Is It the Times That Made Whitman’s Poetry?

by Amy
Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, one of America’s most celebrated poets, is often regarded as a quintessential voice of the 19th century. His work, particularly his seminal collection Leaves of Grass, resonates with the energy, optimism, and contradictions of his era. The question of whether it was the times that made Whitman’s poetry or Whitman who shaped the perception of his times is a compelling one. This article will explore this dynamic interplay, delving into the historical, social, and cultural contexts that influenced Whitman and examining how his poetry, in turn, reflected and impacted his world.

See also: Why Are Whitman’s Poems Full of Freedom and Romance?

The Historical Context

Whitman was born in 1819 and lived through a period of profound change in American society. His lifetime saw the nation grapple with issues such as slavery, civil war, industrialization, and westward expansion. These events and transformations provided rich material for Whitman’s poetic exploration and significantly influenced his worldview.

The Antebellum Period

During Whitman’s early years, the United States was a young and rapidly growing nation. The spirit of democracy and the ideals of the American Revolution were still fresh, and there was a strong sense of possibility and progress. However, this period was also marked by deep divisions over slavery, with the country inching closer to civil war.

Whitman’s experiences as a young man working in various jobs, including as a teacher, printer, and journalist, exposed him to diverse aspects of American life. These experiences broadened his understanding of the nation’s strengths and flaws, which would later be reflected in his poetry.

The Civil War

The Civil War (1861-1865) was a pivotal event in Whitman’s life and had a profound impact on his poetry. Serving as a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C., Whitman witnessed the brutal realities of war and the suffering of soldiers. This experience deepened his empathy and his commitment to themes of unity, healing, and the human spirit.

Whitman’s collection Drum-Taps (1865), written during and after the war, captures the emotional and physical toll of the conflict. Poems like “The Wound-Dresser” convey the pain and compassion he felt, while others like “Reconciliation” express his hope for healing and national unity.

Post-War America and Reconstruction

The post-war period, known as Reconstruction, was a time of rebuilding and significant social change. The abolition of slavery, the struggle for civil rights, and the expansion of industrialization and urbanization all influenced Whitman’s later work. His poetry from this period reflects a more introspective and sometimes somber tone, as he grappled with the challenges and disillusionments of a rapidly changing society.

The Cultural and Social Influences

Whitman’s poetry was also shaped by broader cultural and social currents. The transcendentalist movement, the rise of a distinct American literary voice, and the democratization of society were all important influences.


Transcendentalism, a philosophical and literary movement that emerged in the early 19th century, emphasized individual intuition and the inherent goodness of people and nature. Leading figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau championed the idea of self-reliance and the spiritual connection between humanity and the natural world.

Whitman was deeply influenced by transcendentalist ideas, particularly the celebration of the individual and the belief in a universal spirit that connects all beings. His poetry often reflects these themes, as seen in the famous lines from “Song of Myself”:

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

American Literary Nationalism

The mid-19th century saw a burgeoning sense of American literary nationalism, with writers striving to create a distinctively American voice. Whitman’s bold, free verse style and his focus on American themes and experiences positioned him as a key figure in this movement.

Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass famously declared:

“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”

This assertion reflects his belief in the poetic potential of American democracy and his ambition to create a poetry that embodied the nation’s spirit and diversity.

The Democratization of Society

The 19th century was also a period of increasing democratization in American society, with expanded voting rights and greater social mobility. Whitman’s poetry celebrates the common person and the democratic ideals of equality and inclusivity.

His work often features a diverse cast of characters, from laborers and farmers to sailors and soldiers, reflecting his belief in the dignity and worth of every individual. This democratic ethos is encapsulated in lines like:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Whitman’s Revolutionary Poetic Style

In addition to the historical and cultural contexts that influenced Whitman, his revolutionary poetic style was a significant factor in shaping his work. Whitman broke away from traditional forms and conventions, creating a new kind of poetry that was distinctly his own.

Free Verse

Whitman is often credited with popularizing free verse in American poetry. Unlike traditional verse forms that rely on rhyme and meter, free verse allows for greater flexibility and natural expression. This form suited Whitman’s expansive, inclusive vision and his desire to capture the rhythms of American life.

Catalogs and Lists

One of Whitman’s signature techniques is the use of catalogs and lists. This technique allows him to encompass a wide range of experiences and voices, creating a sense of abundance and diversity. In “Song of Myself,” for example, Whitman lists a multitude of people and occupations, celebrating the variety of American life.

Vivid Imagery and Sensory Detail

Whitman’s poetry is known for its vivid imagery and sensory detail. He uses concrete, evocative language to create powerful, immersive experiences for the reader. This technique helps to convey the immediacy and richness of life, as seen in lines like:

“The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders.”

Whitman’s Themes and Vision

Whitman’s poetry is characterized by several recurring themes and a visionary quality that reflects his deep engagement with the world around him.

The Individual and the Collective

One of the central tensions in Whitman’s work is the relationship between the individual and the collective. He celebrates the uniqueness of the individual while also emphasizing the interconnectedness of all people. This dual focus reflects his belief in the democratic ideal and the potential for unity in diversity.

Nature and the Cosmos

Nature is a pervasive theme in Whitman’s poetry, reflecting his transcendentalist influences and his reverence for the natural world. He often draws connections between nature and the human spirit, suggesting a fundamental harmony between the two.

Whitman’s cosmic vision also extends beyond the natural world to encompass the universe. His poetry frequently explores themes of infinity and the interconnectedness of all life, as seen in lines like:

“A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets.”

Democracy and Equality

Whitman’s commitment to democracy and equality is a defining feature of his work. He believed in the inherent worth of every individual and the potential for collective progress and enlightenment. His poetry often expresses a deep faith in the principles of democracy and the possibility of a more just and inclusive society.

The Impact of Whitman’s Poetry

Whitman’s poetry has had a profound and lasting impact on American literature and culture. His innovative style, expansive vision, and democratic ethos have influenced generations of poets and writers.

Influence on American Poetry

Whitman’s use of free verse and his focus on the individual and the collective have inspired countless poets, from his contemporaries to modern-day writers. His work paved the way for the development of a distinctively American poetic voice, characterized by openness, inclusivity, and innovation.

Cultural Legacy

Whitman’s cultural legacy extends beyond poetry to encompass broader artistic and intellectual movements. His celebration of the individual and his visionary embrace of diversity and democracy have resonated with various social and political movements, from the civil rights movement to contemporary discussions of identity and inclusion.

Global Influence

Whitman’s impact is not confined to the United States; his poetry has also found a global audience. Translations of Leaves of Grass have introduced his work to readers around the world, and his themes of universality and interconnectedness have resonated across cultures.


The question of whether it was the times that made Whitman’s poetry or Whitman who shaped the perception of his times is ultimately a matter of both. Whitman’s work is deeply rooted in the historical, social, and cultural contexts of the 19th century, reflecting the challenges, aspirations, and contradictions of his era. At the same time, his innovative poetic style, visionary themes, and democratic ethos have left an indelible mark on American literature and culture, influencing the way we understand and engage with our world.

Whitman’s poetry serves as a testament to the power of the written word to capture the essence of a time and to transcend it, offering insights and inspiration for generations to come. His work remains a vital and enduring part of the literary landscape, a reminder of the potential for poetry to illuminate, challenge, and transform.

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