Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass – Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Although the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400.
The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman’s celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity. This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual human’s role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
With one exception, the poems do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and line length. Among the poems in the collection are “Song of Myself”, “I Sing the Body Electric”, and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”. Later editions included Whitman’s elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”.
Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit sexual imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many contemporary critics. Over time, however, the collection has infiltrated popular culture and been recognized as one of the central works of American poetry.
As scholarship has made its importance to American letters more manifest, editions of the 1855 version of Whitman’s masterpiece have multiplied. This one, prepared in honor of the poem’s 150th anniversary, will be hard to beat. Edited by major Americanist Reynolds (Walt Whitman’s America, etc.), it comes as close as possible, without being a facsimile, to reproducing Whitman’s original text, which he famously self-published. The familiar litho of the young rough with open collar opens the book, and Reynold’s terrific and informative afterword closes it, along with contemporary reviews (some written by Whitman himself) and Emerson’s famous letter (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career…”). Those who know Whitman only through the beautiful but bloated 1892 “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass will find here a lean, searing celebration of self.
David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Among his many books are Walt Whitman (part of Oxford’s Lives and Legacies series), Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Beneath the American Renaissance, winner of the Christian Gauss Award. A regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, he lives in Old Westbury, New York.
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