Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on July 6, 2020.
Shocked at the election of their next president, many Americans at the end of 2016 turned to social media, petitions, polls, and the streets in protest. A century and a half ago, shocked at the assassination of the sitting president, who had overseen the reunification of a divided nation, Walt Whitman turned to poetry. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman famously eulogized Abraham Lincoln as the fallen leader of the great ship of America, which he called a “vessel grim and daring.”
But for Whitman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political lament; it was also a political force in itself. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman claimed of the United States, “Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall,” echoing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous dictum in 1840’s “A Defence of Poetry”: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley was referring to the role that art and culture play in shaping the desires and will of people, which eventually come to be reflected in the law. But Whitman went even further in his preface. “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature,” he wrote. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Whitman’s claim stemmed from a belief that both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts—a notion that is especially relevant at a time when America feels bitterly divided.
Notably, Whitman’s grammar (“the United States are”) signals his understanding of the country as a plural noun—not one uniform body, but a union of disparate parts. Whitman was centrally concerned with the American experiment in democracy and its power to produce “out of many, one,” even at as great a cost as the Civil War and the faltering Reconstruction. Whitman thus celebrates in his work the many kinds of individuals who make up a society as well as the tensions that bring individuals together in a variegated community. In “I Hear America Singing,” he writes:*
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck …
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else
Whitman is perhaps America’s first democratic poet. The free verse he adopts in his work reflects a newly naturalized and accessible poetic language. His overarching themes—the individual, the nation, the body, the soul, and everyday life and work—mirror the primary values of America’s founding. Then and now, his poetry is for everyone. As Whitman asserts later in the preface to Leaves of Grass:
The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.
In his self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman included a drawing of himself, the poet. He is wearing the loose, casual garb of the laborer. He is neither the ruffled courtly bard of a previous age, nor the tweedy and erudite Oxford author of a later age. (Successive editions depict Whitman as more urbane.) He asserts himself, at least initially, as a poet of the modern world: rude, raw, and representative of the common man.
Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s prescient words about Whitman, published five years ago in The Atlantic, could easily have come from this year’s postelection analysis:
Today’s politicians and pundits seem to have forgotten the unemployed in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gain reduction, and high corporate taxes. How rarely we hear about the factory worker, the contractor, the construction worker whose lives have been upended by the prolonged economic disaster … Mostly they’re forgotten and ignored.
But Whitman wouldn’t have forgotten them … He knew that the fate of each one of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all.
The notion that the fate of each one of us is tied to the fate of all is the essence of democracy, and of Whitman’s poetry.
Even while staking out his place as a common man, Whitman saw for the poet a special role within democracy. In “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” (first published in 1856 but revised many times until its final version in 1867), Whitman asserts, “Of these States the poet is the equable man.” The equable person is one who both sees and acts justly. The poet does this better than the politician because, Whitman says:
[The poet] bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,
In peace out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty,
building populous towns, encouraging agriculture, arts,
commerce, lighting the study of man, the soul, health,
immortality, government …
He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a
As he sees the farthest he has the most faith …
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and
women as dreams or dots.
This role Whitman assigns the literary imagination in shaping the standards of judgment essential to democracy is a “startling claim,” says the American philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum. In Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Nussbaum argues that “the ability to imagine vividly, and then to assess judicially, another person’s pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance is a powerful way of learning what the human facts are and of acquiring a motivation to alter them.” In other words, poetry constitutes the practice of what robust pluralism requires.
A literary imagination, Nussbaum writes, “promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.” Thus, although Whitman’s racist views of black people, shaped in part by the bad science of the day, were contradictory and at times ambivalent, his poetic vision forged a way past his own hidebound limitations toward greater justice. In “To Foreign Lands,” Whitman claims that his poems offer the world the very definition of America: “I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World / And to define America, her athletic Democracy, / Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.” An “athletic democracy” is made so not by politicians, Whitman claims, but by poetry. For the poetic mind is a mind attuned to justice.
In her work On Beauty and Being Just, the Harvard professor of aesthetics Elaine Scarry describes the importance of multiple viewpoints, arguments, and counterarguments to “political assembly,” wondering how “will one hear the nuances of even this debate unless one also makes oneself available to the songs of birds or poets?” The basis of poetry is precisely those connections forged between different elements, different voices, and different perspectives. In envisioning the United States as “the greatest poem,” Whitman links the essence of poetry, which is unity within diversity, to the essence of democracy. Within the epic poem that is America, a president is but one figure.
* This article previously misstated the title of Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing."