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Poetry Essay, Research Paper

Literature consists of many categories. The short story, the novel, and the poem are examples of these categories. Literature is more often then not a means of exposition for a central point, or theme, through symbolism. Poetry is the arrangement of these symbols and carefully metered language to convey a point. Many poets use their poetry as not only a means of conveying a theme, but also as a way of exploring their souls. Walt Whitman is one of these poets. Whitman has many themes in his works, and among them are self-revelation and the true self.

Self-revelation is the search for true self through poetry. Through complex images and symbols, like the colour grey representing onanism and at the same time Whitman himself (Burke, p.35,) or a bridge representing the future (Martin, p. 284,) Whitman searches his soul for the true self. Whitman s true self, as he described it, was the outcropping of my own emotional and personal nature an attempt to put a person, a human being freely, fully, and truly on record (Martin, p.283.) In other words, Whitman attempted to find himself in sometimes-undecipherable poetry. Consider the following quote from Song of Myself:

Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,

I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,

And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon

Long I was hugg d close long and long.


This quote not only shows Whitman s cryptic language, but also presents several of his other themes and oft-used symbolisms. Nothing and negativity are often used by Whitman to show the beauty and peace of fast-approaching death (Burke, p.42.) In fact, Whitman s poetry follows general trends according to his health and age; his more youthful, healthier poetry could be equated to the faller of trees, the woodcutter. His older, sicker poetry could be equated to the fallen tree, the timbre (Burke, p. 26-27.) One could, therefore, almost conclude that in his poetic acceptance of beautiful, peaceful death, Whitman indulges in self-assurance; that in his commiseration with the fallen trees, he finds solace for his ailing health.

Whitman also uses images with homosexual connotations in his poetry. The lines Long I was hugg d close long and long, Hugging and loving bedfellow, and I love him, but I do not know him, all hold homosexual nuances typical of Whitman. Even Whitman s ideal of democracy is defined as Love of male for male, (Burke, p. 33.) Moreover, says Kenneth Burke:

When we turn to the body politic, we note how the concretizing of the democratic code almost automatically vows Whitman to imagery of a homosexual cast. (p. 35)

Lavimoniere 3

In this statement Burke says that if Whitman s ideal of democracy is love between male and male, then the concretizing of this love would, logically, be homosexual acts.


Another of Whitman s themes used in the quote on page 2 is the realm of maternity. In that quote Whitman symbolizes peaceful, fast-approaching death in nothingness, but also symbolizes a sort of return to the womb;

I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,

And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon

Waiting symbolizes the fetus during pregnancy. Slept ever through the lethargic mist could also symbolize the fetus, within the embryonic sac, surrounded by a thick liquid. And took my time, could symbolize a long and arduous journey, perhaps like that of the fetus. And took no hurt from the fetid carbon, could symbolize the protection of a mother s womb. He even uses a term, fetid that sounds like fetus. Overall, he merges birth and death into the all-ness of the mother. The themes of Mother and Homosexuality, too, are combined and play-on-words are used occasionally in Whitman s works to form neutral, androgynous imagery (Burke, p. 42.) This androgyny is often used to promulgate Whitman s ideal of democracy.

One of Whitman s other prevalent themes is Unified Diversity, the theory of the individual s uniqueness of identity. In the fist page of this paper Whitman s search for the true self was discussed; this is his writing on the true self. Whitman idealized individuality as individuals immersed in a whole. Herein also lies some of his indulging solace; although the individual is extant, the whole is everlasting, which ties into another of Whitman s themes, perpetual passage. The individual is often expressed as an entity


in terms of the whole; often achieved through analogies between the individual s body and the World s body. An individual may be said to be wild and untamed like a flooding river, which shows that the individual, in comparison to not only the rest of society, but the world, is unruly. Whitman used similar analogies to try to put his soul, his very being into words. He also expressed his innermost soul through invented phrases and words; some examples are love-juice, limitless limpid jets of love, and life-lumps (Burke, p. 35.)

Another interesting theme in Whitman s works is that democracy is good, for it is ensnarled in a few other themes that The good grey poet held dear. If democracy is, indeed, good, then one must consider Whitman s ideal of democracy; love between male and male. Whitman, therefore, quantifies (and in some ways justifies) his own homosexual tendencies in the equivocal fa ade, Democracy Is Good, for who is to say that democracy is bad? Once again, one falls onto his indulgence in self-solace, for he creates a way to make the populace unknowingly accept and embrace his homosexual tendencies in accepting his support of democratic views. Consider the following quote, from Whitman himself:

I have not gain d the acceptance of my own time.

In this quote Whitman summates the personal and cultural conditions to which he owed the necessity of his self-searching (Martin, p. 283.) In other words, he tells us outright that he would not be accepted if he told the people of his true nature, and so feels impelled to express himself through ambivalent poetic terms and symbolism.


As a final point, there is some fair amount of symbolism in the titles chosen for Whitman s volumes, and individual poems themselves (Which, in its self is true to the Whitman theme of individuals in unity; there is parallel between Whitman s titles of poems, individuals, and volumes, wholes.) The most thought provoking of Whitman s Symbolic titles is Leaves of Grass, for the term leaves has many implications. It can mean leaving or dying, pages of a book, and even individuals. It is in the leaves representing individuals that Whitman s Theme of themes, -unified diversity- is employed; Leaves of Grass, leaves being individuals, grass being the group, is a analogical form (see page 4, 1, line 7) of Whitman s great theme of themes.

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