It took me quite a while, but I finally finished reading all of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. My overall feeling is that I now have a deep sense of who Walt Whitman was and what it was like to be an American during that period in history.
Whitman’s poems parallel his own journey through life, from youth to old age, as well as the coming of age of America as a country. I see the poems structured into four categories: youth/pre-Civil War; early adult/Civil War; adult/post Civil War; and old age/the future.
The earlier poems reflect a youthful optimism, both for himself and the young America. The poems exude wonder and the promise of infinite possibility. Whitman captures the growth of the new country and is thrilled by everything that it has to offer.
Then came the Civil War and the poems take on a sense of boldness as he struggles to make sense of the chaos around him. Common themes of turbulent waters appear in these poems, as he must have felt himself tossed about by the throes of war. During this period, Whitman served as a medic and witnessed first-hand the graphic horror of warfare.
When the war ended, Whitman was a mature adult, and the poems from this period reflect this maturity as he ponders the change in America. The assassination of President Lincoln at this time also figures prominently, most notably in “O Captain! My Captain!” (see my earlier blog post about this poem).
Finally, in old age, Whitman’s poems become reflective on his past, his earlier writings, and the future. He meditates on what his legacy may be and what lays ahead for the country that meant so much to him. He sums this up beautifully in the poem “L. of G.’s Purport”:
Begun in ripen’d youth and steadily pursued,
Wandering, peering, dallying with all–war, peace, day and night absorbing,
Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task,
I end it here in sickness, poverty, and old age.
I could continue to write about the poems in this book, but poetry should really be experienced on a personal level. I encourage you to buy a nice hardcover or leather-bound version of this book and spend the time reading through it. It may not be the greatest collection of poems ever written, but I would venture to say it is the greatest collection of American poems ever written.