Walt Whitman loves you. No, really—we're not kidding. If he were alive today, we're almost positive that he would love you, no matter what. Of course, that's partly because Whitman is known for his poems celebrating, well… everything—every street, every flower, every person, practically every grain of sand. Nothing escaped the scope of his celebratory praise, and it seems like every face, animal, plant, and object he came across in life ended up in a typically long line in one of his typically huge poems.
In person, we get that this can be kind of annoying. Whitman's a bit like that friend you have who thinks that everything is just the bee's knees. Nothing ever gets them down. Accidentally squeeze lemon juice into a paper cut and they're right there to tell you what the silver lining is.
Still, Whitman was one of a kind in his day. And by "day" we mean the nineteenth-century day. Specifically, he wrote and published his work as a member of the first American generation. Born in 1819, Whitman came into a brand new America, which had just won its independence from England forty years earlier. The country was filled with optimism and excitement, and an ample dose of that infected young Walt and influenced the poetry he would go on to write.
After stints as a journalist and a schoolteacher, Whitman first started writing poetry in the 1840s. In 1855 he published a collection of twelve poems he called Leaves of Grass. He footed the publication bill himself and even wrote some of his own reviews. (Are you taking notes out there, budding poets?) Whitman kept adding to his book, publishing five more subsequent versions in his life and adding to it along the way until it became known as a radical new breakthrough in form and content.
We say more about Whitman's free verse form over in "Form and Meter," and we say everything worth saying about his content in our "Detailed Summary." For now, though, we'll just note that these breakthroughs came in the way that Whitman jammed his poems full of every possible aspect of life. As a result, his poems read a bit like encyclopedia entries, listing every nook and cranny of American life in a bid to lift them up in celebration.
Now don't get us wrong. Whitman's not just the poetic version of Ned Flanders. After all, the dude did live through the Civil War (during which he spent some time as a medical assistant for the Union troops) and Abraham Lincoln's assassination. He was deeply troubled by the injustices of slavery and poverty, and he made a point to extend his poetic cheerleading to every kind of person he could conceive of—slave and freeperson alike.
Don't believe us? Just take a quick peep at "Song of the Open Road." This was originally called "Poem of the Open Road" when it first appeared in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, but Whitman kept tinkering with this, and the other poems in the collection, for the rest of his life. The gist, however, remains the same: Whitman's speaker is off for the open road, to experience the freedom and expansiveness it promises. Along the way, he finds lots of people and sees lots of the country—all of which he loves, and all of which he invites us to appreciate in his own particular Whitmanian way.
Like the bumper sticker says: life's not about the destination; it's about the journey. And good luck finding a more generous, enthusiastic tour guide than ol' Walt.
Get up, get dressed, go to school, listen to your teachers, go home, listen to your parents, do your homework, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. What's it all about, anyway?
If you ever asked yourself that question, then Walt Whitman is the poet for you. This is a guy with one eye on the details of life and another on the big—scratch that, huge—picture. And that picture, at least in Whitman's eyes, is pretty rosy. Sure, there are ups and downs, but reading this poem will show you how every instant you spend on this planet is a gift.
To show you what we mean, think about the people you see every day, the ones you just stroll on past. What about the streets and homes that you don't notice because you're too busy updating your Facebook status? Now what if we told you that every person, every house, every tree-lined boulevard has a story worth exploring? What if we told you that you and everyone else on this planet are really just travelers, cruising down the same cosmic path together?
Well… we didn't—Whitman did. His poem "Song of the Open Road" is a celebration of that metaphorical road we're all traveling down, that road called—wait for it—life. And when you start to think about life as one giant, nonstop, adventurous journey, the little things start to matter less and less. That algebra quiz? How can that compare to the cosmic path you're taking through existence? And how about the experiences of your fellow travelers, strolling along right there with you?
The short answer is: there is no comparison. The road is what counts. So read this poem when you want to tune in, pull back, chill out, and keep moving. Your ol' buddy Walt is here to put your astral journey into some perspective.
The Whitman Archive is your first stop on the road to getting to know Walt.
Chief Among Poets
Poets.org maintains a great bio and links to Whitman's work.
Dig the Poetry Foundation for still more biographical detail and links to Whitman's works.
Maybe you've seen enough Whitman biographies by now, but maybe you haven't. If you just can't get enough, check out the Shmoopified Walt Whitman biography next.
This is a really cool, artistic interpretation of the poem in an abbreviated form.
Hit the Road, Jill
This is another shortened version of the poem, which makes us want to pack our bags and get going.
Bloom on Whitman
This video features superstar critic Harold Bloom lecturing on Walt Whitman.
"Song," Part 1
Here's the first half of a great reading, complete with photos of Walt.
"Song," Part 2
… and here's the second half.
Jack Hirschman Covers Walt
Here's the poet and social activist reading "Song of the Open Road." It's not the greatest recording, but it's still pretty cool to hear one poet cover another.
Looking Into the Distance
Is he thinking about hitting the road?
Walt, with Hat
That looks like a good travelin' hat.
His beard had not yet reached full flowage.
Whitman 's "Poem of the Road"
This article, written by critic Harold Aspiz, appeared in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Yes, there is such a thing.
The Lost Interview
This is pretty cool: an interview Whitman gave in 1888 was lost—until 2005.
The Complete Poems
Get every long, example-packed line right here.
Songs for the Open Road
Yep, you can bet your walking shoes that Whitman's in this anthology.