I'm Shirley Griffith.
And this is Doug Johnson with theSpecial English program, People in America. Today, we complete ourreport about the life and work of nineteenth-century American poetWalt Whitman.
Last week we told about how Walt Whitman published his book ofpoems, "Leaves of Grass," in eighteen-fifty-five. He was thirty-sixyears old.
"Leaves of Grass" was written in a new poetic language as naturalas breath. Whitman had created a new kind of poetry, the first trueAmerican poetry.
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work ofthe stars,
"And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and theegg of the wren ...
"And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue... "
Whitman's poetry praises and celebrates the natural world ofplants, animals, humans, rocks, stars and oceans. The long poem"Song of Myself" is his most famous. It begins:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
"And what I assume you shall assume,
"For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you ...
"The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it is odorless,
"It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
"I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised andnaked,
"I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
"The smoke of my own breath ...
"My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, thepassing of blood and air through my lungs ... "
Some years ago, critic Malcolm Cowley wrote about how WaltWhitman became a poet. It was a mystery, he said. It happened almostovernight.
Cowley said he believes Whitman's need to write poetry developedas he came to recognize his sexual nature. Whitman was homosexual;he loved men. As a poet of praise he wanted to praise his own truenature. But he also wanted to remain partly hidden and protected. Sohis language sometimes is direct and sometimes is not.
"I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itselfto you,
"And you must not be abased to the other ...
"I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
"How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned overupon me,
"And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongueto my bare stripped heart ... "
To some British readers, Whitman's poetry sounded like the truevoice of Americans. It was free and powerful. It was common andsweet as the open air. British writer Robert Louis Stevenson wrotethat "Leaves of Grass" turned the world upside down for him.
Yet most readers in Britain and the United States rejectedWhitman. Many were shocked by the poetry's new form and opensexuality. Many booksellers refused to sell "Leaves of Grass". Mostleading critics dismissed it.
Whitman's brother even criticized the poetry. "Walt," he said,"hasn't the world made it plain that it would rather not have yourbook. Why then don't you call the game off."
America's civil war began in eighteen-sixty-one. The Southernstates had broken away to protect their rights against the centralgovernment. They especially wanted to protect their legal right toown black slaves. The Northern states fought the South to save theUnion and free the slaves.
Walt Whitman had worked for many years for newspapers and groupsthat wanted the black man to be free. He believed that all peopleare equal in their humanity. So he supported the northern cause. Butat forty-one years of age, he was too old to fight. His youngerbrother George, however, joined immediately.
In the second year of the war, a big battle was fought nearFredericksburg, Virginia. George Whitman was an officer in the unionforces at Fredericksburg. Walt and his mother worried that Georgemight have been wounded in the battle. So Walt went to look forGeorge among the wounded.
He looked for his brother at hospitals in Washington, thenation's capital. He did not find his brother there, so he traveledto Fredericksburg. His brother had been wounded, but not seriously.
George asked Walt to stay at the camp for a few days. Walt stayedmore than a week, helping care for the wounded. He even helped burysome of the dead.
Walt found satisfaction in what he was doing. He decided to spendtime in Washington helping where he could. There were few nurses orvisitors there. And there were hundreds of injured and dyingsoldiers at army hospitals.
Walt Whitman was a tall, strong man. He was calm and kind. He satbeside the sick and dying men for hours. He wrote letters for them.He gave them water to drink. He brought them gifts of food andmoney. He hoped that his support and care would help some men tosurvive.
Whitman received no pay for his work among the wounded. He neededmoney to live in Washington. A friend found him a part-time job inthe army pay office, copying papers for a few hours a day.
The pay was low. But Whitman did not need much money. For threehours each morning, he worked at the pay office. Then he went to oneof the many hospitals in the city to visit the wounded. Around fourin the afternoon he usually left to eat his dinner. Then he wouldreturn to the hospital, staying until nine or ten at night.
Whitman often saw President Abraham Lincoln riding his horsebetween the White House and a home for soldiers just outsideWashington. Whitman wrote: "Mr. Lincoln wears a black stiff hat, andlooks as ordinary in dress as the commonest man. I see very clearlyLincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines ... The eyes,always to me, with a deep hidden sadness. We have got so that weexchange bows, very friendly ones. "
In March, eighteen-sixty-four, Lincoln was sworn in as presidentfor the second time. Whitman was in the crowd of thousands whowatched the ceremony.
The days following the inauguration were beautiful spring days.The terrible Civil War was ending. Whitman wrote about the beautifulspring weather that made lilacs and other spring flowers bloomearly. The nights were especially nice, he said. And a star in thewestern sky seemed to glow especially bright, as if it had somethingto tell the world.
On the Friday before Easter, Whitman and the nation learned thatLincoln had been shot and killed. Whitman felt a deep personal loss.Slowly he built the poem he called "When Lilacs Last in the DooryardBloom'd." This is how it begins:
"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
"And the great star early drooped in the western sky in thenight,
"I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
"O powerful western fallen star! ...
"Here, coffin that slowly passes,
"I give you my sprig of lilac."
Critic Malcolm Cowley wrote that Whitman's best poems seem tohave been made just this morning. They seem freshly painted. Andthey make us see the world in a new way.
Whitman's last years were troubled by poverty and increasingsickness. He continued to write poetry. Every few years, hepublished a new edition of "Leaves of Grass", putting in new poems.
Sales of the book increased a little. But few Americansrecognized Whitman's greatness. In Britain, however, he was seen asthe outstanding voice of the new world.
Whitman's health began to fail when he was in his early fifties.He went to camden, New Jersey to live with his brother George. Itwas a lonely life in a strange town. To keep himself busy, Whitmanwrote for New York newspapers and magazines. And he added more linesto "Leaves of Grass."
Walt Whitman did not fear death, which came ineighteen-ninety-two. He was seventy-three. Many years earlier he hadwritten:
"And as to you, death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it isidle to try to alarm me ...
"I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun ...
"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
"If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
"You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
"But I shall be good health to you nevertheless. ... "
This Special English program was written by Richard Thorman andCarolyn Weaver. It was produced by Paul Thompson. Rich Kleinfeldtread the poetry. I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Doug Johnson. Listen again next week for another Peoplein America program on VOA.