Whitman’s poetry of democracy
What is it we call democracy, to begin with? “Democracy” comes from the Greek word “demos”, meaning “people”, and from the Greek word “cratos” meaning “strength, power”.
Basically, democracy can be defined as a system of government, and this is the basic definition which can be found in the dictionary, in which all the people of a country elect their representatives. It can also be defined as the fair and equal treatment of everyone in an organization, and their right to take part in making decisions. What emerges from this definition is the importance of the notions of freedom, of equality, of brotherhood too in democracy, as the essential ideals of democracy.
Whitman’s faith in democracy expresses itself from the very beginning of Leaves of Grass. It stands as one of Whitman’s most important beliefs emerging from the opening sequence of poems of his book, Inscriptions (Aubier, p. 36-45)
The opening poem, “One’s-Self I Sing”, (p. 36) can be considered an illustration of the poet’s faith in democracy. In this opening poem, the poetic self, the speaker in the poem declares that he “utter(s) the word Democratic, the word En-Masse”. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass begins as a sort of song in praise of Democracy, as an ode of sorts in praise of democracy, the ode traditionally being a poem in praise of somebody or something. One notices, however, that, if Whitman returns to the traditional genre of the ode, a genre initially introduced by the Greek poet Pindar (Vth c. BC) and by the Latin poet Horace (Ist c. BC), a genre revived by the Romantics who excelled at writing odes, it is mainly to renew this traditional type of poem obeying a given sophisticated form. For his poetry in praise of democracy, Walt Whitman proposes a new kind of composition, composition in free verse, rejecting fixed forms, rejecting conventional line patterns, conventional stanzaic structures, as well as conventional end-rhyme schemes.
There is a linguistic dimension added to the thematic project to write the poems of democracy in Leaves of Grass. Writing the poems of democracy, writing the song of democracy, is a linguistic enterprise, a linguistic project to renew poetic forms, to renew poetic language, to invent democratic forms, a democratic language, for the poetry of the young American nation in the process of becoming model of democracy to the rest of the world. At the beginning of his collection, the poet’s composition in free verse and his unconventional treatment of poetic structures reveal his intention to break with the old traditions of poetic meter and poetic form, with a tradition which has made of poetry a difficult and erudite kind of art reserved for a cultivated elite. One of the main tenets of democracy, freedom, is already conveyed, already imposes itself through the very composition of the poems, which can be considered as deeply unconventional, quasi revolutionary. The democratic belief in...