The Democratic Poet and His Prose on Democracy. The Poet's Role in Walt Whitman's "Preface 1855 - Leaves of Grass" and "From Democratic Vistas"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 31 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass
i. The Poet’s Role
ii. The Poet’s Language
iii. The Poet’s Themes

III. From Democratic Vistas (1871
i. The State of the Nation
ii. A National Literature for America
iii. The Poet’s Role in Developing a National Identity

IV. Poetry – The New Religion

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

“For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,

For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders.”[1]

I. Introduction

When the 52-year-old Walt Whitman published his essay “From Democratic Vistas”[2] in 1871, the end of the Civil War, which had marked the climax of the separation between the Northern and Southern States, was only six years ago. The wounds of this five-year-war of brother against brother, which had cost 618,000 casualties on both sides,[3] were certainly not healed and the question of re-unification was still un-answered. During the 1860s and 1870s the United States were changing tremendously. Due to the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era and the following Gilded Age,[4] America was turning into a modern, industrialized country where materialism seemed to be the finite answer. Though Whitman fully acknowledged this materialistic development of his country when he stated, “not the least doubtful am I on any prospects of their [United States’] business, material success,”[5] he nevertheless saw beyond the simple answers of wealth and prosperity. Whitman realized that the United States found themselves at a turning point, which was to decide upon their democratic future.

At this point in time, Whitman wrote his essay “From Democratic Vistas” on the outlooks of America’s future democracy. According to him, this future lied in a democratic nationality and a spiritual union that could only be achieved through a national literature, because “democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology.”[6] Therefore Whitman argued that the “fundamental want to-day in the United States […] is of a class […] of native authors, literatures […] modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief.”[7]

The call for a national literature led by the American poet was not something new in Whitman’s written work. Already in his “Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass,” published six years before the beginning of the Civil War, he had formulated that America “with veins full of poetical stuff most need[s] poets.”[8] Nevertheless, there is a noticeable difference between the general role of the poet in his 1855 preface and the urgent need of national literary figures in times of re-unification that Whitman put forth in his 1871 essay, in which he insisted that “two or three really original American poets […] would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative, and judicial ties.”[9]

While Whitman’s poet in the 1855 preface obtained the role of an observer of the country and her common people for they “are essentially the greatest poem”[10] themselves, the poet’s role in “From Democratic Vistas” changed into an active builder of democracy for “great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals.”[11] This change of role is due to Whitman’s personal experiences during the Civil War. The healing process of re-unification after the war was not simply a materialistic or institutional reunion for Whitman, but rather an act of forming a sense of nationhood within the American people again. This was the poet’s task. Being no longer an observer from the outside, Whitman’s challenged poet was forced to take up an active stand in the nation-building process after the Civil War.

II. Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass

When Walt Whitman published his first collection of poems under the title “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, he opened with a theoretical essay on poetry. Interestingly, the essay was not so much concerned with lyrical style and form, but rather with the content of contemporary poetry and the role of the poet in American society. Whitman, who himself had challenged the conventions of poetic expression, was eager to call upon new themes and roles for the American poet. Stronger than any of his contemporaries, Whitman emphasized on the importance of a national literature. Whitman’s “cultural revolution” was to be led by the great American poet, a figure yet to come. By “predicting and defining the functions of the poet and the form and range of poetry,”[12] Whitman strongly influenced the development of American poetry far into the twentieth century.

II.i. The Poet’s Role

In his 1855 preface Whitman put great emphasize on the strong ties that exist between the American poet, his country and its common people. This connection appears to be unbreakable for the poet’s “country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,”[13] as Whitman concluded. Whitman’s trinity of country, people, and poet repeatedly gains its inspiration from within itself. The United States are not “merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations” and are in themselves “essentially the greatest poem.”[14] Furthermore, America’s outstanding personalities are not people from the elite, as it is the case in other countries, but her common people, who Whitman regarded as “unrhymed poetry”[15] as well. The third angle in this symbiotic triangular is the poet, whose work is inspired by the close relationship to his country and his people. According to Whitman the American poet should always be on the same level with his people and “his spirit [should always] respond[ ] to his country’s spirit,[16] in order to reflect upon everything that is of importance in his homeland and to his fellow citizens. Even though Whitman’s poet is certainly not restricted to be a narrow-minded nationalist, his subjects should nevertheless arise from the soul of his own people, which is likewise his own soul.[17] In “Preface 1855”, Whitman encouraged the American poet to concentrate mainly on American topics and treat the other continents as “contributions.”[18]

Already in his earlier essay, Whitman advocated the importance of a national literature for the United States. Obviously, great American writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville had already published their masterpieces by the time Whitman called for the great American poet. But at that time, “the definition of a nationally independent American literature was still new and far from being universally accepted,” as Walter Grünzweig formulated.[19] Furthermore, Whitman claimed that the poet possessed the “superiority of genuineness over all fiction and romance,”[20] for it was him who dealt with the basic rules that “are of use”[21] to everyone. Whitman did not grant an equal position to American literary geniuses of prose. His literary hierarchy was in accord to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view on the poet’s position. In his essay “The Poet” from 1844, Emerson wrote that “the sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells.”[22] Both Emerson and Whitman put the poet and his interpretation of the world on the highest literary position of all and even on the highest position of mankind in general for “the great poet is the equable man.”[23]

Whitman praised the virtues of the great poet. To him he was the mediator, the judge, the arbitrator, who gave the same right and attention to everybody and everything. The poet was able to be so truly democratic, because he saw the farthest. He was in fact a “seer”[24] who perceived things that others did not see. Therefore his judgment on people and things was not unbalanced, but all-embracing. Even though Whitman argued that the poet “is complete in himself,”[25] he nevertheless claimed that the common people were as good as the great poet. The only difference was their perception of the world.

But Whitman did not only praise the great poet, he also challenged the chosen writer to take up his responsibilities, namely to interpret and translate the world for the common man. Especially the young democracy of America needed poets and would “use them the greatest,”[26] according to Whitman. The poet, and not the president, was to be the common reference of the American nation. To fulfill this role, the poet had to go beyond regular boundaries to create something new. Whitman’s great American poet received his creativity from the diverse theme of the American republic, of democracy itself. Democracy was the fuel that drove the American poet to new “vistas.”[27] The great poet was the only one who could express these visions, because he was “the voice and exposition of liberty. [He] out of ages [is] worthy the grand idea” of democracy and therefore it was his responsibility “to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”[28] It was not enough for the American poet to simply write about the beauties of the world that he perceived. His duty went far beyond the description of common things, because people expected “him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.”[29]

Whitman argued that the common people, and of them especially the outdoor people, were well aware of the beauty around them. The beauty was especially to be found in nature and already Emerson had argued that “every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible of these enchantments of nature: for all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.”[30] Hence, the great poet needed to step beyond being simply overwhelmed by the beauties of the world. His obligation was to bring to the reader “the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read.”[31] In contrast to other concepts of the poet, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s idea of the ‘poeta assoluto’,[32] the poet who writes poetry for its own sake, Whitman’s poet worked in the service of the public and of democracy in general. In that sense, the great American poet was not free to do as pleased, but had to fulfill his obligation for it was him that the secret of liberty had been told to. He had to maintain that key and “give the sign of democracy”[33] to his fellow countrymen.

Despite the poet’s special role as an interpreter, his position nevertheless did not give him permission to “moralize or [to] make applications of morals.”[34] The poet was not a lecturer. It was not his duty to act according to society’s rules or to come up with those regulations. His knowledge was not the knowledge of an organized community, but that of the individual soul. Only the direct confrontation with each soul would get the reader truly involved in a conversation with the poet on equal terms. This equality between the individual and the poet was very significant to Whitman. The poet was not a teacher-figure. And so Whitman told his reader in his own poetry, “you are also asking me questions and I hear you, I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.”[35]


[1] Walt Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, in: Leaves of Grass and Other Writings Walt Whitman, Michael Moon (ed.), W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, London, 2002, p. 292.

[2] “From Democratic Vistas” mainly consists of two other essays – entitled “Democracy” (1867) and “Personalism” (1868).

[3] Paul S. Boyer (ed.), The Oxford Companion to United States History, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, p. 132.

[4] The title of Mark Twain’s novel “The Gilded Age” gave name to an era remembered as a time of corrupt and issueless politics, corporate domination, and oppressive treatment of the less fortunate.

[5] W.W., From Democratic Vistas, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 758.

[6] W.W., From Democratic Vistas, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 759.

[7] Ibid, p. 759.

[8] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 619.

[9] W.W., From Democratic Vistas, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 762.

[10] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 616.

[11] W.W., From Democratic Vistas, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 760.

[12] Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett, Introduction, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, pp. xlvii.

[13] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 636.

[14] Ibid, p. 616.

[15] Ibid, p. 617.

[16] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 618.

[17] Ibid, pp. 617-618.

[18] Ibid, p. 618.

[19] Walter Grünzweig, “For America – For All the Earth”: Walt Whitman as an International(ist) Poet, in: Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman (eds.), Breaking Bounds – Whitman and American Cultural Studies, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, Oxford, 1996, p. 238. By the mid-eighteen-fifties, European literature was still triumphant on the American book market. The significance of these great American authors, including Whitman, was to be discovered by later generations.

[20] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 628.

[21] Ibid, p. 629.

[22] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet (1844), in: American Literature – The Norton Anthology, Nina Baym (ed.), 5th edition, Vol. 1, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, London, 1998, p. 1146.

[23] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 620.

[24] Ibid, p. 621.

[25] Ibid, p. 621.

[26] Ibid, p. 619.

[27] Ibid, p. 619. The word ‘vistas’ (meaning ‘view’, ‘panorama’, ‘perspective’, ‘prospect’, and above all ‘vision’) was especially important to Whitman’s political essays on democracy. The word combines intellectual and spiritual aspects, because a vision consists of thought (located in the brain) and inspiration (associated with the soul). Whitman also combined these two elements in his poetry when he wrote, “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul” [W.W., Song of Myself, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 43.].

[28] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 627.

[29] Ibid, p. 621.

[30] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet, in: American Literature, Nina Baym (ed.), 1998, p. 1148.

[31] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 623.

[32] Martin Schulze, Geschichte der Amerikanischen Literatur – Von den Anfängen bis heute, Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin, 1999, p. 115.

[33] W.W., Song of Myself, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 46.

[34] W.W., Preface 1855 – Leaves of Grass, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 624.

[35] W.W., Song of Myself, in: Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon (ed.), 2002, p. 73.


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Title: The Democratic Poet and His Prose on Democracy. The Poet's Role in Walt Whitman's  "Preface 1855 - Leaves of Grass" and "From Democratic Vistas"