Walt Whitman is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. His most known works are from his epic collection of poetry Leaves of Grass which was first published in 1855 and was republished several times over the next four decades. The last publication consisted of over 400 poems. Here are 10 of the most famous poems written by Whitman.
#10 Pioneers! O Pioneers!
This poem is a tribute to Americans, who with their determination and hard work, transformed wilderness into a great civilization. Although the poem can be considered an ode to the pioneers, the use of the word ‘we’ frequently and several parts of the poem emphasize on unity and include all generations as pioneers.
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
#9 A Noiseless Patient Spider
This poem is famous for its imagery that precisely describes the scenes of the poem and binds the speaker with the noiseless spider. Among the prevalent themes of the poem is the spider’s endless effort to make a connection to something, symbolizing the speaker’s attempts to make connections in the universe.
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
#8 I Sing the Body Electric
In this poem Whitman explores the physical body at length and celebrates its importance in forming connections between people, both erotically and spiritually. In parts, he first examines the female and then the male body and praises their sacredness. The poem inspired several works by artists of future generations.
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
#7 I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
A group of poems in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass collection are known as the ‘Calamus’ cluster. It is widely believed that these poems express his ideas of homosexual love. They are one of the primary reasons due to which he is considered homosexual by many people. This poem is the most famous of the ‘Calamus’ cluster. In it, Whitman speaks of a lonely, solitary tree in Louisiana.
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it stood there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself
#6 Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
The poem features a boy who sees a couple of birds nesting. One day the female bird is not to be seen and the male cries out for her. The bird’s cries create an awakening in the boy and he is able to translate the male bird’s cries for its lost mate. The poem symbolizes the awakening of a poet through nature.
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
#5 Beat! Beat! Drums!
“Beat! Beat! Drums!” was written as a reaction of the North at the beginning of the American Civil War. The poem calls for people from all strata of society to react to the drumbeats. ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ is one of the most popular poems of Whitman and is known for evoking fervor in the reader.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force
#4 I Hear America Singing
In ‘I Hear America Singing’ Whitman expresses his love of America – its vitality, variety, and its achievements as a result of the work done by its people. In the poem, the poet hears “varied carols” of people who make America what it is. ‘I Hear America Singing’ remains one of the most popular poems by Whitman.
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
#3 When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
This famous elegy was written after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Despite the poem being an elegy to Lincoln, Whitman doesn’t use the name of the President or describe the circumstances of his death. Instead he uses symbolism. The poem moves from grief to the distress that war causes and ends with acceptance of death. Though not one of Whitman’s favorite, the poem is considered a masterpiece and ranked by critics as one of the greatest elegies in English language.
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
#2 O Captain! My Captain!
In ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, Whitman refers to Abraham Lincoln as the captain of the ship, representing America. The poem also has several references to the American Civil War; and political and social issues of the time. Written in the year of Lincoln’s death, it went on to become one of the most popular poems of Whitman.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
#1 Song of Myself
Most famous poem by Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ is a mesmerizing mixture of romanticism and realism. The poem, which was initially titled ‘Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,’ also serves as a biography of Whitman. It caught the attention of public and critics alike when it was published and remains among the most acclaimed and influential poems written by an American.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.