Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are a number of editions of this collection of poems, as Whitman apparently continued to revise it right up until his death. The 1855 edition is popular but there is a “Deathbed Edition” which–as the name implies–is the closest thing to a final draft that exists.
Back in the day (the late 19th century), this was considered racy and controversial stuff, and the collection got Whitman fired from is civil service job as well as a great many vitriol-filled reviews. Like the works of Emerson and Thoreau, with whom Whitman shared some beliefs, it was also controversial in that the poem put man at the fore and religion was shunted out of the picture. (Trust in yourself and don’t blindly follow anyone was still a heretical notion among many at the time.) This isn’t to say that Whitman eliminated spirituality from his work (any more than Emerson did), references to the soul are commonplace—but it’s a mystic spirituality. There were features outside the “prurient” and religious that angered many, such as Whitman’s shining of light on the barbaric institution of slavery. However, today Leaves of Grass is considered one of America’s greatest and most beloved works of poetry, and for good reason. It beautifully reflects an America that was changing, an America subject to a new era of ideas both from science and from distant lands.
It should be noted that this is a life’s work. If you are expecting a typically thin poetry collection, you will be in for a surprise. Leaves of Grass is of a page count normally reserved for histories and epic novels. The collection consists of 35 “Books” that are quasi-themed sub-collections of poems. Individual poems vary greatly with some being only a few lines and some running for pages. Most of the poems are free verse, though there are sections that display a meter (specifically iambic pentameter.) Free verse is poetry without meter or rhyme. If you didn’t know there was such poetry, you may want to work through your Doctor Seuss before you crack open a tome like this one.
There are a few themes that are repeatedly revisited. One idea that made the collection so controversial is that it exalted in the human form and the physicality of humanity. In recent years, a lot of discussion of this work revolves around whether Whitman was or wasn’t homosexual or bisexual. Not that it matters, but the fact is there is a dearth of information about what form of sexuality Whitman practiced—if any, but one can imagine why people wondered. Whitman writes descriptively about both the male and female forms, and was not shy about verse that suggested lying with this gender in one poem and the other in the next. The poem “I Sing the Body Electric” is probably the most famous example of Whitman’s discussion of the body.
However, perhaps the most striking theme is a celebration of America, both in its natural state and as it was shaped by the people who settled there. In multiple poems one sees long strings of description and exposition about the various states of the United States. Whitman paints pictures of the nation as a collage showing the variations among its constituent parts. To a lesser extent, he does the same for the world (e.g. see Book VI.)
I enjoyed this collection, although I will admit I read it a bit here and a bit there over a long time period. I, therefore, probably missed some of the depth of meaning coming from how the poems were arranged. Maybe someday I’ll have time to go back and read it once more. However, the beauty of this collection is that it’s so many different things. It meanders like a river, and peers overland with an eagle-eyed view. It offers scenes that are like a hard-boiled work of film noir and ones that are like Ansel Adams pictures. It’s not anti-god, but rather about the god within, or the god within the blade of grass. Leaves of Grass offers brilliant turns of phrase, bold descriptions, and always interspersed with the author’s personal philosophy.
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