Classic Poetry Spotlight: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Two weeks ago we focused on the English poet Shakespeare and the form of poetry he created, the Shakespearean sonnet. This week, we will talk about a famous American poet, Walt Whitman, and one of his most famous works, a poetry collection entitled Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the most influential American poets and is often referred to as the father of free verse, an open style of poetry that does not conform to any specific rhyme scheme or pattern.

leaves of grass

This week, we will talk about a famous American poet, Walt Whitman, and one of his most famous works, a poetry collection entitled Leaves of Grass.

Reaction of the Public to Leaves of Grass

Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, where it was immediately dismissed as being obscene and offensive.  However, as he revised, rewrote, and attempted to republish the collection (which he continued to do until his death in 1892), he began to gain the interest and approval of other prestigious people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Leaves of Grass was intended to be the first American epic, following the style of previously written European epics like Paradise Lost and Beowulf and drawing on the format of the Bible.

Whitman’s Subject Matter

Walt Whitman wanted Leaves of Grass to be a celebration of his own life, as well as the body and the material world. He deems the human mind and body as worthy of praise, something that had rarely if ever been done before by poets in the past. It was for this reason that many deemed the work to be immoral, as it glorified the human body and described sexuality in a way that was taboo at the time. Before Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, American poetry tended to focus on religious and spiritual experiences as well as symbolism and allegory. Take a look at an excerpt from one of the individual poems within Leaves of Grass:

Song of Myself

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

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil,
this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and
their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never
forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

 

Take a stab at writing a free verse poem like Leaves of Grass. If you like what you write, consider submitting it to our poetry contest and show your work to the world!

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