Walt Whitman: biography, works, phrases

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Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in the US state of New York. He had only a few years of formal study, but he worked on several US journals. In 1855 he published the first version of his book blades of grass, which was expanded in each edition, the ninth and last being published in 1892.

The poet, who died on March 26, 1892, in Camden, New Jersey, was forerunner of modernism.His poetry innovates by using free verse, unusual for the time. His best-known poem is “Song of Myself”, belonging to his famous book blades of grass.

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Topics in this article

  • 1 - Summary about Walt Whitman
  • 2 - Biography of Walt Whitman
  • 3 - Characteristics of Walt Whitman's work
  • 4 - Works by Walt Whitman
    • → Song of myself
  • 5 - Quotes by Walt Whitman

Summary about Walt Whitman

  • American author Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and died in 1892.

  • In addition to being a poet, he was also a journalist and wrote for several American periodicals.

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  • Whitman's work has traces of romantic transcendentalism, in addition to being a precursor of modernism.

  • His poems are innovative for the time and use free verse.

  • The writer's masterpiece is the poetry book blades of grass, which contains his famous poem “Song of myself”.

Walt Whitman biography

Walt Whitman born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, in the state of New York, United States. In 1823, the writer's family moved to the Brooklyn district of New York City. Two years later, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), on a visit to the city, embraced Whitman, a fact that has remained in the poet's memory.

The author had few years of formal education, studying in a public school from 1825 to 1830. He dropped out of school to work as an office boy. In 1832 he was apprenticed to the newspaper Long Island Patriot and later worked as a writer for the The Long Island Star. In 1838, he began to edit the newspaper long islander and also worked on Long Island Democrat.

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In 1841, became the editor of The New World, in New York, and wrote to the Democratic Review. Over the next three years, he also wrote for periodicals such as Aurora, Evening Tattler and mirror. In 1845 he worked at the Brooklyn Evening Star. The following year he became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In the year 1848, he was editor of the Brooklyn Weekly Freeman for a year. Then, the writer began to act as a journalist. In 1855 he published his masterpiece, blades of grass. However, the book was misunderstood by many critics and readers. He went on to write for Life Illustrated. As early as 1857, he became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times.

THE American Civil War began in 1861 and would last until 1865. During this period, Whitman worked as a journalist, and in 1863 he moved to Washington, where he worked in an army office. Two years later, he took a position at the Department of the Interior and attended the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).

In 1865, he was dismissed from office by Secretary of the Interior James Harlan (1820-1899), possibly for publishing poetry deemed obscene. But he was appointed to another post in the attorney general's office. That same year, he began a romantic relationship with streetcar conductor Peter Doyle (1843-1907).

Whitman went struck by a stroke in 1873. So he went to live in Camden, New Jersey, at his brother George's house. Seven years later, he took a trip to Canada. In 1882, he received a visit from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). That year, the Boston District Attorney filed a complaint against the new edition of blades of grass.

This only increased readers' interest in the work. In 1884, the poet bought a house in Camden with royalties from blades of grass. In the following years, he gave many lectures around the country. However, in 1888, he suffered another stroke. He died March 26, 1892, in Camden.

Features of Walt Whitman's work

Walt Whitman's work makes the transition between romantic transcendentalism and the modernism and has the following characteristics:

  • innovative character;

  • experimentation;

  • colloquialisms;

  • americanisms;

  • loanwords;

  • Slang;

  • neologisms;

  • long verses;

  • free verses;

  • syntactic parallelism;

  • repetitions;

  • irregular stanzas;

  • harmonization between the material and the spiritual;

  • biblical anaphoric structure;

  • cataloging people, places, etc.;

  • union of opposites;

  • themes such as:

  • democracy;

  • nature;

  • love;

  • friendship.

Read too: Lord Byron — English poet who marked the 19th century with his pessimistic writing

Works by Walt Whitman

 Cover of the book “Leaves of Grass”, by Walt Whitman, published by Hedra. [1]
Cover of the book “Leaves of Grass”, by Walt Whitman, published by Hedra. [1]

All his life Whitman worked on his work blades of grass. Thus, in each edition, I added more poems. The first edition took place in 1855. The ninth and definitive edition was published in 1892. In addition to this work, the poet also published:

  • exemplary days (1882);

  • November branches (1888);

  • Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman (1888).

song of myself

“Song of Myself”, from the book blades of grass, and the Whitman's most famous poem. This long poem is divided into 52 parts. In a fragmented way, it brings reflections, ideas and diverse facts that converge to a single point: the union between the “I” and the “other”. This work is associated with the poet's innermost being, as if in it he revealed himself and, thus, revealed the world.

O lyrical self identifies as Walt, that is, he is the poet himself. In this way, the poem is a tribute to the “I”, to subjectivity, but an “I” integrated into society, the collective, so that the “I” is all of us:

I celebrate myself, and sing to myself,
And what I assume, you assume,
For every atom belonging to me also belongs to you.

Despite showing respect for the past and, “taking everyone for what they are worth and not a penny more”, admitting “that they lived and carried out the work of their time”, he values ​​the present:

There has never been so much genesis as now,
Not so much youth or old age as now,
And there will never be as much perfection as now,
Not so much heaven or hell as now.

As part of many everyday facts and elements, the eroticism is also shown:

I remember how we once lay down on a transparent summer morning,
As you sat your head across my hips and gently turned me over,
And you opened the shirt on my chest and threw your tongue into my naked heart,
And you groped until you felt my beard and you groped until you felt my feet.

It celebrates everything and everyone, equates the extraordinary with the ordinary and values ​​people and everyday actions, such as:

The quadrarona is sold on the auction platform,
The drunk shakes his head beside the bar's greenhouse,
The engineer rolls up his sleeves, the policeman walks his rounds,
The porter marks who passes, the boy drives the express car,

(I love him even though I don't know him ;)

The lyrical self shows itself to be brotherly with everyone and reaffirms that its “self” is also the “other”:

I am the poet of woman as well as man,
And I say it's as good to be a woman as it is to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

He repeatedly attests to his communion with everything and everyone:

The disdain and calm of the martyrs,
The mother of yore, doomed by a witch, burned with dry wood, her children staring,
The harassed slave who staggers on the run, leans against the fence, puffing, covered in sweat,
The hooks that prick the legs and neck like needles, the murderous buckshot and bullets,
All this I feel or am.

It also gives space for one or another quick report, in order to merge poetry with narrative, as the “report of an old naval battle”, fable that “the sailor father of my grandmother told it to me”, the story of an American captain against an English enemy.

To talk about the passage of time, remember the lovers of youth:

My lovers suffocate me,
I press my lips, abundant in the pores of my skin,
Pushing me through the streets and public halls, coming naked at night,
screaming by day Hi! from the rocks of the river, waddling and chirping over my head,
Calling my name from flower beds, vines, tangled weeds,
Shining in every moment of my life,
Kissing my body with soft balsamic kisses,
Silently passing through handfuls of their hearts given to me.

Then comes old age “superbly rising” and the “welcome, intoxicating grace of the last moments”:

My date is set, he is right,
The Lord will be there and wait until I arrive in a perfect relationship,
The great Comrade, the true lover I long for will be there.

And is with the mention of death he ends the poem.To the idea of ​​death is added the insistent notion that the “I” is the “other”, that we are one. This is the essence of “Song of myself”, the sense of union, of communion, the certainty that we belong to humanity, of that there is no superiority of one being over another, that we are all part of a whole and have the same importance and the same The end:

I surrender to the ground to sprout from the grass I love,
If you want me again, look for me under the soles of your boots.

Failing to regain myself at first doesn't lose heart,
Wrong one place search in another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.|1|

Quotes by Walt Whitman

Next, let's read some quotes from Walt Whitman, taken from his poem “Song of Myself”. We made an adaptation and turned his verses into prose:

“I don’t talk about the beginning or the end.”

“Clear and soft is my soul and clear and soft is everything that is not my soul.”

“I know that the hand of God is the promise of mine.”

“I am the partner and companion of people, all as immortal and unfathomable as myself.”

“I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul.”

“My voice seeks what my eyes cannot reach.”

“I refuse to expel what I really am from myself.”

"To touch my person in someone else's person is about as much as I can bear."

“I believe that a blade of grass is no less than the journey of the stars.”


|1|Translation by Gentil Saraiva Júnior.

image credits

[1] Edittnow hedra (reproduction)

By Warley Souza
Literature teacher

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