AD's English Literature : Whitman’s Modernity: American Spokesman for Democratic Literature

Whitman’s Modernity: American Spokesman for Democratic Literature

'I celebrate myself, and sing myself ...' Leaves of Grass, 'Song of Myself,' 

  The civil war proved a turning-point in the political and literary history of America. The nation ushered in a new era of modern reconstruction. Very suitably the period following it may be regarded as the period of the beginning of modern American literature, which flowered in a fresh and free atmosphere. The writer generally broke away from the past practices. Amongst others, Walt Whitman was one of the singers of the American nation and people in poetry. He struck certain technical innovations, which are briefly to be discussed here, and which made him immediately the poet of modernity, modern age, its customs, scenes and occurrences. It is in this sense that he was a modern poet.  Whitman issued the first   edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) which is far different from sentimental rhymed verses and where he immodestly praised the human body and glorified the senses. In a long preface he announced a new democratic literature, “commensurate with a people,” simple and unconquerable, written by a new kind of poet who was affectionate, brawny, and heroic and who would lead by the force of his magnetic personality.

Whitman was the poet of the new-born American democracy, as perhaps no other writer of his age was. He tried to embrace the whole of America-an impassive task for a poet. His poetry is the true reflection of the going on in nation. This was a new time needed most and what Emerson had desired some one great to be. His unorthodox, personal, and dynamic poetic style disregarded traditional rules of rhyme and meter which perfectly voice his modernity in style. His verses celebrate individuality, sensuality, fertility, and nature.
  Whitman succeeded in singing of America:

“I here America singing, the varied colars I here,

Those of mechanics….

The carpenter singing his as he measured his plank or beal….

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,”

He celebrated the westward course of empire. He found his subjects among all sorts and conditions: his cataloguers symbolize the equalizing processes of democracy. He asserted “the majesty and reality of the American people.”

Whitman saw American   as a nation of free individuals. Newton Arvin’s view the Whitman desired a “socialist” state is difficult to accept. Despite his fondness for the phrase en masse, his poetry everywhere exalts the individual. The opening lines of Song of Myself announce Walt Whitman’s American idealism and exuberant trust in the innate value of the individual. The second line, “And what I assume you shall assume,” creates an imperative relationship between reader and poet which is to last the 1336 lines of the poem. Whitman’s bold poetry is written in nontraditional, free-flowing verse and celebrates all things and peoples. Thus, to Whitman as to Emerson, the individual was supreme.

“All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me;

Now on this spot l stand with my robust soul.”

Whitman’s poetry was original and revolutionary and indisputably American  . He broke with the conventions and traditions of English verse. Of the composition of his poems, he said, ‘I had great trouble in leaving out the stock ‘poetical’ touches, but succeeded at last.” He employed free rhythms which are comparable with those of the Old Testament. Despite critical opinions being divided on the assessment of Whitman’s poetic worth, there can be question of his power and influence.

Whitman observes:

“Of life immense in passion pulse and power,

Cheerful, for freest action from’d under the laws diving, the modern man l sing,”

It is the chant of “modern man” that inevitable marks Whitman a ‘modern’ poet. To a reader of Whitman’s poetry it becomes obvious that the greatest contribution made by Walt Whitman to the growth of American poetry is his overall change of the existing form and his use of free verse.

The world wanted a prophet of democracy, and Whitman was there. It offered him the grass as a symbol, and he accepted it with all gusto and zeal he made it the danger of a crusade for the establishment of a new order of society in which all should be equal, unsurpassed and great. He does not however, abnegate his own important role as a seer and as an American spokesman.

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