Poetry remains one of the most exciting forms of literature that multiple scholars use to express their feelings throughout their lives (Price 121). The art of drafting, writing, and reciting poems entails using aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language like meter, imagery, and symbolism to evoke certain feelings and meanings on various issues affecting the society. Walt Whitman provides the best example of a highly influential American poet, essayist, and journalist who played a crucial role in writing a plethora of poems that explored numerous themes critical to the transformation of the American society (Barbian et al. 7).The legendary poet was also a humanist who remained part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism by incorporating these views in a plethora of his poetic works. Some of the most common themes explored by Whitman included life and death cycles, individualism, democracy, and nature. However, democracy and the inherent call for freedom are the most conspicuous theme in four of his poems, which included “Song of Myself,” “One’s-Self I Sing,” “O ME! O Life!” and “O Captain! My Captain!”. Throughout his poems, Walt Whitman successfully illustrates the importance democracy as an idea to be promoted and defended in the U.S.

            Democracy and the inherent fight for the restoration of freedom of people, the society, and individualism became a critical theme commonly explored in a wide range of Whitman’s poem. Whitman relied on “Song of Myself” to comprehensively explore the theme of democracy (Price 123). This poem celebrates not only the subject of democracy but also the oneness and freedom of humankind with a particular focus on the American people. “Song of Myself” serves as a direct representation of the transcendentalist thought about the universal human soul. The poem focuses on the theme that life exists as a typical form of searching for democracy and freedom by seeking to uncover and increase the understanding of a person’s identity (Redding 672).

Analytically, the symbol encountered by a reader in the first section of this poem, “I” literally refers to its poet, Whitman. However, the “I” becomes more substantial and more conspicuous than Whitman alone throughout the poem. The transformed “I” symbolizes both the self as well as a modern American man after transforming from the early man (Barbian et al. 10). Whitman implies that all Americans are the “I” who is singing and celebrating the beautiful song of democracy. The “I” symbol begins to transform gradually in the sections that follow to become an individual who is on a journey to explore the world in search of democracy. Whitman wrote, “I know I have the best of time and space and was never measured and never will be measured” (Schy 1). Afterward, the letter “I” eventually became the symbol of all human beings who are often on a quest for freedom and democracy throughout their lives. Whitman argued that the journey for democracy was a long and tedious one to the extent that no one could travel it on behalf of another individual (Price 125). Lastly, Whitman emphasized that people needed to take on this journey individually.

            Another poem that illustrates Whitman’s comprehensive exploration of democracy is “One’s-Self I Sing.” Whitman began this poem by claiming that it was a direct appeal to the concept of individualism, which he referred to as “One’s-Self” (Parsons 85). However, the poet immediately expanded the scope of “One’s-Self I sing” by applying it to a wide range of individuals the “en-masse,” emphasizing the democratic nature of his literary work. Whitman’s subsequent poetry encompassed not only the individual but also the collective, democratic mass by drawing a wide range of differences between these two crucial features. The poet further ascertains that he “sings” about the body, which refers to both men and women on the need for finding freedom and democracy in their lives. Whitman showed his special interest in understanding and helping both men and women to achieve democracy (Schy 22). As a result, the poet concluded his assertions with the idea of the modern man, which refers to the ideal archetype of American society that he hopes to attain through his work of poetry. 

 “One’s-Self I Sing” sets the tone for the rest of Whitman’s work because the poem introduces the themes of independence, equality, self-knowledge, and the value of democracy that he wanted to “sing.” The poem focuses on the topic of democracy alongside other critical ideas such as the self, which appears through the symbol “I” (Edmundson 1). Another theme that goes in hand with democracy in this poem is the idea of the human body and the meaning of living in modern American society. Whitman emphasized the concept of a democratic self, which is the collective identity shared among every human being. The legendary poet added that the self was a shared experience between the poet and his audience and that people could only realize its significance upon being democratic and free. Whiteman believed that all individuals intertwined as members of a democratic society. It is critical to underline the fact that all members of these intertwined “selves” still maintained their identity (Price 128). Moreover, Whitman used the theme of the human body to emphasize the significance of attaining democracy in people’s lives.

            Whitman believed that the human body formed a vital link that plays a crucial role in connecting each self to the communal democratic self (Barbian et al. 14). However, the poet retaliated by arguing that the human body inextricably tied itself to his image of the soul. He believed that the soul could not exist without the physical body. Whitman’s belief came because of the assertion that the human body serves as the vessel through which the soul not only interacts but also experiences the surrounding world. Therefore, the human body remains a sacred element in Whiteman’s poetry and that every human being is divine (Parsons 87). However, it is only through the search for democracy and understanding of oneself that people can attain and maintain this divinity. Lastly, Whitman introduced the theme of gender in “One’s-Self I Sing” by specifying that he treats men and women equally as an appeal to democracy. For example, when Whitman wrote, “The Female equally with the Male I sing,” he declares that he considers women to be equal to men despite the differences they have in physical attributes (Redding 675).

Whitman used “O Me! O Life!” to comprehensively explore and emphasize the significance of democracy (Kazin 1). Whitman begins by questioning his existence and the futility of life. Whitman ponders a wide range of people who prevent his pursuit of democracy and freedom throughout his life by betraying his expectations. The poet describes many cities thronged with foolish people and criticizes himself for not being better than the masses. Whitman admits that his eyes vainly crave for light and that he, like many people, always want things that are better than what they have (Barbian et al. 17).Craving for light, in this case, refers to the need to acquire freedom and have a democratic life that values every person in society. The poet complains that things never turn out the way he expects but realizes that the “sordid crowds” surrounding him also continue fighting through the journey of life in search of democracy. Whitman believes that he intertwined with these masses, spending a lot of “useless years” in pursuit of a distant idea, democracy (Price 131). Whitman, however, does succeed in getting the answer to his question, which entailed the meaning of existence and life.

Whitman relied exclusively on the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” to explore the need for democracy and freedom in American society. The poet wrote this poem after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, which was a direct sign of undermining democracy and freedom of Americans (Menonimus 1). “O, Captain! My Captain!” is a typical form of an extended metaphor aimed at memorializing the life and work of President Lincoln. Whitman used different symbols to explore the concept of democracy. First, the captain in this poem serves as a direct representative of the assassinated president. Second, the ship is the war-weathered country after the American Civil War. Lastly, the “prize won” represented the salvaged union (Edmundson 1). Whitman spoke in the poem as a person torn between relief and despair to capture the confusion of Americans at the end of the Civil War.

            This poem puts a lot of emphasis on the individual by exploring the variation in the theme of self vs. others alongside its impact on democracy and freedom (Parsons 89). The speaker struggles with the need to balance his personal feeling of loss by using a celebratory mood that culminates from the successful voyage. Whitman regrets the tragedies of the Civil War, which jeopardized democracy and freedom by contributing to the loss of numerous innocent lives across the country (Kazin 1). The speaker thinks that these dreadful events were crucial in the reunification of Americans despite their adverse effects, including the division of a plethora of Americans. As a result, the speaker believes that he should join the “other” group celebrating the return of safety, freedom, and democracy following the end of the Civil War (Barbian et al. 22). Yet Whitman’s inner thoughts set him apart from the entire crowd when he tries to reconcile his emotional reaction to the death of the captain. 

In conclusion, Walt Whitman remains one of the most influential poets across the United States. Whitman rivals that of Homer and Shakespeare in his own right. Whitman dedicated his life to writing a plethora of poems that played a vital role in the significant transformation of American society. Whitman explored various themes, including life and death cycles, individualism, democracy, and nature. Whitman chose to concentrate on the topic of democracy in a total of four unique poems, including “Song of Myself,” “One’s-Self I Sing,” “O ME! O Life!” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman’s unique focus on democracy should make any citizen question if events in America further the dream of freedom and democracy.

Works Cited

[One note from Professor Lynn – many of these sources are internet based. I strongly advise that you use database sources instead]

Barbian, Lenore, Sledzik, Paul, S. and Reznick, Jeffrey, S. “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War soldiers, and the legacy of medical collections.” Museum History Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, 7-28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3381362/.

Castronovo, Russ. Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 

Edmundson, Mark.Walt Whitman’s guide to a thriving democracy”. The Atlantic, May 11, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/05/walt-whitman-leaves-of-grass-american-democracy/586045/. Accessed 05 XXX XXXX.

Kazin, Alfred. “Democracy according to Whitman.” The Commentary, June 14, 1976, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/alfred-kazin-2/democracy-according-to-whitman/. Accessed 05 XXX XXXX.

Menonimus, Menonim. “The theme of democracy in Walt Whitman’s Poetry.” Menonimus, October 19, 2019, https://menonimus.com/2019/10/19/the-theme-of-democracy-in-walt-whitmans-poetry/.  Accessed 05 XXXX XXXX.

Parsons, Amy. Desire, forgetting, and the future: Walt Whitman’s Civil War. Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, vol. 71, no. 3, 2015, 85-109. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/593416/pdf.

Price, Kenneth, M. Walt Whitman and Civil War Washington. Faculty Publications — Department of English, vol. 170, no. 1, 2014, 121-134.  https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1170&context=englishfacpubs.

Redding, Patrick. “Whitman Unbound: Democracy and poetic form, 1912–1931.” New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010, 669–690.

Schy, Maurice H., “Walt Whitman: His dominant themes.” Master’s Theses, vol. 349, no. 1, 1940, 1-80.

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