Walt Whitman’s beliefs were in the basic values of American life – democracy and individualism, which in many ways are reflected in his poems. This is also the case in the following poem.
Walt Whitman – a Modernist Ahead of his Time
Today Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is ranked among America’s finest poets; he did not, however, win much acclaim during his own lifetime. He lived in poverty most of his life, and it was not until the last decade of his life that he was recognised and appreciated as the great poet he was.
Whitman was born on Long Island which was at that time a rural area populated by farmers and fishermen, with the luring lights of Brooklyn and Manhattan across the great harbour, places that could be visited by means of exciting ferryboats. (One of Whitman’s poems is called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”).
He had little formal schooling, and tried his hand at different jobs until he settled with journalism, like so many of his colleagues have done. Whitman lived during a period defined by the growth and expansion of America, but also during the agonizing conflict of the Civil War, where he actually volunteered as a war nurse.
Walt Whitman’s poetry has a down-to-earth and ordinary language, and is about everyday subject matters; and his free-verse style is prescient of the style of modernist poets that came half a century later. Walt Whitman has later won acclaim also internationally, and has had a considerable influence on writers both in the USA and in Europe. "I Hear America Singing" is one of his most popular and cherished poems.
I Hear America Singing
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 at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or 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.
A Closer Look at the Poem
- Is this poem really about singing?
- What do all the professions mentioned represent?
- In what way does this poem reflect Whitman’s ideals of democracy and individualism?
- In the first line the poet uses the word “carols” instead of “songs” – what is the difference, and what is the effect?
- Comment on the line, “Each singing what belongs to him and her and to none else”.
- How would you describe the mood of the poem?
- Comment on the structure of the poem.
- Do you see any traces of traditional poetic elements (rhythm, rhyme, meter, poetic language)?
- What makes this a poem rather than a prose text?
- In what way does this poem bear resemblance to a modernist text?
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