If you don’t think Walt Whitman was the best American poet in history, you can at least consider him the most American poet out of the best. His concern regarding the United States and the idea of America as something to be sought permeate through his work, perhaps more than any other preoccupation.
“Song of Myself” is probably his most recognized poem, and though it would seem highly self-centered, the truth about the poem is that the speaker isn’t necessarily Whitman himself but a single voice, also called Walt Whitman, that “contains multitudes.” The interesting thing about this poem is that songs or epic poems are usually dedicated to heroes that have performed incredible feats, usually legendary kings, great warriors, adventurers, or just rulers. Whitman, however, set out to write an epic poem to the common people.
“I Hear America Singing,” he names several of the workers who make America, or the America of the time, at least, and glorifies their acute sense of individuality. He has been called the poet of democracy and the father of free verse. Though Whitman’s poetry is highly rhythmic, it’s not constrained to specific forms. Free verse, however, sought to imitate common speak and offered verse that could be read and appreciated by everyone. His themes also reflect a concern with the nation, the individual, the body, everyday people, life, and work. And, most importantly, Whitman is concerned with equality. That’s just about American as it gets.
Speaking of equality, critics and historians often debate about Whitman’s actual sexuality, but whatever the man identified as, his poetry is what matters. “Calamus” is probably the most overtly homoerotic of his poems, but we have selected passages from “Song of Myself” that capture this spirit even better. There’s plenty of that, actually, but the significance of it is how ahead of his time Whitman was.
Though homosexuality is as old as time, an early reception of Leaves of Grass expresses rejection of what were overtly homosexual passages, suggesting Whitman was guilty of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” Whitman’s sexuality was debated in his own time and people even often asked him about it directly; others provided secondhand testimonies of it. Although Whitman denied any such thing, he didn’t shy away from writing about it. You could even call him a closeted gay, but there’s no doubt that Whitman was way ahead of his time.
Here are some of his most celebrated verses and quotes, some of which are poems in their entirety. We have categorized them under two themes: “Free, American, and proud” and “Song of myself: the gayest passages.”
Free, American, and Proud
1. From “I Hear America Sing”
“The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.”
2. From “America”
“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”
3. From the Preface to Leaves of Grass
“Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall…”
4. From the Preface to Leaves of Grass
“The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.”
5. From the Preface to Leaves of Grass
“The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
6. From “To Foreign Lands”
“I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.”
“Song of myself:” the gayest passages
“It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.”
“Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome”.
“His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens
over his hip-band,
His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of
his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the
black of his polish’d and perfect limbs.”
“The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him,
though I do not know him;)
His nostrils dilate as my heels embrace him,
His well-built limbs tremble with pleasure as we race around
I but use you a minute, then I resign you, stallion,
Why do I need your paces when I myself out-gallop them?
Even as I stand or sit passing faster than you.”