Walt Whitman

Comments & Themes


Photograph taken around 1863

  1. Consider both “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers” and “Spontaneous Me” in the light of Whitman’s remarks on society’s attitudes toward sex in his “Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson”
  2. Notice the parallels Whitman draws between human sexuality and natural processes in “Spontaneous Me”, as announced in the poem’s first line: “Spontaneous me, Nature”. Discuss how the poem actually “excites” itself through the cumulative effects of the images that supposedly rise spontaneously (from the natural world) into the speaker’s awareness. Is this, in your opinion, an example of spontaneous or highly-calculated poetic composition?
  3. In “Spontaneous Me” Whitman also develops an elaborate conceit relating sex and reproduction with thought and poetic composition. How many elements of this conceit can you identify and explain?
  4. In what ways is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” a mystical poem? How does Whitman use language here to join – or to “fuse” – time present and time future? Or time past and time present? That is, how does this poem transcend time and space and unify Whitman’s consciousness with that of his readers’?
  5. Both “There Was a Child Went Forth” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are about what might be called the birth of the poetic consciousness. What are the similarities and differences in these two treatments of that theme?
  6. In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” Whitman “translates” the wordless songs of his “feathered guest from Alabama” into human speech. Recall that William Cullen Bryant does something similar with the messages that nature has for us in “Thanatopsis”. How would you compare what both of them do in these passages with the English Romantic poet John Keats’ concept of 2negative capability”?
  7. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning”, writes that “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires.” How does “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” relate to this statement about art and human aspirations?
  8. Many people would argue that “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is the greatest elegy in the body of American literature. Would you agree with this opinion? How does Whitman manage here to tie together hiw own deep personal grief over Lincoln’s death with the sense of national mourning, and link them both to an overarching frame of natural phenomena?
  9. Compare “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science”. Both poems are variations on the Romantic theme that the kind of thinking encouraged by science threatens to extinguish our capacity for imagination. Which of the two de you think is a more effective treatment of this theme, and why?
  10. Many of Whitman’s shorter poems have a symmetrical structure. For example, the first four lines of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” are located within the lecture-room, but the second four lines describe the speaker’s immediate experience of the “perfect silence of the stars”. And both “Sparkles from the Wheel” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” are divided into two equal stanzas of eight and five lines, respectively. Think about the relation of form to content in all three of these poems. What does this tell us about Whitman’s use of free verse? How does the technique of these poems look forward to the free-verse practice of William Carlos Williams in the 20th century?