Walt Whitman: Emerson’s Liberating God

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson beseeched his country to produce an individual, American poet. In his essay The Poet, he lists all the qualities he thinks the American poet should have so that America could have her own poetic cannon. In response to the release of this essay, Walt Whitman wrote letters to Emerson claiming that he is the poet whom Emerson imagines:

­I pass coolly through [America], understanding them perfectly well, and that they do the indispensable service, outside of men like me, which nothing else could do. In poems, the young men of The States shall be represented, for they out-rival the best of the rest of the earth (“Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson”).

Whitman, known for his capability to embody the essence of the country in his works, strongly believed that he accurately fit Emerson’s description and was the poet for who could finally give America its poetic identity: “Of course, we shall have a national character, an identity. As it ought to be, and as soon as it ought to be, it will be” (“Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson”). Although Whitman may seem arrogant in proclaiming himself as such a man, he does stand as the only American poet at the time who closely matched Emerson’s idealistic description. Walt Whitman is correct in deeming himself “the poet” because he satisfies Emerson’s criteria throughout his works, embodying and empathizing with his audience while expressing all its common aspirations.

The Poet as the Representative

song of myself
A common image seen with Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Firstly, Emerson speaks of “the poet” as a representative of his audience: “He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common-wealth.” The idea of Whitman being a representative is one of the major ways he relates to this essay and is “the poet,” since he is commonly known as the Great American poet. One of Whitman’s greatest poetic achievements is his ability to encompass all of humanity in his poetry. He does this most powerfully in Song of Myself, where he celebrates himself and the entirety of America. Whitman famously states: “I am large…I contain multitudes” (1316). He references the multitudes of the country, using the common denominator of humanity to relate the American masses. He also represents his audience by descriptively listing all the types of people who live in the country. By doing this, he does not only characterize the majority, but all who live in the bounds of the country. He includes “the boatman and clamdiggers” (175), “the runaway slave” (183), “the opium eater” (302), and “the one year wife” (288). By painting an accurate picture of the country—the good and the bad, the proud and the hated— he is able to successfully include the entire country, without leaving out a single soul, and vividly represents his audience as Emerson’s “poet” should. He purposely lists all these different kinds of people because he is able to empathize with all of them because they are a part of the same country and the same humanity. Whitman ultimately represents all of America throughout time by not ending his poem with any punctuation, implying that the poem continues for the generations of Americans that will continue once he is gone. The poem will never be completely finished as long as the United States carries on. In this sense, it seems “the poet” should represent all people because he himself is a person. Whitman represents the “complete man” and “contains multitudes,” including millions in a single poem as he talks about himself, since he and they are one and the same.

The Poet as the Dreamer

The next point Emerson discusses in The Poet is an artist who can envision what his audience sees: “who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man.” Whitman understands the ideas and dreams of the country and reveals, sometimes scandalously, the inner thoughts of others. One way he does this is in the famous Stanza 11 of Song of Myself where he describes the sexual thoughts of a young, single woman. He recognizes her “twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome” (195) and allows his audience to understand her struggles and her dreams, expanding on the universality of human emotion. He also enters the mind and depicts the yearnings of his audience in his piece The Learned Astronomer. In this short work, he characterizes the commonality of being in awe of the sublime: “In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” (8-9). The speaker in this work leaves the busyness of the astronomer’s workplace in order to lose himself in the beauty of nature and the bizarre dreamscape of the night sky, a view with a size that is incomprehensible to all of humanity. Whitman relates to human curiosity which allows him to successfully articulate people’s desires to know the unknown and escape the busyness of their own lives. By allowing even the most private thoughts and dreams to be exposed, he alleviates the anxiety his audience may have for possessing those dreams and binds his audience more closely together through fulfilling Emerson’s requirement.

A rural American landscape, one of the many types of scenes Whitman would refer to in his poetry

The Poet as the Teller

“The poet… has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune.” In this instance, Emerson believes that “the poet” should tell of his experiences and share them with his audience so that they, in turn, can have the experience. This idea Emerson describes is what Whitman tries to do in most of his poetry. As previously stated, Whitman constantly tries to unite people through their humanity. By sharing his experience, he is able to bring people closer together by allowing them to share in his experiences with him. He most prominently does this in his poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, where he allows all people to take in the view of the Brooklyn Ferry sailing in the water. He summarizes this sharing of universal experience:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd (21-24).

He feels what his audience feels and they in turn feel what he does because they are all the same and are parts of universal manhood. He optimistically professes unity, allowing everyone to share in victories and defeats, bringing the human family closer. But he does not just do it with people in his time, but connects all people of the past, present, and future. He writes: “What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not” (55-56). The years between him and the people who will be reading this poem in the future does not matter; the distance does not matter; the place does not matter. Whitman believes that people can live through each other and experience everything secondhand through their universal being. From there, they can dissect and learn from the experience, becoming “richer from his fortune” and that others will “plant [everyone] permanently within us” (131).

The Poet as the Innovator

Walt Whitman

Emerson comments on the structure of he feels “the poet” should embody in his poetry: “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” Emerson’s poet should not be reliant on the specific structure of his poems, like the many poets before him, but focus on the beauty of the language and purpose of writing. Walt Whitman does just that in all of his poems, being one of the first celebrated poets to write in free verse. His lines vary from very long and complex to very simple and short, letting the power of his language speak for itself since he uses no rhyme and meter. He even mixes lines of varying length, creating unique cadences in different ways. In Kosmos, he creates cadence not by using a particular structure, but by his punctuation and word choice within his free verse:

Who includes diversity and is Nature,

Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth and the equilibrium also,

Who has not look’d forth from the windows the eyes for nothing, or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing (1-5).

Although his lines vary in length and word count, a poetic cadence is still developed due to his use of commas and the natural pause that precedes the word “and.” Both successfully break the long lines and make it hard to decipher where the line breaks are when read out loud, giving Whitman’s work an element of surprise between mediums.

Whitman’s lack of structure also represents the country he is embodying, enforcing his role as representative. The connection between America, The Land of the Free, and Whitman’s style is simple to decipher: just as Whitman’s style differs from the strict structure of European poets, America’s government, traditions, and lifestyle differ greatly from its predecessors. Whitman describes America as “Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, / Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love” (America, 3-4). The freedom America possesses is echoed in Whitman’s style of writing; the thing that inspires Whitman most is engrained in every aspect of his work.

leaves of grass
Whitman’s self published edition of “Leaves of Grass”

As Whitman accurately states at the end of his 1855 version of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Whitman has absorbed his country and has given her its own poetic identity. By acting as the nation’s representative, he characterizes all of America and gives them a voice; by materializing the nation’s dreams, he is bringing them together through understanding as one human family; by sharing the nation’s experiences, he is uniting the country through commonality; by using an untraditional style, he is personifying the country’s youth, personality, and potential. These are the criteria Emerson expresses in The Poet, searching for the person to be the country’s liberating god. Walt Whitman is the god that liberates America’s literature, setting her free by creating her own unique national identity. Emerson incorrectly writes: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.” He told the poet to “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’” He did, but Emerson did not believe him. The man is Walt Whitman, the American, the kosmos, and “the poet.”

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Emerson Central. http://www.emersoncentral.com/poet.htm. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

“Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1856/poems/33 Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

“Second Whitman Lecture.” University of Virginia. http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/lects/jan21.html Web. 4 Dec. 2014

Whitman, Walt. “America.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/238130 Web. 4 Dec. 2014.

“Kosmos.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182483. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174747. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Whitman, Walt. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” American Literature: American Renaissance Literature. Ed. John Bryant. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. 244-250. Print.

“Song of Myself.” Bryant 259-319.

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  1. Walt Whitman is my prophet of love and optimism.

  2. Mikael Luster

    Walt Withman drives me nuts. I’m awed by the vast sweep of his poetry, by the grand celebration of America that he serves up, yet I find myself unable to keep up with the endless cataloging of every place, person and occupation.

  3. I used to confuse Walt Whitman with Wally Whyton, and was always vaguely puzzled as to why a performer of comic songs on 1970s British children’s TV seemed to have some kind of iconic status in American literature.

  4. Anything by Emerson makes me proud to be from new England.

  5. I don’t read a lot of poetry, mostly because I don’t like poetry.

  6. My favorite W. Whitman is “I bequeath myself to the dirt” which is the most simplified beautiful view on death/dying I have ever encountered.

  7. Marie Cheng Wu

    Emerson and Whitman are as relevant today as they were back then.

  8. Leaves of Grass is my new Bible.

  9. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Do I contradict myself? Constantly… thank you for work on these writers.

  10. Emerson has a lot to say. Unfortunately, He has too much to say and his writing (speeches) are convoluted and difficult to follow.

  11. Ryan Coop

    Emerson is my favorite author and has inspired me to live a better, fuller, wiser, and more meaningful life.

  12. Mike Giachetti

    No compilation of poems expresses the American soul as succinctly as Whitman’s work.

  13. Nice writeup on WW and RWE. I never really understood how to criticise poetry. Suppose you can go for the academic angle: the composition, historical context, stylistic importance, or you can write about your subjective reaction, and a bunch of bullshit theory as to what Whitman was actually on about, which is exactly what do because I never bothered attending literary criticism lectures.

  14. Walt Whitman lived within the epicenter during one of the most powerful times in American history, and I think he knew it.

  15. “What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”
    ― Walt Whitman

  16. Emerson was a spineless opportunist who took ideas from everyone with whom he was ever in contact.

  17. I love Emerson.

  18. Whitman’s lust for life is infectious.

  19. I don’t really understand why everyone is all wet for Walt Whitman, excuse the crude alliteration–I would normally say “hot and bothered about” but this occasion was too tempting–the poems are too broad and manage to contain everything but the kitchen sink.

  20. Nathaniel

    In another age Whitman would have written Holy Books. I think of him every time I cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

  21. Muath Alsh

    I enjoy selections of Whitman’s work and find him to be a very liberating American poetry icon.

  22. Ulla Conrad

    Whitman is one of my favorite back to high school…

  23. Jacqueline

    I first read Emerson in an American Literature course and immediately fell in love. I’m a big fan of nature so the transcendentalist view attracted my attention. Emerson uses very intense vocabulary and sentence structure, but once you spend the time to read things slowly you can decipher so much meaning in his writing.

  24. Morgan R. Muller

    Love this article, extremely well written!

  25. Cormier

    Whitman, to me, is what life is about.

  26. Savering

    I can see why Walt Whitman is often cited as the father of American poetry.

  27. Anneka

    Walt Whitman and Emerson are both fabulous. However, Emerson wasn’t speaking of Walt Whitman. Perhaps Walt Whitman does fulfill some of the qualities of “the poet” that Emerson speaks of, and Emerson does eventually befriend Whitman, but I believe that Emerson was writing to Walt Whitman rather sarcastically in response to him sending a copy of “Leaves of Grass.” Emerson wrote him a letter on July 21, 1855 and if not read correctly it can seem praising of Whitman, but I think it more leans to the side of an underlying tone of amusement at Whitman’s claim to being “the poet” Emerson is looking for.
    However, if we don’t consider Emerson’s letter to Whitman, or try to guess as to whether or not Emerson was calling upon a person as “the poet” or an ideal, than your article is correct. Whitman does fill in many of the characteristics Emerson lists. But so do many others, as Emerson writes of, when he says, “Is it only poets, and men of leisure and cultivation, who live with her? No; but also hunters, farmers, grooms, and butchers…His worship is sympathetic; he has no definitions, but he is commanded in nature, by the living power which he feels to be there present” (Emerson, The Norton Anthology: American Literature, p.1185).

  28. W.W. is a writer of uncontested power.

  29. The quotations from Whitman’s work were well-chosen as examples of Emerson’s categories. Whitman could make a strong case for himself as the American poet. It wasn’t clear to me that the final Emerson statement about looking in vain for the poet was directed at Whitman or constituted a specific rejection of Whitman’s claims. Was there an actual letter to Whitman from Emerson from which a brief quotation could be extracted to address this question?

    The photograph of the rural landscape was an evocative and effective visual aid.

  30. The editors missed a misspelling: “cannon” should be “canon” in the first paragraph, though I kind of like cannon as a pun on the American appetite for war-making.

  31. Joseph Cernik

    A nice essay. Reference to contrasting Whitman with European poets is interesting.

  32. I do see in similarity in Whitman’s broad subject matter (showing society as is) with that of Geoffrey Chaucer in England.

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