Study Guide

I Hear America Singing Analysis

  • Sound Check

    "I Hear America Singing" is basically an 11 line list (for more on this form, see the "Form and Meter" section). When you read it out loud—and we recommend that you do—its listiness really comes to life. As the lines get longer, and our pile of laboring Americans accrue, the poem keep upping its excitement levels.

    It says: We have carpenters! And hatters! And ploughboys! And mothers! More, more, more! The poem keeps building in excitement (and, let's be honest, in volume) until its final lines, which we read out loud as a powerfully strong statement: "Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs." Did you hear all that assonance and consonance in that final line with the chiming of "strong" and "songs"? Did you catch the alliteration of all those repeated beginning S sounds ("Singing," "strong," and "songs")? The whole poem builds to this moment of powerful melodiousness, which is underscored by the many chiming sounds in this line. Nice work, W.W.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of this poem is pretty straightforward. It's all about a dude who hears the voices of Americans singing as they work (Whistle While You Work, anyone?) , and it's called "I Hear America Singing"—nothing too tricky about that.

    But before we move on, let's just note how cool it is that all these different people, from carpenters to seamstresses to ploughboys, are singing while they work. Music is something that unites us all, whether we're working on a dock, plowing a field, or taking care of the kids. In Whitman's America, music is universal.

  • Setting

    "I Hear America Singing" takes place in, well, America (duh). It's a big country, and Whitman has us hopping all over it. One second, we're on a steamboat deck, the next, we're chilling with a shoemaker in his workshop, the next, we're at home with mom. Whitman doesn't spend too much time describing the scenery—he's clearly more interested in the people who are working than in the places they are working—but he does bop around from place to place, and show us that work is being done everywhere.

    For Whitman, labor is labor, whether you're a ploughboy out in the fields, a young woman in an office, or a mom taking care of kids at home. That's pretty progressive for the 1860s, dontcha think?

  • Speaker

    The speaker of "I Hear America Singing" is the same speaker of all of Whitman's poems: a guy who sounds suspiciously like Whitman himself. Now, it's never a good idea in poetry to confuse the poet with the speaker. Lots of poets like to present their speakers as invented characters. In this case, though, Walt undeniably has a lot in common with this poem's speaker.

    The speaker's most distinctive trait is that he loves himself some Americans. He loves boatmen and hatters, stay-at-home moms and washerwomen. He loves watching them work and he loves celebrating their work. The speaker of the poem is all about the regular Joes and Janes, going about their regular business, working their regular jobs, leading their regular lives.

    The speaker of the poem finds joy in everyday work, and especially in the people who do that work and so often go unacknowledged for it. He's the type of guy you'd want to be around, probably because he wound compliment you on your hard work stocking shelves at the local supermarket, and then tell you that he loves your singing voice while he's at it.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    One of the best things about our pal Walt is that he knew how to write a straightforward poem. In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman's not interested in complex metaphors or tortured meter. He speaks to us directly and clearly, and we love him for it. This poem's not a toughie.

  • Calling Card

    Anaphoric Lists

    Walt Whitman sure did love a good list. Lists are all over his poems and "I Hear America Singing" is no different. The poem uses a particularly list-friendly poetic device: anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning lines of poetry. For example:

    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
    . (3-5)

    Each of these lines begins with a "the," followed by a worker—the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, and then the word "singing." Whitman loved a good anaphoric list. Lists offer a feeling of plentitude, and Whitman's lists make us feel that they could go on forever until he's detailed the profession of every last American worker. American workers: collect 'em all.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    Whitman loved himself some free verse; some might even call him the father of free verse. He was so over regular rhyme and meter. For Whitman, free verse meant Freedom (with a capital "F").

    But that doesn't mean that Whitman's poems are a big ol' mess of lines. "I Hear America Singing" is actually pretty tightly controlled. Most of the poem takes the form of a list, and the same phrasing ("The + [profession] + singing") dominates the beginning of many of its lines. Check it out:

    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 deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck
    . (3-5)

    While Whitman's lines tend to get longer as his poems go along, they are often tightly controlled at their beginnings. We call this type of repetition at the beginning of lines anaphora. This kind of patterning is pretty much the opposite of traditional verse forms, in which lines are often tightly controlled at their endings so that they can rhyme with each other.

    In Whitman's hands, so-called "free verse" is never about being all willy nilly. For this poet, free verse was all about having the freedom to discover and create his own forms, which—like a true American original—is exactly what ol' Walt did.

  • Singing

    This poem is all about singing. Everyone is singing—the deckhands, the washer women, the hatters, and the carpenters. Reading this poem is practically like being at a Broadway play, except instead of singing and dancing, everyone is singing and working. For Whitman, singing is both an expression of the individual and the universal—singing is something we all can do on our own and together as a group. Singing both literally and metaphorically brings our nation together. (Just think of an entire stadium of people singing "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch.)

    • Lines 2-9: Everyone is singing as they work. From mechanics to young seamstresses, each sings his or her own song. They sing "what belongs to him or her and to none else." Their songs are something that come from them, something they own. 
    • Lines 10-11: At night, singing becomes more of a group, party activity. It's something that unites a group of disparate Americans. Americans: we know how to sing a good "strong melodious song."
  • The List

    Walt Whitman loved a good list, and "I Hear America Singing" is a great example of the poet's lust for the list. Most of the lines of the poem begin with a type of laborer—"the carpenter," "the shoemaker," "the woodcutter." In this list, the speaker describes their work and their songs individually, but the list brings them all together in a consistent form. The list is a form that recognizes the particularity and universality of whatever it's listing. (Psst: try that last line at dinner parties; it's a winner for sure.)

    • Lines 2-8: Washerwomen, seamstresses, boatmen and masons—this poem collects 'em all. And while each person on the list has a distinct job to do, the list-like form brings them together. The poem encourages us to think about laborers across different fields of work as a unified group.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      This poem's about work, not sex. There's nothing titillating to see here, folks.