Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
In the twentieth century, the name Walt Whitman has been synonymous with poetry. Whitman's most celebrated work, Leaves of Grass, was the only book he ever wrote, and he took a lifetime to write it. A large assortment of poems, it is one of the most widely criticized works in literature, and one of the most loved works as well. Whitman was unmarried and childless, and it has been noted that Leaves of Grass consumed him greatly; James E. Miller Jr. writes:
"…he guided his poetic offspring through an uncertain, hesitant childhood, a lusty young manhood, and a serene old age…it is difficult to write the life of Whitman without writing instead of the life and times of his book…Whitman was the kind of parent who lives his life through his child." (Miller 15)
The "poetic offspring" that Miller writes of is of course Leaves of Grass.
Whitman poured his soul into the work, as he questioned himself and observed his demeanor through his writing. He "fathered" the tome, as after its initial publishing Whitman went on to release revision after revision as time progressed. Miller goes on to reflect on Whitman's methods, as he tells the reader of Whitman's curiosity towards life, particularly curious about his own meaning in the world in which he lived.
"Like any individual of depth and complexity, Whitman was continuously curious about who he was…(he had) a lusty enthusiasm, a hearty relish for life lived at all times to its fullest intensity." (Miller 17)
The life Whitman lived "to its fullest intensity" started in West Hills, Long Island, May 31, 1819. He was one of nine children to Walter and Louisa Whitman, his father a farmer and his mother a devout Quaker. Quakerism was the only religious inheritance the family passed on to Walt, and, as Miller notes, could also be seen later in his famous "sea-poem".
"Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight…
Passage to more than India!
Of secret of the earth and sky!
Of you o waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers!…
O day and night, passage to you!' (Whitman 180-294)
…His use of 'thee' and 'thou' in his poetry, his reference to the months by their sequential number ('ninth month' for September), and his instinctive adoption of the inner light—all of these Walt could trace back to his Quaker background." (Miller 17)
This Quakerism also contributed to the style of Leaves, told with certain closeness and a certain emphasis paralleling that of a preacher. Miller comments on this style:
"His was a day of evangelism and oratory. As a child he was no doubt frequently exposed to both. The passionate intimacy and pleading of many lines in Leaves of Grass could…have been used by an itinerant preacher…" (Miller 43)
Aside from his Quaker traces, Leaves of Grass has been criticized as being an extension of Whitman's life....