Walt Whitman, as an American poet, is crucial in setting up a democratic and political vision for America to strive towards, especially in a time when American poetry was trying to break away from the conventions of British verse and finding a foothold in the “New World” (after America declared independence from Britain in 1776). The challenge was to look towards a glorious future for America to celebrate through verses as opposed to British verse that celebrated the glories of the past. Most of Whitman’s poems either celebrate this democratic ideal or, in times of growing scepticism, aim to defend it.
The Civil War (1861-1865) had brought to the fore America’s growing diversity, and the glaring issued=s of repression and slavery. With America being touted a disparate nation, the question being asked was “Whose America?” The debate centred around whether America was one nation or many. The rising scepticism and contradiction of Whitman’s vision instigated him to defend his ideal, which is ostensible in poems like “A Passage to India”, which is almost hyperbolic. It is more a celebration of America than an interpretation of it, as the following excerpt demonstrates:-
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires,
I sound, to commence, the cry, with thee, O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!
Some of Whitman’s poems, however, are also speckled with elements of disillusionment. “O Captain My Captain!”, a poem lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln, is remorseful in tone. He juxtaposes the tragedy of his captain’s death with the celebration of victory, of reaching their goal:-
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
With this poem, Whitman shows an awareness of the price being paid to achieve an ideal, but the vision itself remains intact.
It is clear that his democratic vision was in a constant state of flux. He did critique the racial prejudices rooted in the American society, but he was unwilling to give up the American dream. He spent his entire life defining and interpreting America; a struggle that is paralleled in the fact that he kept editing and re-editing Leaves of Grass (his most famous anthology of poems) throughout his life.
It is because of the the way in which he envisioned and carried his role as a writer in a tumultuous American society that Walt Whitman is still revered today. After all, it is the ability to hold one’s ground and make oneself heard over all the noise that makes a writer immortal. True, society creates poetry. Whitman’s society affected him greatly, but the reason he is still commemorated today is because his poetry had strength enough to affect his society in an equally, if not more, significant way.