English Literature
Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass

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The Revolutionary Poetry Collection: Exploring the Impact of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (1855)

Walt Whitman, a renowned American poet and author, wrote a seminal collection of poetry known as "Leaves of Grass". Initially published in 1855, this work forever changed the political, artistic, and perceptual landscape of America. With its profound influence on the perception of the American wilderness, Whitman's use of free verse and his bold acceptance of sensuality and controversy has earned him the title of "father of free verse". This article offers an overview of this groundbreaking collection and its profound impact throughout history.

Before delving into the world of "Leaves of Grass", it's important to first understand the man behind the literary masterpiece. As a collection inspired by his life experiences, Whitman's personal journey heavily influenced its content. Born in 1819, Whitman (1819-1892) left formal education at the young age of 11 and began writing in his early teens. Working for various print shops and publications exposed him to high-quality writing, fueling his own poetic endeavors. In 1850, Whitman set out to write a new American epic, drawing inspiration from Greek mythology.

Whitman's ambition to make "Leaves of Grass" a popular work is evident in his incorporation of prominent literary movements of the time, such as Transcendentalism, Realism, and Romanticism. In 1855, he self-published the first bound copy of the collection. While it initially did not gain recognition, it caught the attention of influential writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, a key figure in the Transcendentalist movement.

The philosophy of Transcendentalism, founded by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, centers around the belief in the innate goodness and unity of humanity and nature. Whitman's love for the opera and theatre also influenced his work, with the latter having a significant impact on "Leaves of Grass". In fact, Whitman himself admitted that the collection would not have come into existence without the opera.

"Leaves of Grass": An Epic Ode to America

The historical context of "Leaves of Grass" is vital in understanding its powerful content. The collection was originally published and republished during a highly influential era in American history, with Whitman drawing inspiration from significant events and movements, including:

  • The American Civil War: This significant event occurred during Whitman's early to mid-40s. His brother, George Whitman, was injured in Virginia at the start of the war and Whitman traveled there to assist with the war effort. While he was a staunch supporter of the Union army and President Abraham Lincoln, Whitman believed in avoiding extreme and absolute opinions on both sides of the conflict.
  • The American Wilderness: The rugged and untamed wilderness greatly influenced Whitman's work. His poems celebrate the natural world and its connection to the human body and spirit, embodying the spirit of Romanticism which glorifies nature and individual freedom.
  • Politics and Democracy: "Leaves of Grass" also reflects Whitman's political beliefs, with themes of democracy and race prevalent throughout the collection. His poems often explore the ideals of equality and freedom, shedding light on the struggles faced by America during that time period.

"Leaves of Grass" may have been Whitman's life's work, but its impact has reached far beyond his lifetime. Today, it is still considered one of the most influential works in American literature, known for its use of free verse, bold acceptance of sensuality, and exploration of political and social issues. For a deeper understanding of Whitman's notable poems and their themes, StudySmarter's Walt Whitman page offers a comprehensive guide. Let "Leaves of Grass" transport you to a time of change and revolution in America.

Walt Whitman: The Man, The Poet, The Legacy

Walt Whitman was not only a renowned poet, but also a volunteer army nurse during the Civil War. After the war, he settled in Washington and worked as a government clerk for 10 years. During this time, he provided medical care to soldiers from both sides, forming a close relationship with one of his lovers, Peter Doyle, whose identity was only revealed after Whitman's death. It was during the Civil War that Whitman's poetry took a dramatic turn, with his love for Abraham Lincoln frequently reflected in his work, as seen in his famous poems "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".

The Formative Years of Walt Whitman

In the mid-1800s, Walt Whitman emerged as a prominent poet, greatly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement of the time. This movement, which focused on individualism, nature, and unity, can be seen throughout many of his poems. Whitman was a part of a community of writers that included the likes of Emerson and Thoreau. This close-knit group provided constant inspiration and encouraged each other's work, greatly influencing Whitman's writing.

The Controversial "Leaves of Grass"

Whitman's most famous work, "Leaves of Grass", faced much controversy upon its initial publication due to its explicit and sensual content. Critics and fellow writers, including Emerson, expressed concerns about the graphic nature of some poems. In fact, one edition was even banned for being deemed "obscene". However, Whitman remained steadfast in his refusal to alter his work, solidifying his reputation as a genre-defining poet.

Exploring the Themes of "Leaves of Grass"

A collection of over 400 poems, "Leaves of Grass" underwent several editions during Whitman's lifetime, with each edition containing more poems than the last. It is a monumental work that cannot be easily summarized, but this article will delve into some of its key themes and collections.

The Literary Context of "Leaves of Grass"

Whitman often included a prose introduction in his editions of "Leaves of Grass", where he discussed his work and experiences. In the 1855 edition, he emphasized the power of poetry to influence politics and the importance of beauty in his work. He also reflected on his transcendent nature, a prevalent theme throughout the collection.

The Interconnectedness of Humanity and Nature in Whitman's Poetry

Whitman believed that the soul of a nation is reflected in its poets, and his poems often explore the relationship between the individual and the world around them. In "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing", he emphasizes the need for companionship between humans and their surroundings. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" critiques the superficiality of science and turns to nature to contemplate the human experience. His most famous poem, "Song of Myself", glorifies the human body while also recognizing its connection to the world.

An Influence on Romanticism

Whitman's love for nature and his belief in the elevation of the self greatly influenced the literary movement of Romanticism. Through poems like "Song of Myself", he celebrates the beauty of nature and embodies the concepts of Romantic Nationalism. "A Child Said, What is the Grass?" further showcases this interconnectedness between nature, humanity, and the spirit.

Walt Whitman's Impact on the Perception of Wilderness in America

During a time when the American wilderness was seen as something to be conquered, Walt Whitman's engagement with it influenced the country's perception for years to come. His belief in the power of nature and the unity it brings to people who share similar beliefs is evident in his writing.

Whitman's poetry celebrates the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, shaping American literature for centuries to come. Through his works, he reminds us of the beauty and strength of the human spirit and its connection to the world around us.

The Relationship Between Humanity and Wilderness in Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is a classic exploration of the connection between the human body and the untamed wilderness. Through his speaker in the poem, Whitman breaks down traditional boundaries, blurring the lines between nature and humanity. As a poet of the Southern landscape, Whitman's writings about animals, plants, and mountains reveal his belief that nature is a source of spiritual enlightenment.

In Section 31 of 'Song of Myself', Whitman reflects on the interconnectedness between man and nature, stating, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars". This line highlights the speaker's spiritual connection with nature throughout the poem, as he goes from struggling to explain a simple leaf to firmly believing that it is a product of cosmic work.

The Influence of Walt Whitman's Political Beliefs on His Poetry

In addition to his deep connection with nature, Whitman also had a strong interest in politics. His collections Drum-Taps, Sequel to Drum-taps, and Memories of President Lincoln were all written during the Civil War and focused on the political climate of America at the time. As a Nationalist, Whitman believed in the ideals of democracy and the two-party system. He often incorporated his political beliefs into his poetry.

One of Whitman's most famous political poems, 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', was written about the assassination of President Lincoln. In this poem, the speaker expresses his grief over the loss of the president and presents a sprig of lilac as a symbol of respect and mourning.

The Controversial Themes of Sensuality in Leaves of Grass

One of the most controversial aspects of Leaves of Grass is its exploration of sensuality. Whitman's admiration for the male body and his inclusion of nudity, sex, and sensuality in his writing sparked backlash from publishers and critics. However, Whitman saw these experiences as integral parts of both politics and nature.

Although Emerson suggested that Whitman remove poems like 'I Sing the Body Electric' and 'A Woman Waits for Me' to appeal to a wider audience, Whitman refused to censor his sensual expressions in his poetry. He believed that his experiences of nature and embodiment were deeply spiritual and intimate, rather than solely sexual.

An Analysis of the Poetic Devices Used in Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass is a genre-defying collection of poetry that incorporates various stylistic elements. Some notable devices used by Whitman include free verse, prose rhythm, and symbolism. In fact, Whitman is often referred to as "the Father of Free Verse" due to his contributions to this style of poetry.

In conclusion, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass challenges traditional boundaries and explores the connections between humanity and wilderness, politics and nature, and sensuality and spirituality. Through his masterful use of poetic devices, Whitman creates a unique and thought-provoking collection of poems that continue to inspire readers to this day.

Understanding Free Verse Poetry and Its Impact on Literature

Free verse is a style of poetry that breaks away from traditional conventions, such as rhyme and meter. It allows poets to use sonics, meter, rhyme scheme, and other poetic devices of their choice. One of the pioneers of this style was Walt Whitman, whose collection Leaves of Grass revolutionized the genre. Throughout his works, Whitman wrote in a prosaic manner, unbounded by rules.

Through his use of form, Walt Whitman delved into the themes of freedom and individuality in his work, making it central to his writing in Leaves of Grass. Unlike traditional poetry that adheres to a predetermined structure, Whitman's poems in Leaves of Grass often adopt a prose rhythm to tell his stories. His language, with its melodic and sonic elements, makes his work both captivating to read and listen to. However, it lacks the typical "poetic" quality as it relies heavily on grammatical structures commonly associated with prose, such as end stops, long lines, and narrative storytelling. This use of prose rhythm also allowed Whitman to experiment and explore the form of the long poem, resulting in generally longer poems due to the length of his lines.

Impact of 'Leaves of Grass' on Poetry

First published in 1855, Leaves of Grass experienced multiple editions, with a total of nine published throughout Whitman's lifetime. It was a groundbreaking work that challenged established poetic norms and paved the way for free verse poetry. Interestingly, it was written just before the Symbolist movement in France, which shared many similarities with Whitman's style. Both used sensory perceptions to engage with the universe and pushed away from conventional poetic techniques. Whitman also incorporated symbols throughout his work, including grass, drums, lilacs, and the sky, to make bold statements about the essence of the universe and humanity.

Famous Passages from 'Song of Myself'

In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman showcases his poetic prowess with memorable quotes. One of the most famous lines is from Section 51: "I am large, I contain multitudes." This quote reflects Whitman's transcendental beliefs, emphasizing the vastness of the individual, who holds the entire universe within themselves. It also portrays the profound connection between the self and the exploration of the spiritual universe.

Another unforgettable quote from "Song of Myself" is "That you are here - that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." This line, also featured in the film Dead Poets Society, comes from Whitman's poem "O Me! O Life!" published in 1891. It delves into the concept of mortality and the legacy we leave behind as individuals in the grand play of life. Interestingly, this poem was published a year before Whitman's death, and it is believed to be a reflection on mortality.

The opening lines of Leaves of Grass contain yet another famous quote: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." These profound words celebrate the individual self while acknowledging the connection that all humans share. It is another testament to Whitman's transcendentalist influences.

Key Themes in 'Leaves of Grass'

As a collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass delves into various themes such as Transcendentalism, Romanticism, sensuality, nature, and politics. It was Whitman's attempt to create a new American masterpiece that would resonate with the masses. Through his use of free verse and prose rhythm, Whitman broke away from traditional norms and opened new doors for self-expression and experimentation in the world of poetry.


In conclusion, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman was a groundbreaking work that revolutionized poetry. Whitman's use of free verse, prose rhythm, and symbolism challenged traditional poetic techniques and paved the way for future poets to experiment and innovate with their writing. With its exploration of themes such as freedom, individuality, and nature, Leaves of Grass remains a timeless and influential piece of literature.


  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855.
  • Schramm, Geoffrey Saunders. "Whitman's Lifelong Endeavor: Leaves of Grass at 150." Humanities. 2005.

Uncovering the Ban on Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman's renowned work, Leaves of Grass, sparked controversy and was eventually banned due to its depiction of sensuality and eroticism. In 1882, the District Attorney of Boston made the decision to ban the book, citing violations of public statutes on obscene literature.

The Impact of Leaves of Grass on American Poetry

Leaves of Grass holds a unique and influential place in the landscape of American poetry. Its ground-breaking approach brought about a significant change in the genre, making it a defining work in the United States. Through the incorporation of political, Transcendentalist, and Romantic themes, Whitman created a distinct identity for Leaves of Grass unlike any other poetry of its time.

Exploring the Themes in Leaves of Grass

Within Leaves of Grass, Whitman explores a multitude of themes, including Transcendentalism, Mysticism, Romanticism in nature, the American wild, politics, and sensuality. Through these themes, he skillfully captures the essence of American life and the pioneering spirit that shaped the nation.

The Enduring Significance of Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass holds immense importance as it revolutionized the way poetry was written about the American wilderness and individual experiences. Its impact extends beyond literature, shaping perceptions of the American pioneer and influencing policy and publishing decisions. Additionally, Leaves of Grass played a crucial role in the transition from the Transcendentalist movement to the Realist movement, making it a pivotal work in American literary history.

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