“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown.”
-Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass
Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island (near Huntington), New York, and moved to Brooklyn four years later. This self-described “mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself” (Song of Myself) knew a variety of occupations during his formative years: drifter, printer, teacher, reporter, editor, novelist. The celebrated “melting pot” of New York during the turbulent 1840’s provided him an education in diversity and democratic values. When he was 36 he published Leaves of Grass, consisting of 12 long, untitled poems, which he revised and expanded throughout his life. During the Civil War he helped to nurse and comfort the wounded. His elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, is but one of several enduring masterpieces. Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey in 1892.
No subject was off limits to Whitman. He celebrated the body and all its functions as exuberantly as he did the spirit, and his human subjects were not the lofty beings of myth and romance but flesh-and-blood men and women of the humblest kind. He also broke the formal constraints of poetry in his time by writing in unrhymed, unmetrical verse. Ralph Waldo Emerson acknowledged Whitman’s new poetic voice as “the most wonderful gift…the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
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