1. Describe Whitman’s conceptions of the soul and the body, and the relationship between the two. Which is more important, in his view?
The soul and the body are inextricably linked for Whitman. While the soul is the ultimate repository of the self, and connection between souls is the highest order of relating, the body is the vessel that allows the soul to experience the world. Therefore the body is just as important. This is why he says in “Starting from Paumanok” that he will make his poems from the body and from material things, for the soul will follow from those. The body is also the source of identity in the world and the means for connection to others. Thus in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he speaks of the body as one’s identity: it is the means by which different generations can experience the same thing (in this case the ferry crossing). Whitman values both the soul and the body, but the body is much easier to work with.
2. How do you account for the eroticism in Whitman’s poetry? Does he use homosexual eroticism differently from heterosexual eroticism?
Eroticism, in Whitman’s poetry, symbolizes the profound but always incomplete communion between people. Sex is as close as two people can get to becoming one, but the physical body, while it enables this closeness, is also a barrier to complete connection. Heterosexual eroticism is often used to discuss childbearing, which comes out of the same generative process that creates poetry. Homoeroticism, since it is purely about the connection between two people and has no biological function, can be used to talk about a broader range of ideas. In particular, homoeroticism comes to symbolize the kind of valorization of the body and the kind of sympathetic connection between people that Whitman values most.
3. What kinds of structures does Whitman use in his poetry? Why might he be using these rather than traditional structures like rhyme?
Two of the most important structures in Whitman’s poetry are the list and the anecdote. The list enables Whitman to present a great number of disparate items without having to make any claims as to their relative worth; this is a truly democratic way of presenting material. It is also an easy way for him to go about cataloguing America, a nation that is raw material for poetry. Anecdotes, on the other hand, are a way for him to demonstrate the kind of sympathetic experience he hopes his poetry will be. When he presents a story he’s heard from another, he presents it as something that has become so real to him that he feels he has experienced it himself. This kind of intense connection between people is the goal of Whitman’s poetry. He avoids traditional structures like rhyme because he wants to show that his is a truly American poetry, one that is fresh and new, and not indebted to previous poets from other countries.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Describe Whitman’s diction. What kind of language does he use? Does this have implications politically? Poetically?
2. Discuss the relationship of the poems in Leaves of Grass to one another. Are they intended to be read together or separately? Do they form one larger document? What about the different editions of Leaves of Grass? Why did Whitman keep revising this work?
3. How does Whitman handle modernity and technological change? What kinds of landscapes do we see in his poetry? What role does the city play? What role does nature play?
4. What is uniquely American about Whitman’s poetry? Consider both substance and style.
5. How does Whitman incorporate current events into his poetry? What about the Civil War?
6. What, in Whitman’s view, is the function of poetry? Does it have a public or ceremonial role?
7. Describe Whitman’s account of his development as a poet. What experiences were important, and why?
1. Discuss Whitman’s notion of democracy. Why does he urge the individual states to “Resist much, obey little”?
2. Describe the mystical and spiritual references in Eidolons.
3. Discuss Whitman’s enthusiasm for “the Modern Man” in One’s-Self I Sing and the working people he describes in I Hear America Singing.
Song of Myself
1. The central image of Whitman’s book is the single blade of grass. Discuss this image and its symbolism.
2. Do you agree with Whitman that one should “loafe” and relax on the grass in order to fully appreciate life and nature? Why or why not?
3. Whitman asserts that he is a part of all people and things, and they are a part of him. Discuss this idea.
4. Discuss Whitman’s notion of God and spirituality.
Children of Adam
1. Compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the image of Adam first introduced in To the Garden the World and the image of Adam reintroduced in As Adam Early in the Morning.
2. Judging from the poems in this cluster, how does Whitman feel about Nature?
1. What is the definition of “calamus” in the dictionary, and why does Whitman find it an appropriate title for this cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass?
2. What does Whitman want to use his poems here to express? What does he hope to leave behind “to be perused best afterwards”?
3. According to Whitman, what is a love relationship like? What does it involve? What are the dangers, and what are the rewards?
Birds of Passage and Sea-Drift
1. Discuss the adventurous American spirit of the pioneers as depicted in Whitman’s poems. Do you think this is a realistic portrayal of the people and events of the time? Is there a similar spirit among Americans today?
2. What does...
(The entire section is 810 words.)