10 Most Famous Poems by Walt Whitman

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!

Published:1865

Excerpt:-

1
COME, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes? Pioneers! O pioneers!

2
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!

3
O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with the foremost, Pioneers! O pioneers!

4
Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

5
All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.


#9 A Noiseless Patient Spider

Published:1868

Poem:-

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
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.

Synopsis:-

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.


#8 I Sing the Body Electric

Published:1855

Excerpt:-

1
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.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.



#7 I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

Published:1860

Poem:-

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Synopsis:-

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.


#6 Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Published:1860

Excerpt:-

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.



#5 Beat! Beat! Drums!

Published:1861

Poem:-

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying,
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.

Synopsis:-

“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.


#4 I Hear America Singing

Published:1860

Poem:-

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, 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,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Synopsis:-

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.



#3 When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Published:1865

Excerpt:-

1
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

2
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
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.

3
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.


#2 O Captain! My Captain!

Published:1867

Poem:-

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;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

Synopsis:-

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.


#1 Song of Myself

Published:1855

Excerpt:-

1
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.



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