Walt Whitman is one of the biggest names in American poetry. Considered as the “father of free verse poetry”, Whitman’s creations had a tone of patriotism, progress, love, respect, philosophy and spirituality. We’ve used five poems by Walt Whitman with their meaning in brief to help you understand Whitman better. You can read more about him here.
Whitman was a humanist and he understood the fallacies of humans. He also enjoyed the capabilities of humans at the same time. This mix of understanding for our faults and the hope to make something great, to be better than what we are today is the essence of Whitman’s poems. He was also a patriot with undying love and hope for his country.
Unfolded out of the folds
Unfolded out of the folds of the woman man comes unfolded, and is always to come unfolded,
Unfolded only out of the superbest woman of the earth is to come the superbest man of the earth,
Unfolded out of the friendliest woman is to come the friendliest man,
Unfolded only out of the perfect body of a woman can a man be form’d of perfect body,
Unfolded only out of the inimitable poem of the woman can come the poems of man, (only thence have my poems come;)
Unfolded out of the strong and arrogant woman I love, only thence can appear the strong and arrogant man I love,
Unfolded by brawny embraces from the well-muscled woman I love, only thence come the brawny embraces of the man;
Unfolded out of the folds of the woman’s brain come all the folds of the man’s brain, duly obedient,
Unfolded out of the justice of the woman all justice is unfolded,
Unfolded out of the sympathy of the woman is all sympathy;
A man is a great thing upon the earth and through eternity, but every jot of the greatness of man is unfolded out of woman;
First the man is shaped in the woman, he can then be shaped in himself.
Unfolded out of the folds talks about the importance of women, the dependency of the “superior” men (as some claim to be) on a woman. Whitman talks about the celebrated qualities of a man coming from the woman that gave birth to the man. He shows how the qualities possessed by men, be it friendliness, perfections, uniqueness, etc all are birthed by women of those qualities.
He then shifts from superficial qualities of individuals to intrinsic ones. Sympathy, justice and intelligence are given to men (who used to run the world in Whitman’s times) by the women who possess them originally. But notice how he never bashes the other gender.
In the last lines, he accepts that a man is a great specimen of all the life in this world and will always be like that (the humanist element in Whitman). But he just adds that before the man unfolds and shows his skills and qualities, it is first imbibed to him from his mother, a woman.
Notice the line “First a man is shaped in the woman he can then be shaped in himself”. I think this line beautifully conflates the qualities of both men and women, showing how both are necessary and equally important to each other. A man must be nurtured in the right way by the woman who brings him into this world. Only then he can be capable of shaping himself by learning skills and qualities.
(From a talk I had lately with a German spiritualist.)
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.
Continuities show the humanist and spiritual aspect of Whitman’s poetry for this poem is about searching the meaning of life, looking for what happens in the end, and then realizing that there is no such thing as the “end”. Everything stays here always, just their form changes and it becomes something that cannot be understood by the things it shared its form with.
The poem also talks about coming to terms with the end, reframing the idea of death and an eternal end. He says that nothing is or can be lost and the appearances, shapes, and positions of things must not be allowed to challenge this notion. This means that if you see a change if you see the sun setting, one must not assume that the change is real or that what was before it is now lost.
With the end of one thing, something new begins and that is what the message is from this poem. While the newborn thing might look different to some, it is the fault in our perception that creates this difference. Finally, he ends the poem by saying that the earth is motionless, frozen, and still, until the law of spring returns and there’s life everywhere.
Delicate cluster! flag of teeming life!
Covering all my lands —all my sea-shores lining!
Flag of death! (how I watch’d you through the smoke of battle pressing!
How I heard you flap and rustle, cloth defiant!)
Flag cerulean— sunny flag, with the orbs of night dappled!
Ah my silvery beauty— ah my woolly white and crimson!
Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother.
The delicate cluster shows Whtiman’s love for his country and his patriotism. With clear reference to the flags of the two sides during the Civil War. The last line of the poem is the description of the American flag with woolly white and crimson. In the end, Whitman shows his fealty and love toward his country.
Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth,
And who most cautious? for I would be more cautious,
And who has been happiest? O I think it is I—I think no one was ever happier than I,
And who has lavish’d all? for I lavish constantly the best I have,
And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive—for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city,
And who has been bold and true? for I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe,
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest,
And who has receiv’d the love of the most friends? for I know what it is to receive the passionate love of many friends,
And who possesses a perfect and enamour’d body? for I do not believe any one possesses a more perfect or enamour’d body than mine,
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? for I would surround those thoughts,
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth.
Excelsior is an interesting poem. People often struggle with the meaning of this poem, even I did. It is after you learn that Whitman was a humanist that you realize that this poem is about the positive attitude towards humans and their will. This poem is a celebration of humans’ perseverance.
The poem begins with the anaphoric question of asking of who has the best quality and then the question is answered by a resolute desire to be the best of that quality. Be the most bold, proud, true, loved, benevolent and such. The poem shows that humans should have the desire to be the best in whatever they want to be. To strive for the desired qualities in humans.
The poem is an encouragement, a message of people’s potential and their ability to be the best, to have any quality they want.
To conclude, I announce what comes after me.
I remember I said before my leaves sprang at all,
I would raise my voice jocund and strong with reference to consummations.
When America does what was promis’d,
When through These States walk a hundred millions of superb persons,
When the rest part away for superb persons and contribute to them,
When breeds of the most perfect mothers denote America,
Then to me and mine our due fruition.
I have press’d through in my own right,
I have sung the body and the soul, war and peace have I sung, and the songs of life and death,
And the songs of birth, and shown that there are many births.
I have offer’d my style to everyone, I have journey’d with confident step;
While my pleasure is yet at the full I whisper So long!
And take the young woman’s hand and the young man’s hand for the last time.
I announce natural persons to arise,
I announce justice triumphant,
I announce uncompromising liberty and equality,
I announce the justification of candor and the justification of pride.
I announce that the identity of These States is a single identity only,
I announce the Union more and more compact, indissoluble,
I announce splendors and majesties to make all the previous politics of the earth insignificant.
I announce adhesiveness, I say it shall be limitless, unloosen’d,
I say you shall yet find the friend you were looking for.
I announce a man or woman coming, perhaps you are the one, (So long!)
I announce the great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully arm’d.
I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,
I announce an end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation.
I announce myriads of youths, beautiful, gigantic, sweet-blooded,
I announce a race of splendid and savage old men.
O thicker and faster—(So long!)
O crowding too close upon me,
I foresee too much, it means more than I thought,
It appears to me I am dying.
Hasten throat and sound your last,
Salute me—salute the days once more. Peal the old cry once more.
Screaming electric, the atmosphere using,
At random glancing, each as I notice absorbing,
Swiftly on, but a little while alighting,
Curious envelop’d messages delivering,
Sparkles hot, seed ethereal down in the dirt dropping,
Myself unknowing, my commission obeying, to question it never daring,
To ages and ages yet the growth of the seed leaving,
To troops out of the war arising, they the tasks I have set promulging,
To women certain whispers of myself bequeathing, their affection me more clearly explaining,
To young men my problems offering—no dallier I—I the muscle of their brains trying,
So I pass, a little time vocal, visible, contrary,
Afterward a melodious echo, passionately bent for, (death making me really undying,)
The best of me then when no longer visible, for toward that I have been incessantly preparing.
What is there more, that I lag and pause, and crouch extended with unshut mouth?
Is there a single final farewell?
My songs cease, I abandon them,
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you.
Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.
O how your fingers drowse me,
Your breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,
I feel immerged from head to foot;
Enough O deed impromptu and secret,
Enough O gliding present—enough, O summ’d-up past.
Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,
I give it especially to you, do not forget me,
I feel like one who has done work for the day to retire awhile,
I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me,
An unknown sphere more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening rays about me, So long!
Remember my words, I may again return,
I love you, I depart from materials,
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.
This is one, long poem and it needs to be for it encapsulates the entire philosophy of Whitman. From patriotism to the desire to see brilliant people walking the country which will be the fruition of his undying love for his country. Then there’s the hope for people to become better versions of themselves, to create a world that is worth living. He wants to see the rise of justice, liberty, candor, and equality. This poem might take a little longer to read than the others, but it is worth it.