Walt Whitman is a poet who contains multitudes, it is not difficult to find in his masterpiece the most diverse and conflicting philosophies and attitudes. He is the most autobiographical of poets, as well as the most representative. He has put more of himself in his masterpieces than any other poet in any country or language. Today, he is regarded as not only the greatest poet of America but also as one of the greatest poets of the world.
Here’s a list of the best Walt Whitman poems:
1. Song of Myself
Song of Myself is the longest and the most important poem in the Leaves of Grass. Though it is a collection of lyrics, it is epical in its value and significance. The title suggests that in it the poet would sing of himself, but it is as much a song of America as of Whitman. In singing of himself, Whitman sings of America. He gives us a panoramic view of the American scene as well as expresses those ideals and values which constitute Americaness.
2. O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! My Captain! is one of the better-known poems of Whitman. It is an elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, in a theatre. The entire nation was plunged into mourning. Whitman felt it was a personal loss, for Lincoln, kind, sympathetic, gentle, yet brave and determined, was his hero and beloved father. In the death of Lincoln, the poet found the symbol for the suffering and death of so many soldiers he had himself witnessed.
3. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is another elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman admired Lincoln for his honesty, sympathy, courage and determination and so was intensely grieved at his assassination. There is first, an expression of personal grief, then a procession of mourners through whom the poet’s grief is universalised, and then, finally, consolation for the death of the beloved one.
4. There Was a Child Went Forth
There Was a Child Went Forth is an admirable lyric in one section. It is possible to read the poem on different levels. On the surface level it is merely an account of the poet’s own childhood and of the various scenes and sights which he looked at, and which he always remembered. Its real meaning, richness and complexity is brought out when it is read symbolliclly. Its theme is gradual progress and development of the self, till it expands and achieves total identification with all creation.
5. One’s Self I Sing
One’s Self I Sing is one of Whitman’s best-known lyrics and has been frequently anthologised. It states the chief themes of Whitman’s poetry and shows that the poet is a true poet of democracy. Comradeship, equality, and freedom are the main themes of his poetry, and they are all stated in this admirable lyric.
6. Poets to Come
Poets to Come is addressed to the poets and singers of the future. The poet has great faith in them. They will be the poets of a new generation with new ideals and values. They will be brave and active, truly American, but also cosmopolitan in their outlook. It is from their poetry they would justify he, Whitman, was right in making democracy, comradeship and love of man, as the central theme of his poetry. The poem brings out Whitman’s optimism and faith in the future.
7. I Hear America Singing
I Hear America Singing is a patriotic lyric giving us in a few words a sense of the multitudinous life of America, and of the poet’s joy and pride in his motherland. It is one of the much anthologised briefer lyrics of Whitman, which suffer from being uprooted from the context, and create an impression of incompleteness, but are, in reality quite finished and perfect.
8. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is a long poem in nine sections, and it ranks very high in the poetry of Whitman, despite its occasional folds of obscurity and superfluity. It dramatises a simple, ordinary experience in such a way as to symbolise the mystic unity that pervades all mankind and the universe. Its theme is that the basic oneness of life, for all are born into this existence out of the same over-soul or soul of all the world, and all are involved in the same scenes and sights, and the same activities of this material world. Time and distances are meaningless, for the ‘oneness of all’ is basic and spiritual.
9. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking is one of the most complex and successfully integrated poem. Its basic theme is the relationship between suffering in art. It shows how the boy matures into a poet through his experience of love and death. Art is a sublimation of frustration, and death is a release from the stress and strains caused by such frustrations.
10. Passage to India
Passage to India is a long poem in nine sections. Its dominant theme is spirituality, and hence its appeal has been universal. It deals with the journeys through space, the exploration of the physical environment. The past, the growth of man’s culture and civilization and spirit is explored, and the past is fused with the present and the future. It also deals with the exploration of the divine, and the mystic merger of the human soul with the over-soul.
11. Song of the Open Road
Song of the Open Road was written when the poet was yet serene, calm and unworried. The poem brings out to the full his carefree spirit and his robust optimism. There is nothing of dissatisfied love, of separation and of death. In it appears the image of the poet as a carefree vagabond setting forth with hope and confidence on his wanderings. His journey is symbolic of the poet’s exploration both of his physical and spiritual environment. The poet rejects the old and the traditional, breaks free from the shackles of convention, and explores the possibility of a new way of life.
12. I Hear it was Charged Against Me
I Hear it was Charged Against Me is a lyric that shows the poet was aware of the criticism hurled at him. He was called the destroyer of the age-old established institutions of the country, like marriage and family. The lyric brings out Whitman’s deep-rooted faith in democracy and universal love.
13. On the Beach at Night
In On the Beach at Night the poet appears as a visionary and mystic. He wants to understand the mystery of the world. He chooses a child and a father as a medium for the purpose. The girl stands for innocence and simplicity. Her father represents wisdom, age and learning. The lyric brings out the poet’s optimism, his faith in God, as well as the immortality of the human soul.
14. A Glimpse
A Glimpse is a fine lyric that celebrates the poet’s love for a young man. It was first published in 1860 in the Calamus group of lyrics which have been much criticised for their homosexual overtones. The tone of the poem is conversational and almost prosaic.
15. Scented Herbage of My Breast
Scented Herbage of My Breast is a lyric celebrating the love of comrades, a love beautiful in the extreme, a love which represent the ultimate in human life, love which has no ulterior motives, as procreation or the continuance of human race. The poem is also remarkable for its sustained and intense lyric. It vibrates the deep personal emotion and is among the great love poems of the world.