Walt Whitman’s Poetical Techniques

Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

Ekaterinburg, 2009



When having to think about the philosophy of Americanness, who else could come to one's mind other than Walt Whitman. One of the most read, most enjoyable writers of American Literature so much debated and gossiped about, preceding his own folk's and the world's age by light-years ahead, throwing himself in the face of his contemporary readers, at last knocking down all the remains of the long-suffered puritan establishments and values that the country has carried as a burden for far too long. One simply cannot exclude Whitman without having to make a comment about his poetry – his art – he simply cannot be ignored, for he and his art does not allow that.

The aim of our work is to analyze features of Walt Whitman’s style. We will study his literary techniques, such as alliteration, anaphora, «free» verse etc. In our work we will try to show philosophical basics of his works.

Our tasks are:

- To investigate the uniqueness of his style

- To analyze some of his works in order to characterize his poetic techniques

- To conduct a detailed analysis of philosophical basics of his works

We will also propose some of his poems because we wanted to show peculiarities of his style.



«Leaves of Grass»


If we want to talk about philosophical basics of Walt Whitman, we should analyze them all in common because they are all connected and you can find several of them in one poem at the same time.

First of all we will start our investigation with one of his greatest poems «Leaves of Grass».

The title «Leaves of Grass» is used by Whitman to symbolize the immortality of the soul, the mechanical universe, and that all things are in a state of flux Whitman says in the last chapter:

«I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love»

He loves the grass so much as part of nature, assimilates himself to nature, and considers the immortality of the soul in nature because of his belief and his own inspiration and individuality.

Whitman's idea of nature can be accepted concerning the world of death since nature is inextricably linked with mortal beings and in harmony with the mind. That greatest harmony is thought to be the immortality of the soul in nature. In other words, its harmonization is based on the medieval idea that «The will of God creates nature».

He thought that this is a dark mysterious world, and that human beings contribute to the world of death by their domination of nature. The world of human being is a lonely creature in a chaotic universe. Firm in this belief, Whitman in his philosophical approach to Nihilism described himself as the immortality of the soul in the great universe. He said in his first chapter:

«I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as God belongs to you.» (P. 1).

This is the liberation of the mind from the philosophy of a controlling God, which was current in the plantation period of J. Edwards (1703–1758). To expound this theme, Whitman wrote his poem, in which he propounded his ideas.

«The atmosphere is not a perfume,

It has no taste of the distillation, and 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 and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.» (P. 2).

Whitman's nature is good, not evil. The stream of this idea is accepted by J. Rousseau (1712–1778) «As a human nature is good in nature» which is an absolutely optimistic and ever frontier spirit.

Whitman pursues each personal develop – meant by showing how people relate. For example: looking forth on pavement and land, or outside of pavement and land, «Belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits.» (P. 78).

From this point of view, he looks over the natural phenomenon of circuits, and God is defined by the relationship of human nature to the circuits.

Whitman thought that inspiration was equal to the dualism of the soul and the personality, and wrote:

«Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

Stand amused, complacent, compassionating, idea, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest.

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next.

Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders.

I have no mocking or arguments, I witness and wait.» (P. 6).

Whitman considered the relation of phenomenon and the personality. His mind was not closed to the realities in which his personality asserted the method of the audience and passive state condition and tried to contact the refusing phenomenon.

«Leaves of grass» belongs to no particular accepted form of poetry. Whitman described its form as «a new and national declamatory expression.» Whitman was a poet bubbling with energy and burdened with sensations, and his poetic utterances reveal his innovations. His poetry seems to grow organically, like a tree. It has the tremendous vitality of an oak. Its growth follows no regular pattern: «Song of Myself», for example, seems at first almost recklessly written, without any attention to form. Whitman’s poetry, like that of most prophetic writers, is unplanned, disorganized, sometimes abortive, but nevertheless distinctively his own.


Walt Whitman’s Poetical Techniques


In his poems he used some special poetical techniques.


«Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking»: «'And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea.' This use of alliteration of the creates a sound of the sea… which is very effective. This is by no means the only use of alliteration in the poem. Other groupings such as 'sterile sands,' 'briers and blackberries, ' 'Listened long and long,' 'sweetest song and songs,' and 'singer solitary' occur throughout the poem» (Kimmel 9/16/96).


Anaphora: repetition of words or phrases at beginnings of lines.

«Crossing Brooklyn Ferry»: «'Others will enter… / Others will watch… / Others will see' and also 'Just as you feel… / Just as you are refresh'd… / Just as you stand… / Just as you look…'» (Barham 9/17/96).

«One of the first cases in which he uses anaphora extensively in Drum-Taps is in the section titled «Poet,» in which the first four lines begin with 'I hear, ' and lines 8–12 begin with 'I see, ' while the entire first 13 lines begin with 'I.' He is creating one large audio and visual image in those lines, with each line being a separate image, but all tied together by their common beginning. In this case, lines all beginning with the same word also help to set up a rhythm, as the reader is inclined to read all of the 'I's with the same amount of stress, like reading off items on a list. Through the use of anaphora in this way, Whitman can express one theme in several different lines, with several different ideas, while having a definite link between each thought. In the first section of 'Give Me the Splendid Sun, ’ Whitman begins the first eleven lines with 'Give me.' Although in each line he is asking for a different thing, the entire thought expressed in the lines together is his desire for 'nature's primal sanities.' With the common beginning in these lines, he is expressing all of his values at once in eleven lines, with eleven different ideas» (Minis 9/17/96).

«Free» verse

Definition: verse that, while free of rhyme and a consistent rhythm, may employ other structural and sound elements, such as anaphora and chiasmus.

Whitman may have picked up on Emerson's line in «The Poet»: «For it is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem.»

But he also may have found models in «Proverbial Philosophy,» a free verse poem that Tupper published in 1838, and in a poem by George Lippard (Reynolds).


«In many of Whitman's poems, like Children of Adam, he lists many things at once. In Children of Adam, section 9, he lists over 80 parts of the body, both male and female. He does this listing technique again in Song of the Open Road, when he tells of all the things he passes and sees on his journey» (Baldwin 9/17/96)

They show a childish joy in naming things (Matthiessen 518).

Perhaps they also betray a desire to incorporate everything in a poem, as Melville tried to do in Moby-Dick.

Whitman may have borrowed the idea from contemporary travel literature, including books called Mississippi in Gobs and New York in Chunks (Reynolds).

«In 'Drum-Taps' the smaller passages which make up the whole poem seem to give all different perspectives of the war. The perspective of the mother, father, child, wound dresser, slave woman, and even a banner are all given. In turn, the reader is fed a catalog of various feelings about war. Also, in 'Drum-Taps' and particularly in the passage 'First O Songs for a Prelude, ' there is a catalog. Whitman lists and lists all different people with varying occupations and how they are getting ready for war. Thy lawyer, the mechanic, and salesman are all mentioned. It would be easy to see Whitman’s use of the catalog as simply 'show[ing] childish joy in naming things' (Matthiessen 518). However, I see it as Whitman's way of presenting universality. Everyone is going through this same event, and everyone is feeling emotions about the war. The catalog shows common links among humans» (Plonk 9/19/96).


Definition: a mirror pattern in words, sounds, or other elements.

See «Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,» lines 71–74: «SOOTHE! Soothe! Soothe!» / CLOSE on its wave soothes the wave BEHIND / And again another BEHIND embracing and lapping, everyone CLOSE, / But my love SOOTHES not me, not me.»

See «By the Bivouac's fitful flame»: «By the Bivouac's fitful flame… / A procession… / A solemn and slow procession… / By the Bivouac's fitful flame» (Daigneault 9/20/96).

See Psalm 124:7: «Our soul is ESCAPED as a bird out of the SNARE of the fowlers: the SNARE is broken, and we are ESCAPED.»

Circles and Cycles

Drum-Taps: «He begins the poem with a short prelude and then begins telling of the year 1861 and how all the men were having to leave their jobs and wives to go fight in the war. Then he starts telling about the war itself. He describes cavalries crossing fords and army corps marching to battle. In one section, he speaks of a soldier who watches his friend get fatally wounded. The soldier holds a vigil all night for his friend and then buries him when he dies. In another section, he describes a soldier's family–his mother, father, and sister–when they receive a letter telling them that he has been injured in battle. Whitman brings out the true emotion of the families during this time. After describing all of the different parts to the war, at the end of the poem, Whitman comes full circle as he does in all his works by declaring that the war is over and that there is peace throughout the country. In this manner, Whitman completes his poetic story, and the reader is fulfilled» (Jake man 9/19/96).


«Passage to India»: «O…Of you…Of you…Of you…O»

Psalm 70:1–5: «Make haste…. Let… Let… Let… Make haste.»


Whitmanhad written sensational stories; visionary works, nationalistic works, biblical stories, and works on social issues.

«If Leaves of Grass was the era's most expansive poem, continuing the largest variety of voices and topics, it was largely because it was written by one who had unabashedly tried his hand at virtually every genre that had been popularized by previous American writers» (Reynolds 106).

Grammatical mood

Section 9 of «Crossing Brooklyn Ferry» is a mirror image of Section 3, except that mood of Section 9 is imperative, and that of Section 3 is indicative.


Still pictures suggest immortality of images, as on Grecian Urn, and may reflect interest in photography. Whitman uses unpoetic objects and makes them poetic.

He also uses outrageous analogies: «the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue» resembles Thoreau's description of the «cheap and natural music of the cow» in Walden.

Drum-Taps:» Whitman uses [phrases] like 'the young men falling in and arming, / The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the blacksmith's hammer, toast aside with precipitation).' This use of imagery allows Whitman to make descriptive scenes that the reader can attach himself to and see» (Aron 9/19/96).

«Another technique Whitman makes use of is that of imagery: 'We primeval forests felling, we the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within… we the virgin soil up heaving…' The extensive use of imagery serves to widen the reader's scope of comprehension for the picture that Whitman is painting. The content is driven by the images like still photographs coming together to form a film» (Premakumar 9/17/96).

Line length

Lines in «Crossing Brooklyn Ferry» suggest tides.

Length of lines in Section 1 suggests flood tide because each is longer than the one preceding it.

Sections also suggest flood tide because they grow longer in groups of three: a, a+b, a+b+c, d, d+e, d+e+f, g, g+h, g+h+i

Elsewhere, Whitman often achieves an aural effect by writing increasingly longer lines, suggesting expansion of thought.

«In most of Whitman's poems, the pattern is not rhythmic, yet the pattern lies in the length of the lines. In one verse, the first line is of typical length, and the second line is extended a little longer than the first. The pattern continues with the third and fourth lines each becoming longer than their predecessor. The reason seems to be to build up a climax in each of Whitman's verses, and the fifth and final line is the conclusion of the verse. This style puts a greater emphasis on each verse and provides the reader with various miniature climaxes» (Atkinson 9/12/96).


Whitman was inspired by opera.

He portrays himself as a bard, singing for the common people.


«Beat! Beat! Drums!»: «Throughout the poem, he not only repeats, 'Beat! Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!' but he uses the words in the stanzas that incorporate some kind of sound. He uses words like 'burst, ' 'pound, ' 'rumble, ' 'rattle, ' and 'thump.' I can associate sounds with each of these words. I can hear the drums drumming and the bugles blowing» (Patterson 9/17/96).

«One example of this can be seen in 'Song of the Banner at Daybreak' when the flag expresses its voice by 'Flapping, flapping, flapping, flapping…'» (Daugherty 9/19/96).


Whitman lived at a time of great orators, such as Daniel Webster.

He may have been influenced by grass-roots reformers' oratory (Reynolds).


Definition: variations on a theme, often linked by anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of lines).

«Song of Myself»: «Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? have you reckoned the earth much? Have you…»

«Crossing Brooklyn Ferry»: «I see… I see… I see…»

See Ecclesiastes 3:2 – …: «A time to be born, and a time to die: a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…»


«'Persona, ' as defined by A Handbook to Literature, is a mask created by an author and through which a narrative is told. Intrinsic in the concept of persona is that the author's own views are masked by the implied author through which he/she speaks (385). Another interpretation of 'persona, ' the Jungian view, is that persona is a set of attitudes adopted by an individual to fit himself for the social roles he sees as his (Simpson 598)…. Both of these explanations of persona are applicable to Whitman's works» (Hundley 1).


«Section 9 of «Passage to India» includes 29 lines. Twenty-five of these lines end either in a question or exclamation mark. The effect of this punctuation is that Whitman depicts the deep emotion that he pours into his writing» (Lasher 9/17/96).

Whitman «uses exclamation points frequently, creating extra emphasis on lines. The beautiful things in life become magnificent, and sad become tragic» (Minis 9/17/96).

Whitman believed that poetry should be spoken, not written, and this basic criterion governed the concept and form of his poetry. He used repetition and reiterative devices (as, for example, in «Out of the Cradle Endlessly rocking,» the lines «Loud! Loud! Loud!» and «Blow! Blow! Blow!») He also employed elements of the opera (the aria and the recitative) in his poems.

He also was a master of exuberant phrases and images: «The beautiful uncut hair of graves» («Song of Myself,» section 6) is extraordinarily descriptive. Conversely, another description of the grass in the same section of the same poem, where it is described as «the handkerchief of the Lord,» is trivial.

Whitman brought vitality and picturesqueness to his descriptions of the physical world. He was particularly sensitive to sounds and described them with acute awareness. His view of the world was dominated by its change and fluidity, and this accounts for his frequent use of «ing» forms, either present participle or gerund.

Whitman’s language is full of his eccentricities: he used the word «presidential» for presidency, «pave» for pavement, and he spelled Canada with a K.

«Leaves of grass» contains archaic expressions – for example, betimes, betwixt, methinks, haply, and list (for listen). Whitman also employs many colloquial expressions and technical and commercial terms. Words from foreign languages add color and variety to his style.


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