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…