Widely considered the cornerstone of modern poetry, Whitman's book of poems in all its transformations may be the most radically original book of important poetry. In the first poem of the first edition, Whitman sings of "Myself." With the gradual success that came during the last 36 years of his life, for better and for worse, the book established the poet's self as the central topic and process of poetry.
The poet insists he is inseparable from his poems, that he is his poems, that he creates himself by writing poems, and that his readers and he become part of each other when the poems are read. Egotistical, defiant of manners and conventions, a loner, disingenuous, tactless, his obvious flaws of character failed to put off a host of partisans who devoted themselves to Walt with intense loyalty that carried on beyond his lifetime. By his death in 1892 Leaves of Grass was finding some acceptance in the literary establishment. A century later it seems the preeminent book of American poetry, the book that defines American poetry.
Simultaneously obscure and exhilarating, Leaves of Grass has never been an easy book for readers. Long unmetrical lines define their own rhythms as they go along. The poems are Homerically digressive, often seeming aimless to the point of incoherence. The meanings of the poems seem inseparable from the process by which they are made. Words, phrases, and images that fill the lines arise in a poet's whim that wanders wherever the eye looks next. In making the poems, the poet seems to drift regressively into his deepest self—beyond the reach of conventions, logic, or inhibitions.
First lines announce a poem's topic, and then the poet names objects, images, impressions that occur to him in connection with the topic. By naming things, the poet creates his connection to the topic and also creates a context which defines the topic for him. He demands that readers suspend all preconceptions about the world, about language, about poetry, and even about themselves. Those who can let themselves flow along in the poet's flood of good-humored energy may escape the puzzlements. Like the poet they must be able and willing to tolerate a vast degree of disorder and be confident that when the need arises, they can step back into the world of other people and ordinary discourse.
Whitman's poems do not describe actual or psychological events; they are the events. The poet made himself from line to line and poem to poem. So the book grew. In 1855 there were a dozen poems, including "Song of Myself." Fourteen months later there were 32 poems which he printed as the second Leaves of Grass. Eight months later he wrote a friend that he had written 68 new poems and was about to publish a third edition of a hundred poems. Instead, there was a delay of about 18 months when Whitman apparently wrote little. There was almost certainly an emotional crisis, possibly involving an affair with an actual lover. The act of writing the Calamus poems, poems about the love of comrades, seems deeply involved with the crisis.
When the third Leaves of Grass finally appeared (1860), it contained 156 poems, including nearly all Whitman's best poems. Although he would write nearly 250 more poems, only a few more would involve the deeply regressive journeys to the sources of poetry that produced works like "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "There Was a Child Went Forth," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," or "Song of the Broad-Axe." In his first five years as a poet Whitman created a style and a voice, and all but a handful of the great poems he would ever write. It was truly a miraculous event of poetic fecundity. After 1860 Whitman almost ceased to undertake the very deep regressive journeys which had produced his first great flowering.
The new poems written after the crisis, especially "Out of the Cradle," and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," differed from most previous Leaves of Grass poems in often having distinct beginnings, middles, and ends; they reflected a new need for conscious order and structure. The poet became increasingly able to turn away from his almost exclusive preoccupation with the self, turning to the Not Me and to circumstances. He now wrote impressionistic sketches of Civil War scenes, Drum-Taps, sketches that work in words as impressionist paintings work in colors. The eye that records the war scenes is more attuned to otherness than the voice that speaks the earlier poems of Leaves of Grass. The new receptiveness to the Not Me reaches its height in the superb elegy to Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," but it continues to be present in numerous brief lyrics. Two more major poems remained to be written: "Passage to India" (1871) and "Prayer of Columbus" (1874).
In the 1867 edition, Whitman began the restless sorting, organizing, and classifying of poems that would occupy him for the rest of his life. Apparently he sought an external, conscious structure to answer critics who said his work was formless or obscure. Through revisions, Whitman also tried to ameliorate the extremity of the early poems, some revisions being so severe that no more than a line or two of the original poem remained. The revisions, too, seemed a gesture in the direction of being more sociable, less the loner. Gay Wilson Allen calls the fourth the "Workshop Edition," and judges it the most "chaotic" of them all (118). Whitman's critical vigor was not in harmony with his creative achievements.
Through the remaining five editions (of 1871-1872, 1876, 1881-1882, 1889, and 1891-1892) Whitman continued to seek outward structure and order. Scholars have devised numerous descriptions of whatever plan they perceive, but the plurality of descriptions suggests that, like the poems themselves, Whitman's scheme for giving order to his book requires the active engagement of the reader—and even then, nothing is clear. It is conservative and perhaps least unsatisfactory to posit that changes in the book and poems reflect changes in its author as he passed through life's various changes.
When the meaning of the poems seems inseparable from the process of their creation, particular problems arise concerning questions of preferred texts. Which version of Leaves of Grass is best and should be recommended to readers may be a question that cannot be answered to everyone's satisfaction. In 1995 only the first and last editions were in print. Many scholars (including Roy Harvey Pearce, Edwin Miller, Leslie Fiedler, and David Cavitch) have argued that the poems should be read in early printed versions. Cornell University Press heroically kept the 1860 edition in print for decades and dropped it only recently. Perhaps someone else will pick it up. When the poet's journey is everything and arriving is little, the journey should not be concealed.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York UP, 1975.
Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Poetic Process. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.
Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.
Feehan, Michael. "Multiple Editorial Horizons of Leaves of Grass." Resources for American Literary Study 20 (1994): 213-230.
Fiedler, Leslie. Introduction. Whitman. The Laurel Poetry Series. New York: Dell, 1959. 7-22.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Introduction. Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": Selections. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970. vii-x.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. Introduction. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Facsimile Edition of the 1860 Text. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961. vii-li.
Warren, James Perrin. "The 'Paths to the House': Cluster Arrangements in Leaves of Grass, 1860-1881." ESQ 30 (1984): 51-70.