Peculiarities in Whitman’s Rhythm and Verse




 

Whitman’s use of rhythms is notable. A line of his verse, if scanned in the routine way, seems like a prose sentence, or an advancing wave of prose rhythm. Yet his work is composed in lines, not in sentences as prose would be. The line is the unit of sense in Whitman.

Whitman experimented with meter, rhythm, and form because he thought that experimentation was the law of the changing times, and that innovation was the gospel of the modern world. Whitman’s fondness for trochaic movement rather than iambic movement shows the distinctive quality of his use of meter. An iamb is a metrical foot of two syllables, the second of which is accented. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by an unaccepted one. The iambic is the most commonly used meter in English poetry, partly because of the structure of English speech. English phrases normally begin with an article, preposition, or conjunction which merges into the word that follows it, thus creating the rising inflection which is iambic. Why, then, did Whitman prefer the trochaic to the iambic meter? It was partly due to the poet’s desire for declamatory expression and oratorical style, since the trochee is more suitable for eloquent expression than the iambic meter. Whitman also liked to do things that were unusual and novel.

Imagery – a Special Technique of Walt Whitman’s

 

Imagery means a figurative use of language. Whitman’s use of imagery shows his imaginative power, the depth of his sensory perceptions, and his capacity to capture reality instantaneously. He expresses his impressions of the world in language which mirrors the present. He makes the past come alive in his images and makes the future seem immediate. Whitman’s imagery has some logical order on the conscious level, but it also delves into the subconscious, into the world of memories, producing a stream-of-consciousness of images. These images seem like parts of a dream, pictures of fragments of a world. On the other hand, they have solidity; they build the structure of the poems.

The Use of Symbols in Whitman’s Works

 

A symbol is an emblem, a concrete object that stands for something abstract; for example, the dove is a symbol of peace; the cross, Christianity. Literary symbols, however, have a more particular connotation. They sometimes signify the total meaning, or the different levels of meaning, which emerge from the work of art in which they appear. A white whale is just an animal–but in Melville’s Moby Dick it is a god to some characters, evil incarnate to others, and a mystery to others. In other words, it has an extended connotation which is symbolic.

In the mid‑1880s, the Symbolist movement began in France, and the conscious use of symbols became the favorite practice of poets. The symbolists and Whitman had much in common; both tried to interpret the universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from traditional forms and methods. But the symbols of the French symbolists were highly personal, whereas in Whitman the use of the symbol was governed by the objects he observed: the sea, the birds, the lilacs, the Calamus plant, the sky, and so on. Nevertheless, Whitman did have an affinity with the symbolists; they even translated some of his poems into French.

Whitman’s major concern was to explore, discuss, and celebrate his own self, his individuality and his personality. Second, he wanted to eulogize democracy and the American nation with its achievements and potential. Third, he wanted to give poetical expression to his thoughts on life’s great, enduring mysteries–birth, death, rebirth or resurrection, and reincarnation.

The Self

To Whitman, the complete self is both physical and spiritual. The self is man’s individual identity, his distinct quality and being, which is different from the selves of other men, although it can identify with them. The self is a portion of the one Divine Soul. Whitman’s critics have sometimes confused the concept of self with egotism, but this is not valid. Whitman is constantly talking about «I,» but the «I» is universal, a part of the Divine, and therefore not egotistic.

The Body and the Soul

Whitman is a poet of these elements in man, the body and the soul. He thought that we could comprehend the soul only through the medium of the body. To Whitman, all matter is as divine as the soul; since the body is as sacred and as spiritual as the soul, when he sings of the body or its performances, he is singing a spiritual chant.

Nature

Whitman shares the Romantic poet’s relationship with nature. To him, as to Emerson, nature is divine and an emblem of God. The universe is not dead matter, but full of life and meaning. He loves the earth, the flora and fauna of the earth, the moon and stars, the sea, and all other elements of nature. He believes that man is nature’s child and that man and nature must never be disjoined.

Time

Whitman’s concept of the ideal poet is, in a way, related to his ideas on time. He conceives of the poet as a time-binder, one who realizes that the past, present, and future are «not disjoined, but joined,» that they are all stages in a continuous flow and cannot be considered as separate and distinct. These modem ideas of time have given rise to new techniques of literary expression–for example, the stream-of-consciousness viewpoint.

Cosmic Consciousness

Whitman believed that the cosmos, or the universe, does not consist merely of lifeless matter; it has awareness. It is full of life and filled with the spirit of God. The cosmos is God and God is the cosmos; death and decay are unreal. This cosmic consciousness is, indeed, one aspect of Whitman’s mysticism.

Mysticism

Mysticism is an experience that has a spiritual meaning which is not apparent to the senses nor to the intellect. Thus mysticism, an insight into the real nature of man, God, and the universe, is attained through one’s intuition. The mystic believes in the unity of God and man, man and nature, God and the universe. To a mystic, time and space are unreal, since both can be overcome by man by spiritual conquest. Evil, too, is unreal, since God is present everywhere. Man communicates with his soul in a mystical experience, and Whitman amply expresses his responses to the soul in Leaves of Grass, especially in «Song of Myself.» He also expresses his mystical experience of his body or personality being permeated by the supernatural. Whitman’s poetry is his artistic expression of various aspects of his mystical experience.

Bardic Symbols

 

No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the «Bardic Symbols» symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the the [sic] true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet's full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,

Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,

Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,

Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil

upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or

what I am,

But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,

Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory

signs and bows,

With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I

have written or shall write,

Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.

If indeed, we were compelled to guess the meaning of the poem, we should say it all lay in the compass of these lines of Tennyson–the saddest and profoundest that ever were written:

Break, break, break,

On thy cold gray stones, O sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me! 1

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of «divine despair 2

We think it has been an error in Whitman to discard forms and laws, for without them the poet diffuses. He may hurry forward with impulses, but he is spent before he reaches the reader's heart through his bewildered understanding. Steam subject, is a mighty force; steam free, is an impalpable vapor, only capable of delicate hues and beauty with the sun upon it. But O, poet! there is not a sun in every sky.

The theme of love

 

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book's reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called «Song of Myself,» «The Sleepers,» and «I Sing the Body Electric,» which are «about» sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of «manly love» and «sexual love,» with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: «amativeness» for man-woman love «adhesiveness» for «manly love.» Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews of his book («Walt Whitman and His Poems,» 1855) he wrote of himself and the 1855 Leaves: «The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful…. Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort» (Poetry and Prose 535).

Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including «Poem of Procreation» (now «A Woman Waits for Me») and «Bunch Poem» («Spontaneous Me»). At the end of the volume he included, without permission, Emerson's letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its «great power,» and «free and brave thought»), and alongside it he published his own letter in reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson's praise to emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness: «As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the body is to be expressed, and sex is» (Poetry and Prose 529).

It was not until the 1860 edition of Leaves that Whitman gathered the poems celebrating sexuality into the cluster «Enfans d'Adam» («Children of Adam») and the poems celebrating «manly love» into «Calamus.» When Whitman came to Boston to see his book through the press there, Emerson tried to persuade him to withdraw the sex poems, but Whitman refused. He probably understood that if he really desexed Leaves it would be like self-castration. Although Emerson never publicly withdrew his endorsement of Whitman, he passed up opportunities to repeat it. Emerson's silence together with Whitman's loss of his job at the Interior Department in 1865, charged with writing «indecent poems,» were early warning signs that he and his Leaves were embarked on a difficult road ahead.

In subsequent editions of Leaves, Whitman revised and shifted his poems of amativeness and adhesiveness, but by and large his dominant themes became not the body but the soul, not youth but old age–and death. His experience in the Civil War hospitals seems to have provided a turning point for Whitman's focus. He even claimed, in «A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads» (1888), that the war revealed to him, «as by flashes of lightning,» the «final reasons-for-being» of his «passionate song» (Poetry and Prose 516). In his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (1865, later included in the 1867 Leaves), the «Calamus» theme runs throughout – «cropping out» as Whitman himself said of it in his 1876 Preface to Two Rivulets (Prose Works 2:471). Whitman critics have not failed to notice in «Drum-Taps» the poet's theme of adhesiveness–the joy in the physical transmuted by the war into pain and anguish–in such poems as «The Wound-Dresser,» «Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,» and «A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.»

In 1868 W.M. Rossetti published a British edition of Whitman's poetry, Poems by Walt Whitman. In effect, this was an expurgated Leaves, with «Song of Myself,» «Children of Adam,» and «Calamus» omitted, except for a few poems of the «Calamus» cluster placed in a section entitled «Walt Whitman.» In spite of Rossetti's gutting of the book, it established Whitman's reputation in England and attracted many ardent admirers. Some, when they became familiar with the poems purged by Rossetti, became even more ardent, while others turned hostile. The former included Anne Gilchrist, who fell in love with Whitman and wrote an article «An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman» (Boston 1870), especially praising Whitman's sex poems. Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem in praise of Walt Whitman in Song Before Sunrise (1871), but loudly reversed himself in his 1887 essay, «Whitmania,» after encountering all of Leaves. John Addington Symonds read Whitman's poems as a young man, and, bowled over, found his way to the whole of «Calamus.» He would later strike up a correspondence with Whitman in Camden, pressing him on the real meaning of his «Calamus» poems, leading Whitman ultimately to reply in a notorious letter in 1890 claiming to have had six illegitimate children during his «jolly» «times south» (Poetry and Prose 958).

Although in the fifth edition (1871–1872) of Leaves, Whitman seemed temporarily to lose his way in shaping Leaves to contain his new work («Passage to India» and related poems), some ten years later, in the sixth edition (1881–1882), he adopted his earlier practice of integrating the poems of a lifetime into a single structure. Before the book could be distributed by its publisher in Boston, however, it was found to be immoral by the Society for the Suppression of Vice; because Whitman refused to remove the offensive parts, the book was withdrawn and published in Philadelphia. The Boston censors found offensive not only the whole of «A Woman Waits for Me,» «The Dalliance of the Eagles,» and «To a Common Prostitute,» but also passages vital to the life of a number of Whitman's greatest works, including «Song of Myself.» But the «Calamus» cluster with its songs of «manly love» was left intact!

In «A Backward Glance,» Whitman made his final assessment of the sex poems that had given him so many problems. Writing a bit after the most recent attempt to censor his book, whitman affirms boldly–» Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality…. Of this feature… I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted» (Poetry and Prose 518). A similar claim might have been made for the «Calamus» poems of adhesiveness; that no such claim was made was attributable, surely, to the fact that they had never inspired public controversy as had the sex poems.

The theme of death.

 

Whitman deals with death as a fact of life. Death in life is a fact, but life in death is a truth for Whitman; he is thus a poet of matter and of spirit.

Whitman’s view on death is reflective of his belief in Transcendentalism. In «Song of Myself», Whitman uses the scientific principle of Thermodynamics to assert that there is life after death, because energy cannot be destroyed; only transformed. In stanza six, he writes «And what do you think has become of the women and children? / they are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprouts shows there is really no death». Death contends that life remains long after death, and to find him now all one must do is look «under your boot-soles».

Lincoln’s death influenced Whitman’s works a lot too.

The death of Abraham Lincoln had a profound impact on Walt Whitman and his writing. It is the subject of one of his most highly regarded and critically examined pieces, «When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed» (1865–1866) and one of his best-known poems, «O Captain! My Captain!» (1865–1866). Whitman also delivered (sporadically) annual public lectures commemorating Lincoln's death beginning in April 1879. Although the two never met, Whitman and Lincoln, both deeply committed to the Union, remain intertwined in Whitman's writing and in American mythology.

Whitman intensely admired Lincoln from the late 1850s onward, remarking at one point, «After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else» (Traubel 38). On the Friday of 14 April 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., Whitman was in New York and read about the assassination in the daily newspapers and extras.

His first poem responding to Lincoln's death came only a couple of days later when he added to Drum-Taps (1865), already in press, a short piece titled «Hushed Be the Camps To-day» (1865). Although it ends solemnly with «the heavy hearts of soldiers,» this public commemoration of Lincoln's funeral–spoken to the poet by and for Union soldiers–asks us to «celebrate» his death as it remembers «the love we bore him.» «Hushed Be the Camps To-day» is not one of Whitman's best-known poems, but it is significant not merely because it was his first poetic word on Lincoln's death, but also because it exemplifies the primary features that generally characterize Whitman's poetic treatment of Lincoln's death: as in «Lilacs,» the poem mourns for the dead but celebrates death; it identifies Lincoln's death with the coming of peace; and it remembers Lincoln not because he was a great leader or conqueror but because he was well-loved. The poem also associates Lincoln with the war's ordinary soldiers, an association that prefigures «Lilacs» and its treatment of Lincoln's death as a metonymy for all the war dead.

«Hushed Be the Camps To-day» and the other Lincoln poems («Lilacs,» «O Captain!,» and «This Dust Was Once the Man» [1871]) never mention Lincoln by name. As some critics have noted, Whitman had no need in the postbellum era to refer directly to Lincoln because his readers would easily recognize these poems as elegies for President Lincoln. Later, after the immediacy of Lincoln's death had faded into historical memory, Whitman identified the subject of these poems by grouping the four of them together, first in a cluster titled «President Lincoln's Burial Hymn» in an annex to Passage to India (1871) and later in the «Memories of President Lincoln» cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Other critics believe that the lack of direct reference to Lincoln indicates the poet's attempt to address universal themes.

Whitman does, of course, use Lincoln's death to talk about subjects beyond the events at Ford's Theater, including the subject of death itself. In «Lilacs,» Whitman reconciles himself and the nation to Lincoln's death and death in general by fashioning the historical fact of the assassination and burial into a spiritual embrace of death in which death becomes both a personal and a national regeneration and cleansing. The treatment of Lincoln's death in «Lilacs» is famous for its symbolism and its formal, musical qualities. Indeed the poem relentlessly transforms its historical content into symbols. Lincoln as a person disappears only to reappear as a «western fallen star» and as the evoked metonymic associations of the poems other symbols and images–coffin, lilacs, cloud, and the hermit thrush's song.

Whitman's handling of Lincoln's death in the lectures diametrically reverses the musical, ethereal, often abstract, heavily symbolized style of «Lilacs.» In his lecture on the» death of Abraham Lincoln» (1879), Whitman depicts the scene of the murder with dramatic immediacy, as if he were an eyewitness. The narration is suspenseful, detailed, and focuses on specifics (sometimes minutiae). Although Whitman was not an eyewitness, his close companion, Peter Doyle, was at Ford's Theater, and Whitman made impressive use of Doyle's story in his imaginative retelling. In the lecture, the president's murder is not a bizarre denouement to an inevitable war but rather the culmination of and solution to all the historic, national conflicts of the Civil War era. Lincoln's death becomes a metaphor for the bloody war itself and the climax of a lofty tragic drama that redeems the Union. Whitman's lecture turns Lincoln's assassination into the ceremonial sacrifice that gives new life to the nation.

Whitman's Lincoln possessed an undeniably heroic stature. Whitman called him «the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century» (Prose Works 2:604). Still, the poet did not merely apotheosize the dead president; he also transformed Lincoln and his death into a symbolic referent for thoughts on the war, comradeship, democracy, union, and death. Perhaps best exemplified by the «Lilacs» elegy, Lincoln's death became the event around which Whitman twined so sadly and beautifully his understanding of death's affiliation with love.

The theme of war

 

If to begin discussion of the war poems, we should see how the experience of fratricidal war might affect Whitman as the poet of national union. This will lead to reflections on the tragedy of the Civil War. The poems of Drum-Taps – which proceed from militant exultation, to the actual experience of war, to demobilization and reconciliation–might be read as an attempt to place the butchery of the war within a poetic and ultimately regenerative design. Ask the students to compare Whitman's war poems with his earlier poems. They are at once more formally controlled and more realistic–stylistic changes that are linked with the war context. «A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown» and «The Artilleryman's Vision» are proto-modern poems in which the individual appears as an actor in a drama of history he no longer understands nor controls. Whitman's ambivalence about black emancipation is evident in «Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.» «Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night» and «As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado» are particularly effective in suggesting the ways the wartime context of male bonding and comradeship gave Whitman a legitimate language and social frame within which to express his love for men.


Transcendentalism

 

Transcendentalism, which originated with German philosophers, became a powerful movement in New England between 1815 and 1836. Emerson’s Nature (1836) was a manifesto of American transcendental thought. It implied that the true reality is the spirit and that it lies beyond the reach or realm of the senses. The area of sensory perceptions must be transcended to reach the spiritual reality. American transcendentalism accepted the findings of contemporary science as materialistic counterparts of spiritual achievement. Whitman’s «Passage to India» demonstrates this approach. The romanticist in Whitman is combined with the transcendentalist in him. His quest for transcendental truths is highly individualistic and therefore his thought, like Emerson’s, is often unsystematic and prophetic.

Personalism

 

Whitman used the term «personalism» to indicate the fusion of the individual with the community in an ideal democracy. He believed that every man at the time of his birth receives an identity, and this identity is his «soul.» The soul, finding its abode in man, is individualized, and man begins to develop his personality. The main idea of personalism is that the person is the be-all of all things; it is the source of consciousness and the senses. One is because God is; therefore, man and God are one–one personality. Man’s personality craves immortality because it desires to follow the personality of God. This idea is in accord with Whitman’s notion of the self. Man should first become himself, which is also the way of coming closer to God. Man should comprehend the divine soul within him and realize his identity and the true relationship between himself and God. This is the doctrine of personalism.


Conclusion

 

Walt Whitman’s achievement as a poet and prophet is truly monumental. He exercised a deep influence on his immediate successors in American letters, and even on modern poets, although he himself was a highly individualistic poet. As a symbolist, his influence was felt in Europe, where he was considered the greatest poet America had yet produced. His high style and elevated expression found echoes in Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, and others. Whitman as a stylist is the culmination of the sublime tradition in America, and even Allen Ginsberg, so different from Whitman in so many respects, follows the Whitman tradition of using invocative language. Whitman, though a man of his age, an essentially nineteenth-century poet, exercised a profound influence on twentieth-century poets and modern poetry in the use of language, in the processes of symbol and image-making, in exercising great freedom in meter and form, and in cultivating the individualistic mode. In many ways Whitman is modern because he is prophetic; he is a poet not only of America but of the whole of mankind. He has achieved the Olympian stature and the rare distinction of a world poet.

In our work we analyzed features of Walt Whitman’s style. We tried to study his literary techniques and also showed philosophical basics of his works.

We think that we have done all our tasks rather well. We achieved a deep analyze of some of his works and viewed the poetical techniques of Walt Whitman and the uniqueness of his style.

 

 


List of Literature

 

1. Allen, Gay W. A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman 1970.

2. Kinnell, Galway. «Introduction.» The Essential Whitman New York: The Ecco Press, 1987. 3–12.

3. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. USA 1961

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