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The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - A Review by Barry Van-Asten,
This review is from: The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman (Wordsworth Poetry Library) (Paperback)
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an innovative American `wandering' poet who produced some very extraordinary and original poems. `Leaves of Grass' (1855) is his first published collection of verse which he continued to revise and extend throughout subsequent editions. It is written in the free verse style which became synonymous with Whitman and also features the poem sequence `Calamus', considered to be quite obscene for its time. It was these poems which gave rise to the many theories concerning Whitman's sexuality, because of the homosexual interpretations of the poems.
Whitman worked as a clerk and during the Civil War he was a volunteer nurse at a hospital and it was during this time that he published another collection of poems called `Drum-Taps' in 1865. As a poet, he seems to invent a new vocabulary in an attempt to create a voice for the New World which is growing up around him: `I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul, / The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a / New tongue.' [Song of Myself] Poems such as: `When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd', `Pioneers! O Pioneers!', `I sing the body electric', `Out of the cradle endlessly rocking', `O Captain! My Captain!', and `Sometimes with one I love' are free from the conventional poetic restrictions and sweet with an almost pagan rejoicing of life! Upon my first reading of the complete poems I was completely surprised at how `modern' Whitman feels in comparison to his English contemporaries, such as Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) and Robert Browning (1812-1889). His inventive use of words and poetic structure seems totally alien to his period and throughout his works I found myself thrown by a word or a line as if struck by electricity! He is only one of two poets to have done so, the other being the great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)!
Whitman has a sense of freedom and realism about him and this influenced such writers as D H Lawrence (1885-1939) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972). He may have looked like some Old Testament Prophet or a gruff old mountain man, but he was thinking years ahead of his time!