly questions. Whitman wrote poetry in the same fashion and length as Bible verses. He threw the rule book of writing poetry out of the window and begin his trailblazing career without rhyming, but stylistically wrote traditionally, as if the pages came right out of the Bible. His prose seems to stretch all the way off of the page. His long thoughts are only interrupted by more thoughts. He allows his stream of consciousness to take over, allowing self, God, and his pen to do the talking for him. The truest form of expression.

Whitman focused on the spiritual state of one’s soul and focused frequently on the impact of life and death. How we live is essential to our happiness and Whitman dedicated his life to singing that truth, even if it involves mourning the passing of a loved one. This theme is picturesque of the state of Whitman’s heart and country, the democratic poet was writing poetry that matched what America was going through and so the common man was moved by his words. First published in 1865 with the end of the war and the death of his beloved president, Whitman chants loudly in his second grief poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d about mourning the passing of loved ones post-Civil War and again, after the assassination of Lincoln.

“Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,

For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.”

This showed his appreciation for life and the idea that death is to be respected.

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Whitman had a way with words when it came to eulogizing the dead. Although Lincoln’s “O Captain” was the only poem in which Whitman rhymed, this poem brought forth the imagery everyone in the country was feeling on a day to day basis. His poetry spoke to the masses. He didn’t need to rhyme to convey his point. Anyone who had experienced loss during the bloodiest war in America’s history could read this poem and feel the words. His poem allowed for the mourners to mourn, but also celebrating the end of death. After the Civil War, the country was not only split in two, but death haunted almost every single household. Whitman’s poetry touched the heart of the common man because it was written in a way that could be understood and it spoke rather fervently about the nature of a man’s soul and the comradery felt amongst fellow man. The ultimate comradery, however, to Whitman, that the soul has is between itself and a Higher Power. Whitman’s idealism of religion was that it could be fluid and meaningful without needing to stick to rule or regulation. Just like his poetry; love without rules.

More often than not, authors do not live to see their work adored by fans. Lucky for Whitman, he was able to see some stardom in his days as a writer. His obsession with republishing and revising Leaves of Grass was almost instinctive. Whitman’s idea of revisiting and rewriting his texts was another form of democracy and he allowed himself to be reborn each and every time he decided to republish it. He bought a small house and spent the rest of his days writing revisions. His many revisions brought new poems and brought new perspectives from the man who labeled America “the greatest poem”. Whitman always stayed with the theme of democracy and stuck it out until the end, including living it out. Whitman allowed the democracy of the country he loved to define his soul and he wanted others to share in the same experience.

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During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman helped to unite America through poetry and expression, thus creating individuals through comradery in several forms which in turn contributes, even to this day, to the cultivation of society through the betterment of self through philosophical thinking, education, art, democracy, and honoring oneself and one’s country through service. Just like grass, democracy will take a long time to fully flourish, but for Walt he was able to at least put the seed in the ground and start the process for many generations to come.

 

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I tip my hat to you, sir. Thank you for your writings and your outspoken flare that sparked a fire in the Transcendental hearts of many a wandering soul along the journey of life. Thank you for your poetry, a gift I will forever cherish.

 

NORTH FLORIDA DESIGN – CONTENT IS KING

 

 

Pictures via Getty Images/Google

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