Subversive Poetry

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It is his subversive poetry that challenged the antiquated traditions and conservative ideals associated with literature; because of this, Walt Whitman is arguably the most important poet of the American Romantic.

Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist during the 19th century. As a humanist, he was part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, and incorporated both views of thought into his work. Contemporary historians have cited Whitman as among the most influential poets in American edict — often called the father of free verse. In the early 19th century, free verse had yet to exist — American poetry descended from a long line of European tradition that dictated content, style, and form. Anything other than that was quickly dismissed as somewhat of an amphigory.

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Whitman believed that the American poet did not elevate himself above the commoner — he didn’t hold to tradition for tradition’s sake, and most importantly, he did not identify with Europe, its people or its society. Unfortunately, his ideals contradicted everything about modern America poetry and American poets — who traditionally adhered rigidly to a definite verse structure or set of characteristics. Consequently, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he was virtually a nobody.

Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass, revising it constantly before his death. He paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself, after receiving high praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom he sent a complimentary copy (at the time seen as a bold move, but now a common promotional strategy). He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several other newspaper, for which he was scrutinized.

Sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of its reception. Its first edition, containing Song of Myself, The Sleepers, and I Sing the Body Electric, which incorporated themes (though not exclusively) of homoeroticism (manly love), and sexual love, (Whitman, Song of Myself) with heavy emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact — he describes a lover settl[ing] your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, (Whitman, Song of Myself, section 5).

Whitman defined himself as the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul — he equated the two, and argued that a sexual experience was essentially a spiritual experience. Although he had never called direct attention to this element of his work, in one of his anonymous reviews, he wrote of himself: ?The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful… Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort.’

However, Whitman and his poetry were not well-received by all. Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many critics. His poetry was regarded by many as obscene — Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a famous abolitionist, wrote It is no discredit that Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he not burn it afterwards, . Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote an issue of The Criterion, a New York-based literary magazine at the time, categorizing Whitman as a filthy free lover, and condemning his work guilty of that horrible sin not to be mentioned by Christians, — homosexuality.
Evidently, Whitman’s delight for discussion of sensual pleasures during Victorian America when such candid displays were considered immoral, faced incredible controversy.

During the 1800’s, particularly between 1837-1901, the strict beliefs of procreation only and pervasive gender roles were revitalized. Many people born into the Victorian age were both uniformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters. Having sexual desires was nigh solely identified with men and women of lower classes — prostitutes. When a women did experience sexual desire, she was thought to have a disease. Even male masturbation was alleged to cause a wide range of physical and mental diseases. These strict views on gender and sex have become what we now refer to as the Victorian stereotype.

It is very important to contextualize Whitman’s Song of Myself in order to understand why its ostensibly raunchy passages are so revolutionary. Whitman was a pioneer in his field — nobody else dared to write about such private matters in such a public manner, and the scrutiny and hate he received are testimony to the importance of his work. Whitman dared to breach many of the rigid cultural norms that American had adhered to for generations. And perhaps it is his audacity and boldness that has made his poetry and his legacy so enduring.

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