Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. This monumental work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, and found beauty and reassurance even in death.
Along with Emily Dickinson, Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most significant nineteenth century poets. Born on Long Island, Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and received limited formal education. His occupations during his lifetime included printer, schoolteacher, reporter, and editor. Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass was inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. This important publication underwent eight subsequent editions during his lifetime as Whitman expanded and revised the poetry and added more to the original collection of twelve poems. Emerson himself declared the first edition was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Whitman published his own enthusiastic review of Leaves of Grass. Critics and readers alike, however, found both Whitman’s style and subject matter unnerving. According to The Longman Anthology of Poetry, “Whitman received little public acclaim for his poems during his lifetime for several reasons: this openness regarding sex, his self-presentation as a rough working man, and his stylistic innovations.” A poet who “abandoned the regular meter and rhyme patterns” of his contemporaries, Whitman was “influenced by the long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry.” Upon publishing Leaves of Grass, Whitman was subsequently fired from his job with the Department of the Interior. Despite his mixed critical reception in the U.S., he was favorably received in England, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne among the British writers who celebrated his work.
During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington, DC. For three years, he visited soldiers during his spare time, dressing wounds and giving solace to the injured. These experiences led to the poems in his 1865 publication, Drum-Taps, which includes, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln.
After suffering a serious stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to his brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey. While his poetry failed to garner popular attention from his American readership during his lifetime, over 1,000 people came to view his funeral. And as the first writer of a truly American poetry, Whitman’s legacy endures. According to The Longman Anthology of Poetry, Whitman’s “ambition, expansiveness, and embrace of all the high and low features of American life influenced many poets of the twentieth century, including D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Allen Ginsberg.”
You can read and inspect many of Whitman's books, letters, and manuscripts at the Walt Whitman Archive, a digital edition directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Poems By WALT WHITMAN
- "Are you the new person drawn toward me?"
- "Out of the rolling ocean the crowd"
- Song of Myself: 35
- Song of Myself: 36
- A Glimpse
More poems by Walt Whitman (40 poems)
- A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown
- A Noiseless Patient Spider
- from A Passage to India
- As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life
- Beat! Beat! Drums!
- Come Up from the Fields Father
- Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
- For You O Democracy
- Gliding O'er All
- I Hear America Singing
- I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing
- I Sing the Body Electric
- O Captain! My Captain!
- O Me! O Life!
- O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy
- On the Beach at Night
- On the Beach at Night Alone
- One's-Self I Sing
- Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
- Patroling Barnegat
- Sometimes with One I Love
- Song of Myself
- Song of the Open Road
- from The Sleepers
- The World Below the Brine
- The Wound-Dresser
- Time to Come
- To the States,
- Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night
- When I Heard at the Close of the Day
- When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
- Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand
Articles About WALT WHITMAN
Audio & PodcastsPoetry Off the Shelf
Democracy in America
Walt Whitman and the politics of the Civil War.
Looking for God with A.R. Ammons
Paul Giamatti reads "A Noiseless Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman and Charlotte Maier reads "Hymn" by A.R. Ammons.
Passing Stranger: East Village Poetry Walk
Excerpts from the tour narrated by Jim Jarmusch
Poems to Read at Gay and Lesbian Weddings
Celebrating queer love and same-sex marriage.
Eleannor Wilner on Whitman; David St. John on Larry Levis.
Was Whitman Really Gay?
A bar fight in the East Village settles it.
Lincoln and Lilacs
When Lincoln died in 1865, Walt Whitman wrote a poem in his memory called "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd." 80 years later, after the death of another president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Paul Hindemith set Whitman's poem to music. Elizabeth Alexander discusses the music of Whitman's poem, the poet's relationship with Lincoln, and what artists have to offer in times of great national tragedy.