Walt Whitman

The Common Unifying Language of Walt Whitman

          A poet is constantly challenged by the problem of finding precise vocabulary that will provide both the exact meaning and stylistic sound they need to create a sense of imagery in verse. A poet’s selection of words and the arrangement of those words is as precise and perfect as an orchestra playing a symphony.  Shades of meaning also come clear as an author begins to create nuance with words and use language to convey meaning through the use of figurative language and personal style. Walt Whitman was known for his use of free verse, enjambment, the one-sentence poem, and simple, common language. In a time when most popular poetry was written with a strict rhyme scheme and elevated language, Whitman chose to write his poems in a new style called free verse and in the words commonly spoken on the street. He kept a notebook of words that he thought were interesting. By the time he died, his notebooks filled a room of his house (Howard 443). Whitman was a staunch supporter of names, he did not like artificial names or substitutions. Whitman lived in a time when life in America was changing and he was recording it. He kept his own version of a dictionary and began using his “real” words in his poems. He said, “Words are not original and arbitrary in themselves, words are a result, they are the progeny of what has been or is in vogue” (Howard 448).  The linguistic elements most relevant in Whitman’s poetry are syntax, word choice (most specifically slang and popular common words of his day), and the use of the omniscient narrator, through the personal pronoun, “I.”

         Whitman was a New Yorker who grew up on Long Island and then lived in Brooklyn. He was an observer of people. He lived in a time when water came from street pumps and was carried into homes with wooden buckets. The dirt streets were dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter. The railroad train would come by once a day and the steam press for newspapers were just coming to town. Whitman witnessed many inventions and with the new curiosities came new words (Reynolds 319).  Irving Lewis Allen states that “American street slang arose in the 1840’s” (Reynolds 319).  Though other authors of the time were not using these popularized terms, Whitman saw slang as “the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry” (Reynolds 319). Whitman looked with eager anticipation for new words within all cultures.  He showed a great appreciation for both slang and African-American dialect.  He said of them, “I like limber, lashing, fierce words. I like them in newspapers, courts, debates, congress… strong, cutting, beautiful, rude words” (Reynolds 321).  In this project, I will be using poems from Leaves of Grass as they represent the body of influence that has represented Whitman’s work. Though in his earlier writings he published poems, tales, articles and short stories, his largest body of work comes from Leaves of Grass. I have selected, “I Hear America Singing," “Song of Myself,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” and, “O Captain! My Captain.” Whitman began his career as a printing apprentice to Samuel Clemens running errands and learning the printing business.  From there he began writing small works of fiction and poetry. Later When he wrote his first edition of Leaves of Grass and in all his subsequent rewrites, he was fully involved in the publishing of his book. Whitman said of his books, “My theory is that the author might be the maker even of the body of his book—set the type, print the book on a press, put a cover on it, all with his own hands: learning his own trade from A to Z – all there is of it” (Reynolds 47).

          Whitman wanted his poetry to reach a mass audience.  He cared deeply about the themes contained in Leaves of Grass. He published nine rewritten, edited versions of various sizes and prices hoping to create a book that would reach a mass audience.  Whitman felt deeply the politics of the nation and wanted his poetry to be the unifying message to bring people together.  Reynolds in his book, Walt Whitman’s America says, “It began to dawn on him that the great balancing act could be poetry—poetry that took both sides while at the same time releasing the steam of curses” (Reynolds 119). Out of this idea Whitman began to write his poetry in a narrative style with the use of the personal pronoun, “I”, as if Whitman himself was the omniscient observer looking down at the nation. With the use of “I” he was trying to lead his reader through a unified understanding of all cultures and people of the nation and in so doing bring unification once again to what was becoming a fractured union.

            “I Hear America Singing” is a poem illustrating Whitman’s interest in the working class common man.  This poem, written in free verse and using enjambment, begins with his signature use of the personal pronoun, “I,” as the narrator sets the narrative tone of the poem. With this poem, Whitman’s philosophy that the poem is the song and rings through.  Whitman sought to portray the working class in the reality of their struggle, as the common Americans that they were. Whitman goes on to “describe the varied carols of working class Americans. Implicitly, Whitman celebrates his America—or at least, the Americas he thinks are celebrating—when he describes the singing of workers like mechanics, carpenters, and masons, presenting one or more new figures in an induvial line, and give each profession its own moment of recognition” (Boccard 2).

“I Hear America Singing” from Leaves of Grass
By Walt Whitman
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 begins, “I Hear America Singing,” by saying “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” the use of the personal pronoun “I,” is shared with his reader.  He wants to create a common image that everyone can relate to and remember.  When he says that “I” can hear America, he intends for the reader to infer is, “we” hear America, or more specifically, we are singing together. In the poem he chooses workers from common, hard-working professions so that his target audience, the common people, will relate to his message. He takes time to describe each of his specific American workers with an individual line of poetry that gives each profession the correct description suiting it. The mechanics is described as being “blithe and strong,” and the carpenter “measures his plank or beam.” Whitman gives a line to the boatman who “belongs to the boat” and the deckhand “singing on the steamboat deck,” keeping each profession described properly with the precise correlating words.  He does not, however, just mention men. He also pays specific attention to women in his poems.  He says, “the delicious singing of the mother, of the young wife”, and “the young girl sewing or washing,” to remind the reader that there are other professions found among Americans that are completed by women.  In the poem he makes specifically mention time.  The American ideal of working hard during the day and resting well at night would have been understood by his original audience.  His intention for this poem was to remind his readers that America was singing one unified common song.

            In Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” he takes the position of an omniscient observer and travels across parts of the nation.  He begins the poem with what seems like an arrogant celebration of the bard and his prowess. If you remember, however, his mission in is writing is to unify the nation this is a call to those who are reading.  When he says, “I celebrate myself” he is not making a mere statement of self-promotion, but calling to a nation of people who have become self-centered and are looking to only celebrate themselves. Town celebrations had begun moving from simple gatherings to those of economic benefit, and political gain. Whitman is using the first lines of this poem to shine a light on what he felt was a serious problem in the country.  

          He also introduces his narrator, later understood as a traveler, with the personal pronoun, “I,” which is a distinctive characteristic of his writing. The first lines of the poem say, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, /every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Leaves of Grass 17). The word “assume” can mean “believe” or “take for granted,” it can also mean “to be taken on” or “become.”  This second meaning becomes very important throughout the rest of the poem as Whitman tries to unite his identity with the different kinds of people in his poem, even, perhaps the reader.

          My author selection is Walt Whitman, a poet who does not offer much in the way of characters and dialogue.  If, however, you consider that poetry is meant to be read aloud and the reader is giving voice to the poem characterization can be achieved.  In Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” he weaves a portrait of the many faces and lives of American citizens and as he does, he becomes the omniscient traveler, becoming many people. As the traveler he continues to use the personal pronoun, “I” in the narrative description of his free verse poetry. I have chosen two selections from section 10 to show two different common types of people Whitman chose to represent in his poetry as the traveler witnesses the marriage of a beaver trapper to a Native American girl and then plays the role of a protector who shelters a runaway slave.               

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl, 

Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders, 

On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand, 

She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d to her feet. 

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside, 

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile, 

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak, 

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him, 

And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet, 

And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes, 

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness, 

And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles; 

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north, 

I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.

                                                            “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass


          The distinct difference I notice between the way Whitman treats the trapper and the protector is in the word choices he uses to support the way he describes them. The wedding is clearly supported with Native American imagery and examples while the narration with the runaway slave is supported with words associated with African-American culture.  The Native American girl is seen with her, “father and friends” sitting “cross-legged,” “smoking,” and wearing “moccasins to their feet” instead of “on their feet” and are covered in “thick blankets” giving the reader the image of a Native American ceremony.  Whitman had a specific admiration for the Native American population.  While other authors were writing about the noble savage, Whitman saw them as a peaceful group of people with valued tradition and culture that was being lost by the strained relationships with whites. “For Whitman, Native American culture had an intrinsic attraction because it embodied a closeness to the elements that much of his poetry tried to recover” (Reynolds 19).

          This is held in contrast next to the runaway slave to arrives at the protector’s house, making a racket, “crackling twigs of the woodpile” looking “limpsy and week.” The protector assures him draws a bath, and helps to mend his wound.  As the traveler moves on and becomes the protector of the runaway slave his tone changes from that of celebratory love to concern and aid. The narrator instantly moves from observer to a participant in the action he is no longer seeing what is taking place but helping another person.  He hears the commotion, the “half-door” swings open, he fills a bath, assures the runaway, and helps mend his bruised body.  I particularly love the use of "limpsy" in this part of the poem. Limpsy means to have no physical strength left. The narrator says, "I saw him limpsy and weak," as having no physical strength left, and the protector moves in to help him. The word “limpsy” is an Americanism, a slang term, made popular in the 1820’s among African American’s (Dictionary.com, accessed 9/24/16).  It could be a blending of the words “limp” and “flimsy,” though no sources would directly correlate the words just hint at similar semantic meaning. Nevertheless, the use of this popular term supports Whitman’s desire to use common language of common people and represent them well.

          Another example of his use of specific common language is the use of forgotten past tense forms of words. In the trapper’s wedding he uses the words “drest,” and “reach’d.” When the protector is helping care for the runaway slave he uses the words, “stopt,” “fill’d,” “bruis’d,” “enter’d,” “pass’d,” and “lean’d.”  All of these words are obsolete, archaic words that are old terms for the past tense forms of the words that they represent.  In many cases an apostrophe replaces the “e” that our modern way of spelling would spell each word.  A quick search on Dictionary.com reveals that the use of these words comes from 18th Century usage and originates in Old English usage (Dictionary.com).

          Mark Doty in his article, “Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable” remarks that in these lines, “this is Whitman in his most discursive, transparent, and plainly rhetorical mode; he says what he means, and he means what he says.”  This small excerpt from section 17 is another example that demonstrates Whitman’s use of free verse, and enjambment.  In addition, he employs the use of anaphora (replacing a word used earlier to avoid repetition), and parallel structures. Because he avoids the wordiness of repeating himself, his poetry can take on a lyrical quality.  The repeated phrase, “If they are not” creates a parallel structure that dictates the rhythm and the structure of the poem.  And then, just as soon as they take hold of the poem, they release it again and there seems to be a pause and the flow of the poem changes. I love how he speaks first of the land then the water and finally the air that all “bathes globe.”  Personally, I find the imagery quite beautiful.

                        These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not

                        Original with me,

                        If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,

                        If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,

                        If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

                        This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,

                        This is the common air that bathes the globe.

                                                                        “Song of Myself,” Section 17


          A final excerpt from section 52 gives us the famous “barbaric yawp” quote: “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering. /I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; /I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (Leaves of Grass 29). In this section of the poem we are flying and swooping with a spotted hawk. The words used are aggressive he is “complaining,” and “loitering,” and cannot be “tamed.” The imagery here is of an animal that is free and unfettered and then screaming with a wild cry, that “barbaric yawp.”  In Lean Howard’s article, Walt Whitman and the American Language, he asserts that the word “yawp” was not in standard use when Whitman used it in “Song of Myself.” He states, “Varying pronunciations as a factor in linguistic growth seem particularly to have interested Whitman, and his famous “yawp” in a concrete example of his deliberate adoption of a word which came into being with a meaning somewhat different from the original word of which it was a local variant. (Howard 447)”

          Whitman, remembering the influences from his youth, and the untamed poetry of Walter Scott and his contemporaries, pours himself into “Song of Myself” and creates a new word and challenges his reader to “yawp barbarically.” In this moment of the poem he used onomatopoeia to create a word that is similar to “yelp,” but would mean “freedom” like that of the spotted hawk who flies freely over rooftops. A footnote in the article states, “Yawp as a variant of “yelp” is of course not peculiar to Long Island as Whitman used the word it has a certain symbolic connotation of freedom which is not to be found in the definition given by the New English Dictionary” (Howard 448). Whitman used this form of yelp, of “yawp” to heighten the tone of the poem and create a moment of sound that could be mistaken for a simple cry or outburst.  Whitman wanted his readers to make no mistake, that this yell was loud, and it was full volume.

          Among the poems in Leaves of Grass are a collection entitled “The Drum-Tap Poems.” These are a collection of war poems written during the Civil War. Whitman, like many other Northerners, thought that the Civil War would be a very short conflict, swiftly won.  When that was not the case and reports of death and bloodshed began making its way back to Brooklyn, he was very moved by the conflict and began his Drum-Tap Poems.  These poems, like his others are written in a free verse style and use a common language, but have specific word choices as they are war poems. For some reason he has removed the ever present personal pronoun, “I” from this poem, but the presence of the omniscient narrator is still felt in the lines of verse. I have chosen to use “Cavalry Crossing A Ford” to offer an example of the syntax that Whitman employed in poetry.  This poem, like many of Whitman’s, is written as an extensive one sentence poem taking advantage of the literary device known as enjambment.

          “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is one example from “The Drum-Tap Poems” found in Leaves of Grass, where there is an example of free verse, and it is written in one sentence, a very unique use of syntax, that uses enjambment to create rhythm and meter to give the poem it’s beat.  That alone does not make this poem unique.  Whitman also uses assonance with a repeated long “I” sound, with the words “line,” “wind,” “islands,” and “serpentine.” This is immediately followed by the inner/off rhyme when he uses “hark” with “clank,” and “drink” with “bank” to create a sense of movement like that of the rhythm of horse, or many horses moving (Martin 199).  All of which come together to create a sense of prosody in the poem.  In the last line of the poem, Whitman uses alliteration with “guidon” and “gayly,” and then again with “flags” and flutter.”

“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” from Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,

They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark
to the musical clank,

Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to

Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture,
the negligent rest on the saddles,

Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the

Scarlet and blue and snowy white,

The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.


            Even today when one reads, “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” you immediately get the sense of a long line of soldiers on horseback stopping to rest for a moment before they move on to another battle. Not all of the words in this poem are easily defined.  The word betwixt which hales from Old English and is defined as “between” and was originally “betwux” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. A ford is the shallow part of a stream. The guidon is the military standard or their particular colors on their flags.  The use of “guidon” here is a very specific military term for a military poem.  His use of “serpentine” has double use in this poem. It offers both the imagery of the army moving through the green island and the lines of the text of the poem as the enjambment moves the verse to the next line. 

          The poem has the quality of peaceful rest for the soldiers who can allow “splashing horses” to “loiter” and “stop to drink.” The reader knows that these men have been on the road and at battle for a long time because they are “brown-faced” and though each person is the “picture” of “negligent rest on their saddles,” they do not get off the saddles.  They are resting, but not lounging.  It is a subtle difference.  The soldiers are taking break, they are allowing their horses to drink, but they are not dismounting. Though they are at rest, the reader is reminded once again, through the word choice at the end of the poem, by the “guidon flag fluttering” that they are at war and not able to rest.

          The final piece is a departure from most of Whitman’s work. It is his famous, elegy, “O Captain! My Captain,” written in honor of President Abraham Lincoln. To write about Walt Whitman, one cannot ignore the time in which he lived and how much he was interested in his country.  It is said that he would regularly see Lincoln walking down the street and that upon his death he felt it as deeply as if he had lost a family member. With his poem “O Captain My Captain,” we see a departure in style, it is an elegy, that rhymes with a strict rhythm and meter.  The use of the personal pronoun “I” is changed to “My Captain.” The omniscient narrator has been replaced by a first person narrator who is a participant that is effected by the emotion of the circumstances surrounding the poem.  With the writing of “O Captain! My Captain” Reynolds asserts that “the silencing of his former poetic self is particularly noticeable” (Reynolds 444). I mention this here, because if you compare “O Captain! My Captain” to Whitman’s earlier poems, you will note the remarkable difference in tone, style and word choice.

          Remembering Whitman wanted his poetry to be the unifying message that would bring people together.  That he chose, very precisely to use common language, highlight common professions, and include all cultures in his poetry it is almost ironic that it was Abraham Lincoln who held the nation together and unified it, not Whitman, and not his poetry.  With “O Captain! My Captain,” Walt Whitman pays homage to the man who was able to accomplish, through leadership and resolution, what Whitman could not through the written word.

O Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, 

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won, 

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; 

                         But O heart! heart! heart! 

                            O the bleeding drops of red, 

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies, 

                                  Fallen cold and dead. 


O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; 

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, 

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding, 

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; 

                         Here Captain! dear father! 

                            This arm beneath your head! 

                               It is some dream that on the deck, 

                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead. 


My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, 

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, 

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, 

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; 

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells! 

                            But I with mournful tread, 

                               Walk the deck my Captain lies, 

                                  Fallen cold and dead.



            The extended metaphor in “O Captain! My Captain” is clear, Abraham Lincoln is the ship captain, the ship is the United States and the “fateful trip’ is the civil war.  Though the civil war is over, there was much loss and the loss of Lincoln was felt deepest of all.  The poem is distinctly different from Whitman’s other works because of the use of end rhyme and refrain and perhaps even the conjunction, “O.”  Words like “weather’d,” “ribbon’d” and “anchor’d” are illustrations of the obsolete past tense forms of words no longer used.  The commonly used past tense forms of words where our modern spelling shows the “e” where the 18th century spelling has the apostrophe.

          There are similarities in this poem to his other works with the use of simple language, enjambment, and definitive imagery.  This poem, however, has punctuation and ends sentences within the poem.  It is not one long sentence. His images are with “bleeding drops of red,” “bugle trills,” “bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths” all imagery that the original audience would immediately associate with a crowd who awaits a returning ship. Though the poem has a melancholy tone, Whitman did not depart from who he was entirely with “O Captain! My Captain.” Perhaps it is because of the simple language and phrasing, the ease of rhyme and imagery that has made the poem so popular.

          Whitman believed that words were not arbitrary and he loved the common man.  He struck on the idea that his poetry could reach America and unify the country with common thought and bring it back to the simple nation that it was when he was a young man.  He wrote poems in free verse that used common language, and slang. His poems centered on the common man. His poems employed the use of enjambment and in most cases are one long sentence with many commas.  Almost all of his poetry is told from the omniscient personal pronoun, “I” perspective as he invites his reader to relate to what he is saying. It was not until after President Lincoln’s death that we see a change in Whitman’s writing.  He changes from a free form, to a measured rhyming form and his omniscient narrator becomes a first person narrator.  The shift that is seen in his later works is due to his admission that Lincoln was able to accomplish in his life and death that which his poetry was unable to do: unify a fractured nation.

          Due to the nature of his use of simple common language, Whitman’s poetry is widely appreciated and studied.  Though it may not have gained the recognition he sought for when he first published it, he has come be recognized as The Father of American Poetry.  He has recorded for us a moment of American history, people who will not be forgotten, and a language that can be studied, appreciated and remembered because of the lines of his poems. Capturing the true spirit of the common man, the Native American, African-American, a woman, the working class, or an animal flying high in the air over head was imperatively important to Whitman.  I would argue that he did unify the Nation in his poetry.  When we read it today, we see them woven neatly into the fabric of the lines has written for us.

Works Cited

Boccard, Mark. “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman” Poetry & Short Story Reference    

Center. EBSCO Publishing Inc. 2012 p 1-3.

Doty, Mark. “Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable.” Virginia Quarterly Review. Vol 81, Issue 2,

2005, p 66-78.

“drest”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 25 Sept. 2016 <Dictionary.com


Howard, Lean. “Walt Whitman and the American Language,” American Speech Vol15, Issue 6,

1930, p 441-11.

“limpsy”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 25 Sept. 2016 <Dictionary.com


Martin, Doug. “Whitman’s Cavalry Crossing A Ford.” Poetry Review Explicator. Vol 60, Issue

4, Summer 2002, p 198-200.

Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. Vintage Books, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain.” Leaves of Grass. Mineola NY: Dover Publication

Inc.,2007 p 262.

Whitman, Walt. “Cavalry Crossing A Ford.” Leaves of Grass. Mineola NY: Dover Publications   

Inc., 2007 p 235.

Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.” Leaves of Grass. Mineola NY: Dover Publications     

Inc., 2007 p 17.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. Mineola NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2007p