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The "Death-Bed" Edition

Written by Walt WhitmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Walt Whitman

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On Sale: October 26, 2004
ISBN: 978-0-553-90076-7
List Price $11.99

On Sale: October 31, 2000
ISBN: 978-0-679-64208-4
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents

Synopsis

Abraham Lincoln read it with approval, but Emily Dickinson described its bold language and themes as "disgraceful." Ralph Waldo Emerson found it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced." Published at the author's expense on July 4, 1855, Leaves of Grass inaugurated a new voice and style into American letters and gave expression to an optimistic, bombastic vision that took the nation as its subject. Unlike many other editions of Leaves of Grass, which reproduce various short, early versions, this Modern Library Paperback Classics "Death-bed" edition presents everything Whitman wrote in its final form, and includes newly commissioned notes.

Excerpt

ONE'S-SELF I SING.


One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.


Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,

The Female equally with the Male I sing.


Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,

Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,

The Modern Man I sing.



AS I PONDER'D IN SILENCE.


As I ponder' in silence,

Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,

A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,

Terrible in beauty, age, and power,

The genius of poets of old lands,

As to me directing like flame its eyes,

With finger pointing to many immortal songs,

And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,

Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?

And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,

The making of perfect soldiers.


Be it so,
then I answer'd,

I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,

Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance and retreat, victory deferr&rsquod and wavering,

(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field the world,

For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,

Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,

I above all promote brave soldiers.




IN CABIN'D SHIPS AT SEA.


In cabin'd ships at sea,

The boundless blue on every side expanding,

With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,

Or some lone bark buoy'd on the dense marine,

Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,

She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under many a star at night,

By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,

In full rapport at last.


Here are our thoughts, voyagers' thoughts,

Here not the land, firm land, alone appears,
may then by them be said,

The sky o'arches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,

We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,

The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,

The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,

The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,

And this is ocean's poem.



Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,

You not a reminiscence of the land alone,

You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos'd I know not whither, yet ever full of faith,

Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!

Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it here in every leaf;)

Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the imperious waves,

Chant on, sail on, bear o'er the boundless blue from me to every sea,

This song for mariners and all their ships.


From the eBook edition.

Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction vii
Facsimile Frontispiece 2
Facsimile Title Page 3
Whitman's Introduction 5
Song of Myself 25
A Song for Occupations 87
To Think of Time 98
The Sleepers 105
I Sing the Body Electric 116
Faces 124
Song of the Answerer 129
Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States 133
A Boston Ballad 135
There Was a Child Went Forth 138
Who Learns My Lesson Complete 140
Great Are the Myths 142
Walt Whitman

About Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, near Huntington, Long Island, New York. His father--a farmer turned carpenter from whom Whitman acquired his freethinking intellectual and political attitudes--moved his wife and nine children to Brooklyn in 1823. The young Whitman attended public schools until the age of eleven, when he was apprenticed to a printer. In 1835 he became a journeyman printer and spent the next decade working as a compositor, freelance writer, editor, and itinerant schoolteacher. But Whitman's fortunes changed in 1846 when he was named editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. However his 'free soil' political beliefs cost him the editorship of the conservative paper two years later. Following his dismissal, Whitman traveled to New Orleans, where he was briefly editor of the New Orleans Crescent. Upon his return north in June 1848, he frequented the opera and museums, dabbled in politics, and immersed himself in the life of the streets. Although Whitman had earlier affected the mien of a dandy, he now dressed as a 'rough' and became prominent among the bohemian element of New York. But the poems and stories he published in these years showed no hint of his future greatness.

The next five years (1850-1855), while outwardly undramatic, proved to be the most important period--intellectually and spiritually--in the life of Walt Whitman the poet. During this time he read avidly and kept a series of notebooks. Two novels by Georges Sand helped fix the direction of Whitman's thinking. One was The Countess of Rudolstadt, which featured a wandering bard and prophet who expounded the new religion of Humanity. The other was The Journeyman Joiner, the story of a proletarian philosopher who works as a carpenter with his father but also devotes time to reading, giving advice on art, and freely sharing the affection of friends. But of course it was Ralph Waldo Emerson's summons (in 'The Poet') for a great American muse to step forward and celebrate the emerging nation that was pivotal to Whitman's future. On July 4, 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the volume of poems that for the next four decades would become his life's work, was placed on sale. Although some critics treated the volume as a joke and others were outraged by its unprecedented mixture of mysticism and earthiness, the book attracted the attention of some of the finest literary intelligences. 'I greet you at the beginning of a great career,' Emerson wrote to Whitman. 'I find incomparable things said incomparably well.'

The Civil War found Whitman working as an unofficial nurse to Northern and Southern soldiers in the army hospitals of Washington, D.C. His war poems appeared in Drum-Taps (1865) and were later incorporated into Leaves of Grass--as was 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom,' his elegy to the recently assassinated President Lincoln. After the war he became a clerk in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, from which he was shortly dismissed on the grounds that Leaves of Grass was an immoral book. (Whitman was soon reinstated in another government clerkship with the Department of Justice.) Despite such notoriety, his poetry slowly achieved a wide readership in America and in England, where he was praised by Swinburne and Tennyson. (D. H. Lawrence later referred to Whitman as the 'greatest modern poet,' and 'the greatest of Americans.'

Whitman suffered a stroke in 1873 and was forced to retire to Camden, New Jersey, where he would spend the last twenty years of his life. There he continued to write poetry, and in 1881 the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass was published to generally favorable reviews. However, the book was soon banned in Boston on the grounds that it was 'obscene literature.' Whitman was in a precarious financial way in his remaining years, and such writers as Mark Twain, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson contributed to his support. Rich admirers kept him supplied with oysters and champagne (he was fond of both). Whitman even received a visitation from Oscar Wilde, who later reported that 'the good gray poet' made no effort to conceal his homosexuality from him. ('The kiss of Walt Whitman,' Wilde said, 'is still on my lips')

In January 1892 the final 'Death-bed Edition' of Leaves of Grass appeared on sale, and Whitman's life's work was complete. He died two months later on the evening of March 26, 1892, and was buried four days afterward at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. 'Most of the great poets are impersonal,' Whitman once wrote of Leaves of Grass. 'I am personal. . . . In my poems, all revolves around, concentrates in, radiates from myself. I have but one central figure, the general human personality typified in myself. But my book compels, absolutely necessitates, every reader to transpose himself or herself into the central position, and become the living fountain, actor, experiencer himself or herself, of every page, every aspiration, every line.'
Praise

Praise

"Whitman's best poems have that permanent quality of being freshly painted, of not being dulled by the varnish of the years."
--Malcolm Cowley
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Critic and poet Lewis Turco maintains that, contrary to the otherwise nearly universally accepted view, Whitman is not America's most innovative and important poet. He did nothing new, Turco argues, and "the level of his competence was not very high-he retained his poor ear throughout his life; his poems are too long, too disorganized, too pompous, too repetitious, too boring." Do you agree or disagree with this assessment?

2. Although Leaves of Grass might appear to be an amorphous, unstructured mass (as Turco suggests above), Whitman spent nearly forty years carefully revising it, reordering the poems, deleting poems or sections of poems, and adding new poems and cycles. He insisted that there was an overall unity and structure to the book (and stated that the ninth and final edition, the "Death-bed" edition published in 1892, was the last word on it). Do you perceive an overall unity in the book? Is there a discernible structure to it?

3. Walt Whitman is often called the poet of democracy and of America; one of the best-known and most often quoted poems in Leaves of Grass is "For You O Democracy" in "Calamus." How does Leaves of Grass answer the question of what democracy is and what it means to be an American?

4. In The Good Gray Poet, one of the first biographies of Whitman, William Douglas O'Connor explained in words that Whitman himself acknowledged that one of the primary purposes of Leaves of Grass was to save
sexuality "from the keeping of blackguards and debauchees, to which it has been abandoned"-by which he meant rescue it from libertines, whose dissolute behavior made sex disrespectable to middle-class Victorian sensibilities. One American reviewer of the 1855 edition described Whitman as having "a degrading, beastly sensuality, that is fast rotting the core of all the social virtues" and a British reviewer asked, "Is it possible that the most prudish nation on earth will adopt a poet whose indecencies stink in the nostrils?" How is sexuality represented in Leaves of Grass?

5. There are many recurrent themes, symbols, images, and motifs in Leaves of Grass as a whole, as well as in particular poems and cycles of poems. Consider, for example, the following: a) The use of the star, the lilac, and the bird in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (What do they symbolize and how do they relate to each other? How do they contribute to the structure of what many critics consider to be one of the finest poems ever written in the English language?); b) The recurrence of the word "mother" or "mothers" (more than one hundred times) in the book; and c) the repeated invocation of odor, fragrance, and perfume throughout the book.

6. The Civil War was a defining event in Walt Whitman's life, and the poems in "Drum-Taps" are a testimony to the impact the time he spent as a nurse to both Northern and Southern soldiers in the army hospitals of Washington, D.C. had on him. What view of the war is expressed by the narrative persona, and does the perspective of the persona change over the course of the cycle of poems?

7. Discuss the following stylistic aspects of Leaves of Grass: a) lists and catalogues; b) the extensive use of parentheses; c) parallelism (the development of rhythm via a repetition of ideas and sentences rather than through accents and syllables); d) the repetition of sounds and words; and e) punctuation.


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