The famous poet Walt Whitman has been brought into the public eye even more with the recent shout-outs from TV series Breaking Bad. Learn a little more about this guy beyond “Leaves of Grass” with our short video on his life & legacy below:
Walt Whitman’s arguably most famous poem is “O Captain! my Captain!” Ashley gives us a dramatic reading in the video, but it was also featured famously in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. This was one of many poems written by Walt in his lifetime, compiled in Leaves of Grass, a work of all his poems that he perfected over the course of his lifetime.
He was born in 1819 and raised to a poor family. Because of their poverty, and the lack of means to raise him and his 8 siblings, he only attended school until he was 11. Their poor economic status also caused the family to have to move around a lot, which later made Whitman reminisce of his unhappy, restless childhood.
He worked on his compilation of poems in addition to working a proper job. When the book was published, many found it offensive because of the sexual themes. Walt was even fired from multiple jobs on account of some of the language. Below are some lines from his poem “Song of Myself.”
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the
distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
And later in the same poem:
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d
over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your
tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held
If these don’t seem particularly worthy of the scorn with which Whitman’s poetry was received, remember that this was in the 1800’s when showing an ankle was considered quite scandalous. It was, however, recommended by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a highly regarded poet and essayist of his time and currently. Many felt Walt was a man whose poetry showed the true American character to the rest of the world. He used unusual symbolism, such as debris and rotten leaves, and also made the free verse style of poetry famous, although he didn’t invent it.
During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a volunteer nurse for the Northern armies. It was during this time that “O Captain! my Captain!” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!” were written. They both showcase his personal experiences with war and how affected he was by all that he witnessed on the battle fields.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,Into the school where the scholar is studying,Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue?Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.
And his arguably most famous poem:
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.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
- O captain! dear father!
- This arm beneath your head;
- It is some dream that on the deck,
- You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
- Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
- But I, with mournful tread,
- Walk the deck my captain lies,
- Fallen cold and dead.
An interesting fact about this poem is that it was written symbolically about the death of Abraham Lincoln. That’s it for Walt Whitman and his famous poems! Thanks for reading.
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Featured Image: Marcelo Noah