"The handerkechief of the Lord": Leaves of Grass

Poet Walt Whitman, whose most famous work is Leaves of Grass, is, after more than a century, still controversial both as a poet and as a person.

The young Walt Whitman
His poetry was startlingly straight-forward, even blunt, in its strong emotional impact, vivid images, and earthy subject matter, raising concerns as to its appropriateness among the more conservative members of the American public. Whitman is usually called a "Romantic" poet, defined this way:

"Romantic poets cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural" (poets.org).

Whitman's most famous work, "Leaves of Grass," is a collection of verse that ranges across many topics:

1. Whitman's poetry celebrated the common people rather than the heroes of Classical poetry:

I Hear America Singing

Walt Whitman1819 - 1892
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
     and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
     deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
     as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
     morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
     work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
     fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Ralf Roletschek / fahrradmonteur.de
2. Also from "Leaves of Grass," here's a conversation about simple, common, everyday grass:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

3. Whitman was, and still is, a poet of the people rather than of the elite. He fashioned the everyday into the extraordinary while keeping it grounded in common experience. 

This paradoxical approach to the sanctity and glory of daily life was shocking to an American public that was more comfortable with hero-worship of a few extraordinary people and with looking up to unattainable ideals.

Hercules, Farnese type, Louvre

Whitman shook this complacency; no longer could the "average American" distance himself or herself from heroism, leaving the burden of acting a a hero to an admired few. Whitman insisted that each person is a hero; he turned a spotlight on each person's life and attitudes, illuminating the courage and commitment that each person can live out, regardless of his or her wealth and education.

While you might imagine that the "common person" would appreciate this attention, the truth is that many people prefer to keep their heroes at arm's length. It's uncomfortable to be so conscious of one's own behavior, especially when it is decidedly un-heroic. Whitman's poetry placed a weight of expectation that each person would be worthy of the admiration he expressed. Better to leave admiration for a few certified heroes.

4. Whitman challenged conventional views of the relationship between God and the individual, advocating a much more fluid and flexible concept:

"Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,        140
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul."

Troodon, Perot Museum by Greg Heartsfield
5. As well, Whitman's open celebration of human sexuality (including allusions to homosexuality, still a taboo topic during his lifetime) was shocking to those who prefer to keep sex undercover:

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the
   night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread.
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house
   with their plenty,
Gullah basket, courtesy Bubba73 (Jud McCranie)



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