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Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass, written by Walt Whitman, is a collection of poems, the most famous of which is "Song of Myself," however there are many others in the collection that display his poetic ability equally well, such as "I Sing the Body Electric," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and his homage to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!"

The collection is notable for its delight in, and praise of, the senses. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (and the first edition particularly) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of (especially German) Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises Nature and the individual human's role therein. However, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.

There is no definitive edition of Leaves of Grass. The first edition, published on July 4, 1855 in Brooklyn, New York, was remarkable for its sense of 'newness;' it is difficult to convey to the modern reader, accustomed to widely varying styles of poetry (Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg come to mind), how different Whitman's language really was from contemporary poetry. Until the 1891-92 'Death-Bed Edition,' Whitman continued the process of manipulating, adding, and sometimes removing altogether the poetry of Leaves of Grass. Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting for the first edition, which he published anonymously. However, again flouting convention, a picture of Walt appeared on the front, the poet in short-sleeves, arms at his side and wearing a jaunty hat - in short, the everyman persona he assumes in the poetry.

In 1882, Whitman faced the possibility of legal prosecution of Leaves of Grass on obscenity grounds, continuing a minor tradition of American censorship and prefiguring the case of James Joyce and his great novel, Ulysses. Somewhat ironically, the publicity arising from the charge against Leaves of Grass increases sales and Whitman's royalties thereof.

The book of poetry is divided into smaller sections of poetry. These include:

  • Inscriptions
  • Children of Adam
  • Calamus
  • Birds of Passage
  • Sea-Drift
  • By the Roadside
  • Drum-Taps
  • Memories of President Lincoln
  • Autumn Rivulets
  • Whispers of Heavenly Death
  • From Noon to Starry Night
  • Songs of Parting
  • Sands at Seventy

Also:

  • Good-bye My Fancy (Second Annex)
  • Old Age Echoes (Posthumous)

The 'Drum-Taps' section was added in 1865, after the death of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1890, prefiguring Queer theory, the critic and gay intellectual John Addington Symonds proposed a homosexual reading of the 'Calamus' poems. Whitman, indignant, denied what he presumably considered an accusation of immorality.

Chronology

  • 1855 First Edition. (Anonymous)
  • 1856 Second Edition. (Signed) Adds Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
  • 1860 Third Edition Adds Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.
  • 1867 Fourth Edition Adds When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
  • 1871 Fifth Edition Adds Passage to India.
  • 1875 Centeniall Edition
  • 1881 Seventh Edition
  • 1889 Eighth Edition
  • 1891 Ninth Edition (Sometimes called the Authorized or Death-Bed Edition.)

In 1868, a much-diminished selection from Leaves of Grass, entitledPoems of Walt Whitman, is published by William Rosetti in England.

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