Walt Whitman

May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892

Background

Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Born in Huntington on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and—in addition to publishing his poetry—was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War.

Poetic Style

Whitman’s poetry is democratic in both its subject matter and its language. Whitman is concerned with cataloguing the new America he sees growing around him. Just as America is far different politically and practically from its European counterparts, so too must American poetry distinguish itself from previous models.

The poetic structures he employs are unconventional but reflect his democratic ideals. Lists are a way for him to bring together a wide variety of items without imposing a hierarchy on them. Perception, rather than analysis, is the basis for this kind of poetry, which uses few metaphors or other kinds of symbolic language. Anecdotes are another favored device. By transmitting a story, often one he has gotten from another individual, Whitman hopes to give his readers a sympathetic experience, which will allow them to incorporate the anecdote into their own history. The kind of language Whitman uses sometimes supports and sometimes seems to contradict his philosophy. He often uses obscure, foreign, or invented words. This, however, is not meant to be intellectually elitist but is instead meant to signify Whitman’s status as a unique individual.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.That you are here—that life exists and identity,That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Poem Analysis

Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs. Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all. That can be very wearing on the human spirit. Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves. Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self and with existence in general.

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