I Hear America Singing Summary
"I Hear America Singing" is basically a joyful list of people working away. The speaker of the poem announces that he hears "America singing," and then describes the people who make up America—the mechanics, the carpenters, the shoemakers, the mothers, and the seamstresses. He declares that each worker sings "what belongs to him or her," and that they all sing loud and strong as they work. And as the poem ends, we learn that they like to sing at their parties, too. America: full of American Idol wannabes.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
- Our speaker doesn't waste any time. He (and we can only assume it's a he at this point) jumps right into the poem with a bold declaration: "I hear America Singing."
- Let's just take a moment to acknowledge that the speaker's use of "America" here is figurative. It's not like New York is singing alto while Montana jumps in in a soprano voice. Nope, the word "America" is a symbol for American people more generally.
- But the "singing" is not figurative. This poem is literally about Americans singing songs. Or, in the speaker's words, "varied carols." The speaker acknowledges that Americans sing all different kinds of songs in all different kinds of voices.
- First up: the mechanics. Their voices are "blithe" (which means joyous) and strong. And the mechanics voices are as they "should be." The mechanics meet the speaker's expectations.
- Before we move on, let's be sure to take note of these very long lines. Whitman wrote in free verse, which means that his poems do not have regular rhymes or meter, or even regular line-lengths.
- In fact, these long, free verse lines are perhaps what ol' W.W. is best known for. As we will see as the poem continues, you can cram a whole lot of info into a Whitmanesque long line. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that style.)
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,
- In the second line of a poem, we learned about a mechanic singing. Here, we're introduced to four more singing Americans: a carpenter, a mason, a boatman, and a deck-hand.
- Starting to notice any similarities? These guys are all laborers. They're all at work. Even more specifically, they are manual laborers, who work with their hands.
- Not everyone can sing at work after all. If you are a lawyer making your case in court, you can't exactly burst out into a rousing chorus of "America the Beautiful," can you? We think not.
- The singing workers are all dudes who do tough manual labor—the carpenter making his measurements, the deck-hand ready to work on the steamboat deck. This is unglamorous work for sure, but through their singing, these laborers take joy in what they do. Note the sense of ownership in the poem; the mason is "singing his" song, while the boatman is "singing what belongs to him in his boat."
- These guys are proud of what they do. And the speaker is proud to acknowledge their work (and their awesome singing voices) in this poem. He's shedding some light on people who don't often make appearances in poetry (especially in nineteenth-century America).
- But we've got to ask a question: is the speaker painting a too-rosy picture of these workers? These can be dangerous jobs, after all. What is he leaving out of this picture? Let's read on to see…
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter'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,
- Are you ready for more workers? We're ready for more workers.
- The next few lines of the poem cram in even more working dudes (and introduce some working ladies, too). Now we're got a shoemaker, a hatter, a woodcutter, a ploughboy, a mother, a young wife at work, a seamstress and washerwomen (whew).
- What do these peeps all have in common? They work hard for their money. And they all sing.
- By drawing together such different people doing different things, Whitman universalizes the issue of work. Whether you're old or young, black or white, woman or man, you need money to live. And how do you get money? By working. And how do you keep your spirits up by working? Singing, of course.
- And let's not forget that it may be necessary to keep those spirits up. The speaker acknowledges that the ploughboy works from "morning" to "sundown." This is a long day of hard labor, even if that ploughboy is singing his songs to pass the time.
- One particularly cool thing that Whitman does in this poem is that he acknowledges the work of women along with the manual labor of men doing "manly" jobs like woodcutting and plowing. The mother works, the young wife goes to work, the girls washes and sews.
- The world of labor is not just a man's world; Whitman celebrates the work of women—even the work of what we might now call the stay-at-home mom—in his poem. Neat-o.
- Before we move along, let's take note of Whitman's long lines again. They keep getting longer and longer. There's a sense of what we might like to call "overmuchness" in the poem. There are so many people that Whitman wants to celebrate that the lines of the poem can barely contain them all.
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.
- The poem ends by bringing all of these singing laborers together. They are "each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else." The speaker acknowledges that each of their laboring is unique, that their work belongs to themselves.
- And he even acknowledges that this is true of women too; note that "him or her." Sure, this may not be a big deal now, but let's remember that Whitman wrote this poem decades before women could even vote in the US. Small moments like these are progressive, and we like 'em.
- But as much as the speaker of the poem celebrates work, he acknowledges that there's a time for work and a time for play. The singing of the day is different than the singing of the night; the daytime singing is "what belongs to the day." At night, it's party time.
- And what happens at party time? Well, "the young fellows, robust, friendly," keep singing; they sing "with open mouths their strong melodious songs."
- Singing: it's a daytime and a nighttime activity in Whitman's America. It's one big, star-spangled sing-a-long—good times.
- But before we end our analysis, let's just think for a moment about what singing means in the poems. Sure, singing here is literal.
- These dudes and dudettes are literally singing as they chop wood and as they make hats and as they take care of the laundry. We know that this singing is for real. The speaker tells us about their "strong," "melodious," even their "delicious" voices.
- But singing also has a metaphorical aspect. Sure these laborers are singing songs to keep themselves occupied while doing physical work, but Whitman interprets this singing as a celebratory sign that these laborers love their jobs, love their grueling labor. And these workers love America too.
- But is this rosy view of labor Whitman's alone? Is he perhaps a little too enthusiastic about what it means to spend all day sewing or cutting wood? (We'd take poetry writing over masonry work any day of the week.)
- Whitman loved to think about those working guys and gals singing as they worked. He acknowledged the hard manual labor done by people who didn't often get recognized in poetry back in good ol' nineteenth-century America (or today, even). But was his perspective a little skewed? Do you think "I Hear America Singing" leaves a lot out of the story of the working American man and woman?
- We'll chew on these meaty questions in the rest of the "Analysis" section—click on over.