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Walt Whitman

miércoles, 5 de diciembre de 2012

Walt Whitman

From The Oxford Companion to American Literature, ed. Hart and Leininger:

Whitman, Walt[er] (1819-92), was born on Long Island, of English, Dutch, and Welsh stock. His family lived in Brooklyn (c. 1823-33), where Walt was educated, and he later served as printer's devil, journeyman compositor, and itinerant schoolteacher, besides editing the Long Islander (1838-39). Meanwhile he was reading the Bible, Shakespeare, Ossian, Scott, Homer, and something of the Greek and Hindu poets, the Nibelungenlied, and Dante, all of which, either in rhythm or in thought, influenced his later writing. He entered politics as a Democrat, and after 1841 was  actively associated with at least ten newspapers and magazines in New York and Brooklyn. Such poems as he published were conventional and mediocre, and to the Democratic Review (1841-45) he contributed many thin, sentimental, melancholy stories. These early writings were gathered in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (2 vols., 1921) and The Half-Breed and Other Stories (1927). At this time he also wrote a temperance tract, Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (1842). He became editor of The Brooklyn Eagle (1846), a Democratic party paper in which he denounced the "mad fanaticism" of the Abolitionists, but so obviously favored the Free-Soil party that he was discharged (1848). His writings for this paper have been collected as The Gathering of the Forces (2 vols., 1920). In February 1848 he went on to New Orleans with his brother Jeff, who with George was the most intimate with him among his nine brothers and sisters. He was an editor of the New Orleans Crescent for five months, during which many biographers have contended he had a love affair with an octoroon, which was the chief force in altering his character. Such assertions are primarily based on interpretations of "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City," which is probably more literary than biographical. Whitman's later statement to J. A. Symonds and others that he was the father of illegitimate children is probably one of the legends with which he liked to endow himself.

Returning to Brooklyn, he came by way of St. Louis, Chicago, and Upstate New York, for the first time seeing something of the frontier that so strongly affected his philosophy, as in such poems as "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "The Song of the Broad Axe." He edited various papers including the Brooklyn Times, from which his contributions have been collected in I Sit and Look Out (1932). Meanwhile, as before, he was acquainted with the varying aspects of the metropolis, listening to the oratory of the time, becoming intimate with omnibus drivers and ferryboat pilots, joining the crowds at bathing beaches, and hearing Shakespeare and Italian opera, all of which had an effect on the themes and manner of his poetry. Although he had earlier affected the mien of a dandy, he now dressed as a "rough", and his actions and ideas were leading toward the climax of  1855. Just as it has been supposed that he underwent a transformation in New Orleans, it is thought that he passed through some mystical experience at this time. It is probably more realistic to suppose that Leaves of Grass grew out of a slow and conscious effort to employ his experiences and his own maturity. Although he consistently celebrated himself as an average man, he was probably feeling his unique qualities more definitely than ever. Divided between faith in democratic equality and belief in the individual rebel against society's restrictions, he combined the figure of the average man and the superman in his conception of himself. He certainly differed in the hypersensitivity that made him as zealous in pursuing emotional freedom through love as he had been in pursuing social freedom through democracy. He differed also in his frequent, forceful declarations of his democratic love for man, and he has been considered a homosexual.

Such abnormal sensitivity and extreme sensousness appear to be primary forces in his poetry. Other influences included Goethe's autobiography, which showed him a man surveying the universe in terms of himself; Hegel's philosophy, which supplied the idea of a cosmic consciousness evolving through conflict and contradiction toward a definite objective; and Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship, which suggested that a superior individual is a power above man-made laws. Above all literary influence was that of the Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson, from whom he learned that the individual was not merely an eccentric but an impersonal seer at one with Nature, perceiving what is permanent in flux and revealing its development. He was affected by the typical interest of his period in science, although he considered it cold and intellectual as compared with faith in a divine purpose. He was also concerned with such pseudoscience as phrenology, adopting its specialized terms for his poetry, through his unique use of words comes from sources as widely separated as George Sand and the American Indian.

The first 12 poems written under these many influences were collected, with a critical preface, as Leaves of Grass (1855). Although Whitman uncritically accepted many divergent philosophies and seems at first to have been unconscious of any unifying purpose in Leaves, he eventually worked out the belief that it was to show how man might achieve for himself the greatest possible freedom within the limits of natural law, for the mind and body through democracy, for the heart through love, and for the soul through religion. Although his ideas of prosody were also refined later, he  already illustrated his belief in a simple style devoid of the ordinary usages of rhyme, meter, or ornament, and distinguished by a natural organic growth, with each part in proportion with the whole. He himself compared his poetry with the "liquid, billowy waves," and some of its most distinctive features are the use of repetition, parallelism, rhetorical mannerisms, and the employment of the phrase instead of the foot as a unit of rhythm, to create forms later called free verse.

Except for his own anonymous and enthusiastic reviews, Leaves received comparatively little attention, though Emerson wrote a letter of high praise. Whitman published an enlarged second edition (1856) and during the following years, continuing his writing, became prominenta mong the bohemian frequenters of Pfaff's Cellar. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass for the first time found a regular publisher, and was greatly enlarged, containing two new sections, "Children of Adam" and "Calamus."

The poet was not intimately affected by the Civil War until late in 1862, when he went to Virginia to see his wounded brother George, and then to Washington to become an unofficial nurse to Northern and Southern soldiers in the army hospitals. He left a record of this period in his prose Memoranda During the War (1875) reprinted in Specimen Days and Collect (1882), and in the poems published in Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), contaning his dirges for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!" Nominally a Republican at this time, he became a clerk in the Indian bureau of the Department of the Interior, but was shortly dismissed by the Secretary, on the ground that Leaves of Grass was an immoral book. Whitman was defended by his friends, William O'Connor, who wrote The Good Gray Poet (1866) , and John Burroughs, who with Whitman's assistance published Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867). During these years, Whitman issued two new editions of Leaves of Grass (1867, 1871); Democratic Vistas (1871), a prose work; and Passage to India (1871), embodying the concept of the regeneration of the human race through uniting the spiritual wisdom of the East with the materialism of the West.

His Washington residence ended (1873) when he suffered a paralytic stroke, possibly induced by an infection during his hospital work. From this time his writing shows a change of thought. His realistic style becomes one of indirection and suggestion, his materialistic pantheism a more spiritualized idealism, his political views change from individualism to nationalism, and even internationalism, and in general he is less interested in freedom than in regulation. During his last 19 years he lived at Camden, N.J., continuing to revise Leaves of Grass and to publish new editions. Two Rivulets (1876) incorporated Democratic Vistas and some new poems. His newspaper poems were collected as November Boughs (1889), and contain the preface "A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads." Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891) is a final collection of poems and prose.

Although not previously neglected, he was particularly in the public eye during the 1870s, when such English writers as William Rossetti, Swinburne, Symonds, Anne Gilchrist, and Stevenson contended that Americans did not fully appreciate him. He also had a circle of immediate disciples, including the Canadian physician Richard M. Bucke, whose official biography (1883) was partly written by Whitman, and Horace Traubel, an enthusiastic young Boswell who preserved every scrap of the poet's conversation in his book With Walt Whitman in Camden (3 vols., 1906-14; 3 vols., 1953, 1963, 1982).

During the final years, the poet mellowed, and was content to live quietly at Camden, except for a brief trip to Colorado (1879) for his health, to Canada (1880) to visit Dr. Bucke, and to Boston (1881), where he visited Emerson, for whom he still felt a strong sympathy, although he had long since set himself up as an original genius owing no debt to his onetime master. His executors published a standard edition of his Complete Writings (10 vols., 1902) , but a scholarly edition of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, begun in 1961 and projected for 18 volumes, is more complete, including correspondence and all minor writing.


Leaves of Grass, poems by Whitman, the first edition of which (1855) contained 12 poems, including those later entitled "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "There Was a Child Went Forth." The first edition was anonymous and had a preface, later omitted, in which the author declares that the ideal poet must be a complete lover of the universe, draw his materials from nature, as a sear reveal the cosmic plan which harmoniously unites past, present and future, be commensurate with his nation, and in America serve as representative of the common people, differing from them only in his superior vision. He is to discover what is permanent in flux, explain its development, and be a realist in his art. His style is to be simple and natural, without such ornaments as conventional rhyme or meter, since it must have an organic growth like that of a perfect animal or tree, in which each part is in proportion and harmonious with the whole.

The second edition (1856) contained 33 poems, including "Salut au Monde," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Spontaneous Me," and "Song of the Broad-Axe," as well as a fulsome reply to the author's "dear Friend and Master," Emerson, in acknowledgement of a laudatory letter which is reprinted.

The third edition (1860) was enlarged to 469 pages, including "Starting from Paumanok" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and two new sections, "Calamus" and "Children of Adam." The later contains "Facing West from California's Shores" and "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City."

The fourth edition (1867) reprints, in the copies that came last from the press, those poems published as Drum-Taps (1865), and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), including the poems on the death of Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!"; the statement of religion, "Chanting the Square Deific"; and "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "One's-Self I Sing."

Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand 

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