Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of

Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

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war's ordinary soldiers, an association that prefigures «Lilacs» and its treatment of Lincoln's death as a metonymy for all the war dead.

«Hushed Be the Camps To-day» and the other Lincoln poems («Lilacs,» «O Captain!,» and «This Dust Was Once the Man» [1871]) never mention Lincoln by name. As some critics have noted, Whitman had no need in the postbellum era to refer directly to Lincoln because his readers would easily recognize these poems as elegies for President Lincoln. Later, after the immediacy of Lincoln's death had faded into historical memory, Whitman identified the subject of these poems by grouping the four of them together, first in a cluster titled «President Lincoln's Burial Hymn» in an annex to Passage to India (1871) and later in the «Memories of President Lincoln» cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Other critics believe that the lack of direct reference to Lincoln indicates the poet's attempt to address universal themes.

Whitman does, of course, use Lincoln's death to talk about subjects beyond the events at Ford's Theater, including the subject of death itself. In «Lilacs,» Whitman reconciles himself and the nation to Lincoln's death and death in general by fashioning the historical fact of the assassination and burial into a spiritual embrace of death in which death becomes both a personal and a national regeneration and cleansing. The treatment of Lincoln's death in «Lilacs» is famous for its symbolism and its formal, musical qualities. Indeed the poem relentlessly transforms its historical content into symbols. Lincoln as a person disappears only to reappear as a «western fallen star» and as the evoked metonymic associations of the poems other symbols and imagescoffin, lilacs, cloud, and the hermit thrush's song.

Whitman's handling of Lincoln's death in the lectures diametrically reverses the musical, ethereal, often abstract, heavily symbolized style of «Lilacs.» In his lecture on the» death of Abraham Lincoln» (1879), Whitman depicts the scene of the murder with dramatic immediacy, as if he were an eyewitness. The narration is suspenseful, detailed, and focuses on specifics (sometimes minutiae). Although Whitman was not an eyewitness, his close companion, Peter Doyle, was at Ford's Theater, and Whitman made impressive use of Doyle's story in his imaginative retelling. In the lecture, the president's murder is not a bizarre denouement to an inevitable war but rather the culmination of and solution to all the historic, national conflicts of the Civil War era. Lincoln's death becomes a metaphor for the bloody war itself and the climax of a lofty tragic drama that redeems the Union. Whitman's lecture turns Lincoln's assassination into the ceremonial sacrifice that gives new life to the nation.

Whitman's Lincoln possessed an undeniably heroic stature. Whitman called him «the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century» (Prose Works 2:604). Still, the poet did not merely apotheosize the dead president; he also transformed Lincoln and his death into a symbolic referent for thoughts on the war, comradeship, democracy, union, and death. Perhaps best exemplified by the «Lilacs» elegy, Lincoln's death became the event around which Whitman twined so sadly and beautifully his understanding of death's affiliation with love.


The theme of war


If to begin discussion of the war poems, we should see how the experience of fratricidal war might affect Whitman as the poet of national union. This will lead to reflections on the tragedy of the Civil War. The poems of Drum-Taps which proceed from militant exultation, to the actual experience of war, to demobilization and reconciliationmight be read as an attempt to place the butchery of the war within a poetic and ultimately regenerative design. Ask the students to compare Whitman's war poems with his earlier poems. They are at once more formally controlled and more realisticstylistic changes that are linked with the war context. «A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown» and «The Artilleryman's Vision» are proto-modern poems in which the individual appears as an actor in a drama of history he no longer understands nor controls. Whitman's ambivalence about black emancipation is evident in «Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.» «Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night» and «As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado» are particularly effective in suggesting the ways the wartime context of male bonding and comradeship gave Whitman a legitimate language and social frame within which to express his love for men.




Transcendentalism, which originated with German philosophers, became a powerful movement in New England between 1815 and 1836. Emersons Nature (1836) was a manifesto of American transcendental thought. It implied that the true reality is the spirit and that it lies beyond the reach or realm of the senses. The area of sensory perceptions must be transcended to reach the spiritual reality. American transcendentalism accepted the findings of contemporary science as materialistic counterparts of spiritual achievement. Whitmans «Passage to India» demonstrates this approach. The romanticist in Whitman is combined with the transcendentalist in him. His quest for transcendental truths is highly individualistic and therefore his thought, like Emersons, is often unsystematic and prophetic.




Whitman used the term «personalism» to indicate the fusion of the individual with the community in an ideal democracy. He believed that every man at the time of his birth receives an identity, and this identity is his «soul.» The soul, finding its abode in man, is individualized, and man begins to develop his personality. The main idea of personalism is that the person is the be-all of all things; it is the source of consciousness and the senses. One is because God is; therefore, man and God are oneone personality. Mans personality craves immortality because it desires to follow the personality of God. This idea is in accord with Whitmans notion of the self. Man should first become himself, which is also the way of coming closer to God. Man should comprehend the divine soul within him and realize his identity and the true relationship between himself and God. This is the doctrine of personalism.





Walt Whitmans achievement as a poet and prophet is truly monumental. He exercised a deep influence on his immediate successors in American letters, and even on modern poets, although he himself was a highly individualistic poet. As a symbolist, his influence was felt in Europe, where he was considered the greatest poet America had yet produced. His high style and elevated expression found echoes in Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, and others. Whitman as a stylist is the culmination of the sublime tradition in America, and even Allen Ginsberg, so different from Whitman in so many respects, follows the Whitman tradition of using invocative language. Whitman, though a man of his age, an essentially nineteenth-century poet, exercised a profound influence on twentieth-century poets and modern poetry in the use of language, in the processes of symbol and image-making, in exercising great freedom in meter and form, and in cultivating the individualistic mode. In many ways Whitman is modern because he is prophetic; he is a poet not only of America but of the whole of mankind. He has achieved the Olympian stature and the rare distinction of a world poet.

In our work we analyzed features of Walt Whitmans style. We tried to study his literary techniques and also showed philosophical basics of his works.

We think that we have done all our tasks rather well. We achieved a deep analyze of some of his works and viewed the poetical techniques of Walt Whitman and the uniqueness of his style.



List of Literature


  1. Allen, Gay W. A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman 1970.
  2. Kinnell, Galway. «Introduction.» The Essential Whitman New York: The Ecco Press, 1987. 312.
  3. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. USA 1961

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