Poet Spotlight: Walt Whitman

This week will be featuring another one of America’s most prominent poets in American history!

This week’s spotlight: Walt Whitman

Photo Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

On May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was born, the second of nine children. At the age of twelve, Whitman became acquainted with Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare while learning the printing trade and quickly fell in love with the written word.

After a fire devastated the printing district in New York City in 1835, seventeen-year-old Whitman became a teacher, and he taught from 1836 to 1841. He founded a newspaper called The Long-Islander that is still publishing today and later edited different Brooklyn and New York newspapers.

In 1848, Whitman moved to New Orleans where he was exposed to various cultural differences that sparked a creative period for him. He quickly returned to Brooklyn and founded a “free soil” newspaper called The Brooklyn Freeman and began to develop his unique style of poetry. In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which featured

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

twelve untitled poems that we now know as poetic classics, including “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” He also wrote the influential “O Captain! My Captain!” and “O Me! O Life!

In 1862, Whitman visited Fredericksburg to find his brother, George, who fought for the Union. He was getting a wound treated there, and this prompted Whitman to moved to Washington D.C. and spend time visiting the wounded soldiers. He made nearly 600 hospital visits and saw 80,000 to 100,000 patients. The works was physically and emotionally exhausting but propelled him back into poetry, leading to the publication of a new collection call Drum-Taps.

The exploration of self and the fight to overcome moral, psychological and political boundaries which are so evident in these poems make Walt Whitman one of America’s most important poets to date.

Here’s one of his shorter pieces, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

“When I heard the learn’s astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, 
divide, and measured them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he
lectured with much applause in the lecture-room.
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” 


Check back in next week for the next installment of Poet Spotlight!