Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between people, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges and schools — democracy in all public and private life…. (Whitman, Democratic Vistas)
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Thus speaks Walt Whitman on how everyday life is democracy to him. “Whitman conceives of democracy as freedom from restraint, as liberty to do as one pleases” (Ford, Conception). The very idea of democracy is not for politics but for the people themselves in everything that they do, say, or even feel. By examining Whitman’s works we can see his democratic theory constantly portrayed throughout them and how in his lifetime it altered with major events like the Civil War and him coming face to face with the iniquities of war.
Walter “Walt” Whitman born 1819 was an American poet and is often called the father of free verse. Whitman’s own admiration for democracy can be at least attributed to his parents, who showed their own admiration for their country by naming Whitman’s younger brothers after their American heroes. At the age of 17, Whitman decided to teach and then in 1841 He decided to set his sights on journalism becoming interested in the working of political democracy. He started off with a weekly paper and then later became an editor in New York. In 1848 Whitman moved to New Orleans to be an editor for a magazine, while he was there for only a short time he saw the horrors of slavery and fully understand the depravity of it. In 1862 he moved to Washington, D.C. and helped with wounded veterans, all the way contemplating on the Civil war (Walt Whitman. Bio.com).
Whitman celebrates democracy in many of his works and his idea of the individual relative to democracy is a nation as a unified whole made up of unique but equal individuals. In the poem One’s – Self I Sing (Whitman, Leaves of Grass) Whitman celebrates the unique individual but also “the word Democracy, the word En-masse”. This poem emphasizes and praises the value of the individual living within democratic society. The last stanza speaks of Whitman’s concept of unrestrained freedom, “freest action form’d, under the laws divineâ€¦” and “[sings] Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and powerâ€¦” Whitman singles out the word “Cheerful” referencing to how this theory of life is a joyous one.
ONE’S-SELF I sing-a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.
Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse-I say the Form complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful-for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
The relation to a democracy is that if founded on human rights is, as noted by Edward Dowden in The Poetry of Democracy “The essential thing which gives one the freedom of the world is not to be born a man of this or that rank, or class, or caste, but simply to be born a man” is what gives life worth living for. The second stanza focusing more on the subject of Whitman’s poem and following poetry in Leaves of Grass, speaking of “The Female equally with the maleâ€¦” and “Physiology from top to toe I sing” saying how Whitman will use everything to “sing” the individual and democracy. Whitman references his critics of saying that the common person is not a subject of poetry with multiple statements of “ONE’S-SELF I sing-a simple, separate Person” making note of the praise of a simple man and then “the word En-masse” showing the brotherhood of the mass of people that are subjects worthy of poetry. Another portion of the second stanza in One’s-Self I Sing Whitman writes “Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse-I say the Form complete is worthier farâ€¦” The “Form” is the unity of everything from the mind, the soul, to the beauty of the individual. He ends the poem by completing his reference to the common man by stating “The Modern Man I sing”
“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 work,
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” (Whitman. Leaves of Grass).
This beautiful poem by Walt Whitman titled I hear America Singing speaks volumes of Whitman’s pride in the common man and in democracy itself. In the first line “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear” Whitman is hearing many versions of the songs of the people. While he doesn’t state whether the singing is joyous or sorrowful or just for the sake of singing, he is referencing on how America is a diverse culture or has many faces and stories thus having “varied carols”.
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The next few lines mention multiple positions in the workforce each being “blithe and strong.” Whitman is expressing how everyone has a story from high to low and although each is different, they all have their freedom to do so. No matter their financial position or class each story is robust and lighthearted. The last part on the poem speaks of the women in America with Whitman wring of the freedom women enjoy in America with the line “each singing what belongsâ€¦ to her.” Whitman’s main idea of this poem is that America works hard to achieve their goals and that the riches they get are not seen economically but in the pride of being free and living democracy every day.
“I go around among these sights, among the crowded hospitals doing what I can, yet it is a mere drop in the bucket. . . the path I follow, I suppose I may say, is my own.” (Whitman, Drum Taps)
As Whitman aged, his love for democracy and the United States grew and in his years he developed the ideas of slavery being immoral and that territories admitted into the United States should only be done so if they were free states. On the other, Whitman detested the abolitionist movement thinking that the extremist on both sides would lead the United States to war and threaten to tear his beloved democracy apart. He was right.
During the Civil War, Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C. to take of his younger brother that had been wounded in battle. Upon arriving in Washington and seeing the state of the soldier and the hospitals, Whitman stayed for four years serving as a nurse and helping the soldiers write letters to home. The whole time Whitman was in Washington he was writing notes in little journals and talking and listening to soldier’s stories, helping them with their physiological issues. From his journals and experiences that changed Whitman’s life, he wrote his book of poetry called Drum Taps.
The poetry within Drum Taps shadows Whitman’s change throughout the Civil War. Starting off with poems like “First O Songs for a Prelude.” This poem basically was a recruitment poem for the Civil War with saying that New York is full of “pride and joy” as the soldiers go off to war. The poems that come later in the book take on a different tone with the poem “By The Bivouac’s Fitful Flame,” which tells of a soldier’s thoughts on coming: “While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous thoughts/Of life and death-of home and the past and loved, and of those that are far away,” this shows Whitman’s empathy with homesick soldiers and their emotional experience of the soldier and their plights while at war.
Whitman’s “Come Up From The Fields, Father” depicts the families side of the war by receiving a letter from a stranger “O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d/ O stricken mother’s soul/ The only son is dead.” Whitman had experience on both sides, often being the one writing those horrible letters to the soldier’s families to being part of waiting to receive news of the brother, George. They were fortunate to never receive that letter. Whitman places his personal experiences in the hospital “passing sweet hours/immortal and mystic hours with/you, dearest comrade” into a battlefield setting in the poem “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night.” By changing the scenes from the hospitals to a battlefield, Whitman not only captures his own experiences but tells the stories of the soldiers and the war.
Whitman’s explores the psychological effects from the Civil War on Americans even stating “Curious as it may seem the War, to me, proved humanity.” The Civil War changed Whitman, altering his views of man in a democracy, where the common man saves the day. Whitman hoped to achieve greater unity through the war bringing people of all areas, classes, and wealth together. Whitman, through the Civil War, wrote some of his greatest democratic poetry encompassing all of human nature. He finishes Drum Taps by declaring “yet there are two things inure to me:/ I have nourish’d the wounded, and sooth’d many al dying soldier;/ And at intervals I have strung together a few songs,/ Fit for war, and the life of the camp.”
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