Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Joy of Prosody: Walt Whitman: his influences

Walt Whitman: his influences

By Liz Mastin

I believe when many people think of free verse, Walt Whitman and his revolutionary book celebrating America, (entitled) Leaves of Grass comes to mind. And just as individual “words” in our language are derived from some influencing sound, idea or thing, so Walt Whitman had his influences when generating his style of free-verse writing.

It was shortly after the Romantic period (a revolutionary time in itself, when poets left-off with requisite strict “iambic” lines and began including “substituted feet”) that the next new revolutionary era of “free verse” came into being. Samuel Taylor Coleridge played a large role in this poetic transformation when he originated the idea of poems having what he called an “organic form.” His new idea argued that the form of a poem grew out of the vitality of its content; the “argument” makes the “meter” instead of the meter being “a predetermined form” acting as a “constraint” on the content.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
                                                                                               - Walt Whitman

And influenced by Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay entitled “The Poet” which he read to the New York Societal Library in Manhattan on March 5, 1842.  Walt Whitman, only 23 years old, was in the audience when he heard Emerson declare: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe….Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negros and Indians, our boasts and reputations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.”   

Upon hearing these words, Whitman said that the lecture was “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at anytime.”  He added: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering.”
Thus, according to Stephen Dobyns, in his book Best Words, Best OrderWhitman became the first to use the idea of organic form as a reason for abandoning traditional meters altogether!” In developing the style of his poems, he was influenced by the rhythmical prose of essayists Emerson and Carlyle, and by the oratory of preachers he had heard during his childhood, specifically one Quaker preacher named Elias Hicks. According to Dobyns: “The form Whitman modified for his uses was the verset, which derives from the King James Version of the Bible, specifically The Song of Songs, Psalms, and The Prophets.  What replaces the metrical line is “the cadence” which is a symmetrical balancing of phrase units of similar lengths. The cadence often appears as an explanation and rationalization for free verse.
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of "LEAVES OF GRASS." I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. 
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging … Excerpted from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Whitman, thanking him for a copy of Leaves of Grass, July 21, 1855.
“Whitman’s enthusiasm and declamatory energy can be seen as influencing poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara and Gertrude Stein.”

Whitman used poetic techniques such as assonance, alliteration, antithesis and parallelism, but he did not use enjambment and all his lines were end-stopped.  Algernon Swinburne, along with poet William Rosetti published the first version of Leaves of Grass in London in February, 1868.  


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I have been transported! Thank you so much, Liz.

Anonymous said...

An excellent short statement of the influences that inspired & informed Whitman but your last line is open to question. " Algernon Swinburne, along with poet William Rosetti published the first version of Leaves of Grass in London in February, 1868."

The first version of L of G was self-published in Brooklyn, NY in July. 1855. Darrel Blaine Ford