The Shadow Waters blog
Donate to Site
Found broken links?
Want something added?
Get our eNewsletter
Visit the Walt Whitman Archive
Akihito Ishikawa Site on American Authors 1865-1914
D. Campbell's Walt Whitman Resource Site
Susan Belasco's Intro to Whitman, Emerson, and others
Walt Whitman Biography
by Joshua Dolezal
One of the most innovative poets in the American tradition, Walt Whitman nevertheless owes a good deal to his precursors and ought to be understood as central, rather than anomalous, to American thought. Whitman’s father was influenced by Thomas Paine, perhaps the most polemical of the Founders, and patriotism was so thoroughly ingrained in the family that Whitman’s three younger brothers bore the ostentatious names of Andrew Jackson Whitman, George Washington Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson Whitman. Consequently, however far he might step from the masses, Whitman was raised with a powerful sense of entitlement to his national birthright.
While many of Whitman’s poems celebrate the natural world, he was also attuned to urban life, as poems such as “The Sleepers” illustrate. Whitman’s father was an itinerant laborer in Brooklyn, having failed at carpentry and farming. In the city, Walt had access to some of the country’s greatest museums, which were instrumental in his self-education beyond the classroom. He also loved rural Long Island, a touchstone for much of his pastoral poetry. The conventional city-country conflict thus became reconciled in Whitman’s vision of the United States, which D.H. Lawrence would later characterize as driven by the principle of “Allness.”
Like most writers, Whitman became a poet through a long apprenticeship, working as a journalist and refining his craft through imitation. His travels throughout the South reinforced his abhorrence of slavery and introduced him to New Orleans, where he had one of his earliest documented relationships with a male lover.
Whitman’s celebration of sexuality, particularly homoeroticism, remains one of his most progressive qualities. Unlike earlier writers, such as the Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth, whose diary contains numerous confessions of desire for his male students, Whitman refused to conceal his identity. He was, as Walter Blackburn Harte writes, “unfalteringly the hero of his convictions.” In the tradition of American dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Thomas Morton, and many others, Whitman also challenged the federal and cultural establishment as a war protestor. War posed the greatest threat to his vision of the national union, where he imagined conventional binaries to be resolved, and Whitman spent much of the Civil War attending to the wounded in Union hospitals and on the battlefield, quite tangibly trying to mend what had broken apart in the country he loved and courted in verse.
Perhaps the most ironic caveat in Whitman’s life is that Leaves of Grass, his breakthrough work and most anthologized text, was self-published in 1855, with a second edition the following year, which failed to attract much of an audience until Thayer and Eldridge of Boston reprinted a revised manuscript in 1860. Despite the ostensible recklessness and formlessness of much of his work, Whitman was obsessed with revision and would produce four more significantly altered editions of Leaves before his death in 1892. Leaves of Grass encompasses most of Whitman’s work throughout its various editions in 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871-72, 1881-82, and the “deathbed” edition in 1891-92. His other manuscripts include Drum-Taps (1865), Democratic Vistas (1870), Passage to India (1870), Memoranda During the War (1875-76), Two Rivulets (1876), Specimen Days (1881-82), November Boughs (1888), and Good-Bye My Fancy (1891).
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, every tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
All is Truth
O ME, man of slack faith so long!
Standing aloof—denying portions so long;
Only aware to-day of compact, all-diffused truth;
Discovering to-day there is no lie, or form of lie, and can be none,
but grows as inevitably
upon itself as the truth does upon itself,
Or as any law of the earth, or any natural production of the earth does.
(This is curious, and may not be realized immediately—But it must
I feel in myself that I represent falsehoods equally with the rest,
And that the universe does.)
Where has fail’d a perfect return, indifferent of lies or the truth?
Is it upon the ground, or in water or fire? or in the spirit of man?
or in the meat and blood?
Meditating among liars, and retreating sternly into myself, I see that
there are really
no liars or lies after all,
And that nothing fails its perfect return—And that what are called lies
are perfect returns,
And that each thing exactly represents itself, and what has preceded it,
And that the truth includes all, and is compact, just as much as space
And that there is no flaw or vacuum in the amount of the truth—but
that all is truth without exception;
And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.
I WANDER all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradic-
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.
How solemn they look there, stretch'd and still,
How quiet they breathe, the little children in their cradles.
The wretched features of ennuyés, the white features of corpses,
the livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of onanists,
The gash'd bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their strong-door'd
rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging from
gates, and the dying emerging from gates,
The night pervades them and infolds them.
The married couple sleep calmly in their bed, he with his palm on
the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of
The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed,
The men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,
And the mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt.
The blind sleep, and the deaf and dumb sleep,
The prisoner sleeps well in the prison, the runaway son sleeps,
The murderer that is to be hung next day, how does he sleep?
And the murder'd person, how does he sleep?
The female that loves unrequited sleeps,
And the male that loves unrequited sleeps,
The head of the money-maker that plotted all day sleeps,
And the enraged and treacherous dispositions, all, all sleep.
I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and
the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.
Now I pierce the darkness, new beings appear,
The earth recedes from me into the night,
I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is
I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers
each in turn,
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.
I am a dance—play up there! the fit is whirling me fast!
I am the ever-laughing—it is new moon and twilight,
I see the hiding of douceurs, I see nimble ghosts whichever way
Cache and cache again deep in the ground and sea, and where it
is neither ground nor sea.
Well do they do their jobs those journeymen divine,
Only from me can they hide nothing, and would not if they could,
I reckon I am their boss and they make me a pet besides,
And surround me and lead me and run ahead when I walk,
To lift their cunning covers to signify me with stretch'd arms, and
resume the way;
Onward we move, a gay gang of blackguards! with mirth-shouting
music and wild-flapping pennants of joy!
I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician,
The emigrant and the exile, the criminal that stood in the box,
He who has been famous and he who shall be famous after to-day,
The stammerer, the well-form'd person, the wasted or feeble
I am she who adorn'd herself and folded her hair expectantly,
My truant lover has come, and it is dark.
Double yourself and receive me darkness,
Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without
I roll myself upon you as upon a bed, I resign myself to the dusk.
He whom I call answers me and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.
Darkness, you are gentler than my lover, his flesh was sweaty and
I feel the hot moisture yet that he left me.
My hands are spread forth, I pass them in all directions,
I would sound up the shadowy shore to which you are journeying.
Be careful darkness! already what was it touch'd me?
I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat, I follow, I fade away.
I descend my western course, my sinews are flaccid,
Perfume and youth course through me and I am their wake.
It is my face yellow and wrinkled instead of the old woman's,
I sit low in a straw-bottom chair and carefully darn my grandson's
It is I too, the sleepless widow looking out on the winter mid-
I see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth.
A shroud I see and I am the shroud, I wrap a body and lie in the
It is dark here under ground, it is not evil or pain here, it is blank
here, for reasons.
(It seems to me that every thing in the light and air ought to be
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the
eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with
courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head- fore-
most on the rocks.
What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? will you kill him in the prime
of his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles,
He is baffled, bang'd, bruis'd, he holds out while his strength holds
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him
away, they roll him, swing him, turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is continually
bruis'd on rocks,
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
I turn but do not extricate myself,
Confused, a past-reading, another, but with darkness yet.
The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind, the wreck-guns sound,
The tempest lulls, the moon comes floundering through the drifts.
I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as
she strikes, I hear the howls of dismay, they grow fainter
I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,
I can but rush to the surf and let it drench me and freeze
I search with the crowd, not one of the company is wash'd to us
In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in
Now of the older war-days, the defeat at Brooklyn,
Washington stands inside the lines, he stands on the intrench'd
hills amid a crowd of officers,
His face is cold and damp, he cannot repress the weeping drops,
He lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes, the color is blanch'd from
He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him by
The same at last and at last when peace is declared,
He stands in the room of the old tavern, the well-belov'd soldiers
all pass through,
The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns,
The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them on
He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another, he shakes
hands and bids good-by to the army.
Now what my mother told me one day as we sat at dinner
Of when she was a nearly grown girl living home with her parents
on the old homestead.
A red squaw came one breakfast-time to the old homestead,
On her back she carried a bundle of rushes for rush-bottoming
Her hair, straight, shiny, coarse, black, profuse, half-envelop'd her
Her step was free and elastic, and her voice sounded exquisitely
as she spoke.
My mother look'd in delight and amazement at the stranger,
She look'd at the freshness of her tall-borne face and full and
The more she look'd upon her she loved her,
Never before had she seen such wonderful beauty and purity,
She made her sit on a bench by the jamb of the fireplace, she
cook'd food for her,
She had no work to give her, but she gave her remembrance and
The red squaw staid all the forenoon, and toward the middle of
the afternoon she went away,
O my mother was loth to have her go away,
All the week she thought of her, she watch'd for her many a
She remember'd her many a winter and many a summer,
But the red squaw never came nor was heard of there again.
A show of the summer softness—a contact of something unseen
—an amour of the light and air,
I am jealous and overwhelm'd with friendliness,
And will go gallivant with the light and air myself.
O love and summer, you are in the dreams and in me,
Autumn and winter are in the dreams, the farmer goes with his
The droves and crops increase, the barns are well-fill'd.
Elements merge in the night, ships make tacks in the dreams,
The sailor sails, the exile returns home,
The fugitive returns unharm'd, the immigrant is back beyond
months and years,
The poor Irishman lives in the simple house of his childhood
with the well-known neighbors and faces,
They warmly welcome him, he is barefoot again, he forgets he is
The Dutchman voyages home, and the Scotchman and Welshman
voyage home, and the native of the Mediterranean voy-
To every port of England, France, Spain, enter well-fill'd ships,
The Swiss foots it toward his hills, the Prussian goes his way, the
Hungarian his way, and the Pole his way,
The Swede returns, and the Dane and Norwegian return.
The homeward bound and the outward bound,
The beautiful lost swimmer, the ennuyé, the onanist, the female
that loves unrequited, the money-maker,
The actor and actress, those through with their parts and those
waiting to commence,
The affectionate boy, the husband and wife, the voter, the nominee
that is chosen and the nominee that has fail'd,
The great already known and the great any time after to-day,
The stammerer, the sick, the perfect-form'd, the homely,
The criminal that stood in the box, the judge that sat and sen-
tenced him, the fluent lawyers, the jury, the audience,
The laugher and weeper, the dancer, the midnight widow, the red
The consumptive, the erysipalite, the idiot, he that is wrong'd,
The antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark,
I swear they are averaged now—one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken'd them and restored them.
I swear they are all beautiful,
Every one that sleeps is beautiful, every thing in the dim light is
The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.
Peace is always beautiful,
The myth of heaven indicates peace and night.
The myth of heaven indicates the soul,
The soul is always beautiful, it appears more or it appears less, it
comes or it lags behind,
It comes from its embower'd garden and looks pleasantly on
itself and encloses the world,
Perfect and clean the genitals previously jetting, and perfect and
clean the womb cohering,
The head well-grown proportion'd and plumb, and the bowels and
joints proportion'd and plumb.
The soul is always beautiful,
The universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place,
What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place,
The twisted skull waits, the watery or rotten blood waits,
The child of the glutton or venerealee waits long, and the child
of the drunkard waits long, and the drunkard himself waits
The sleepers that lived and died wait, the far advanced are to go
on in their turns, and the far behind are to come on in
The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite
—they unite now.
The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as
they lie unclothed,
The Asiatic and African are hand in hand, the European and
American are hand in hand,
Learn'd and unlearn'd are hand in hand, and male and female are
hand in hand,
The bare arm of the girl crosses the bare breast of her lover, they
press close without lust, his lips press her neck,
The father holds his grown or ungrown son in his arms with meas-
ureless love, and the son holds the father in his arms with
The white hair of the mother shines on the white wrist of the
The breath of the boy goes with the breath of the man, friend is
inarm'd by friend,
The scholar kisses the teacher and the teacher kisses the scholar,
the wrong'd is made right,
The call of the slave is one with the master's call, and the master
salutes the slave,
The felon steps forth from the prison, the insane becomes sane,
the suffering of sick persons is reliev'd,
The sweatings and fevers stop, the throat that was unsound is
sound, the lungs of the consumptive are resumed, the poor
distress'd head is free,
The joints of the rheumatic move as smoothly as ever, and
smoother than ever,
Stiflings and passages open, the paralyzed become supple,
The swell'd and convuls'd and congested awake to themselves in
They pass the invigoration of the night and the chemistry of the
night, and awake.
I too pass from the night,
I stay a while away O night, but I return to you again and love you.
Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid, I have been well brought forward by you,
I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in whom I lay
I know not how I came of you and I know not where I go with
you, but I know I came well and shall go well.
I will stop only a time with the night, and rise betimes,
I will duly pass the day O my mother, and duly return to you.
Advertise With Us