Critical Essays Form and Style in Leaves of Grass



Leaves of Grass belongs to no particular accepted form of poetry. Whitman described its form as "a new and national declamatory expression." Whitman was a poet bubbling with energy and burdened with sensations, and his poetic utterances reveal his innovations. His poetry seems to grow organically, like a tree. It has the tremendous vitality of an oak. Its growth follows no regular pattern: "Song of Myself," for example, seems at first almost recklessly written, without any attention to form. Whitman's poetry, like that of most prophetic writers, is unplanned, disorganized, sometimes abortive, but nevertheless distinctively his own.


Musical Elements

Whitman believed that poetry should be spoken, not written, and this basic criterion governed the concept and form of his poetry. He used repetition and reiterative devices (as, for example, in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the lines "Loud! loud! loud!" and "Blow! blow! blow!") He also employed elements of the opera (the aria and the recitative) in his poems.


Whitman was a master of exuberant phrases and images: "The beautiful uncut hair of graves" ("Song of Myself," section 6) is extraordinarily descriptive. Conversely, another description of the grass in the same section of the same poem, where it is described as "the handkerchief of the Lord," is trivial.

Whitman brought vitality and picturesqueness to his descriptions of the physical world. He was particularly sensitive to sounds and described them with acute awareness. His view of the world was dominated by its change and fluidity, and this accounts for his frequent use of "ing" forms, either present participle or gerund.

Whitman's language is full of his eccentricities: he used the word "presidentiad" for presidency, "pave" for pavement, and he spelled Canada with a K.

Leaves of Grass contains archaic expressions — for example, betimes, betwixt, methinks, haply, and list (for listen). Whitman also employs many colloquial expressions and technical and commercial terms. Words from foreign languages add color and variety to his style.

Rhythm and Meter

Whitman's use of rhythms is notable. A line of his verse, if scanned in the routine way, seems like a prose sentence, or an advancing wave of prose rhythm. Yet his work is composed in lines, not in sentences as prose would be. The line is the unit of sense in Whitman.

Whitman experimented with meter, rhythm, and form because he thought that experimentation was the law of the changing times, and that innovation was the gospel of the modern world.

Whitman's fondness for trochaic movement rather than iambic movement shows the distinctive quality of his use of meter. An iamb is a metrical foot of two syllables, the second of which is accented. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of an accented syllable followed by an unaccepted one. The iambic is the most commonly used meter in English poetry, partly because of the structure of English speech. English phrases normally begin with an article, preposition, or conjunction which merges into the word that follows it, thus creating the rising inflection which is iambic. Why, then, did Whitman prefer the trochaic to the iambic meter? It was partly due to the poet's desire for declamatory expression and oratorical style, since the trochee is more suitable for eloquent expression than the iambic meter. Whitman also liked to do things that were unusual and novel.


Imagery means a figurative use of language. Whitman's use of imagery shows his imaginative power, the depth of his sensory perceptions, and his capacity to capture reality instantaneously. He expresses his impressions of the world in language which mirrors the present. He makes the past come alive in his images and makes the future seem immediate. Whitman's imagery has some logical order on the conscious level, but it also delves into the subconscious, into the world of memories, producing a stream-of-consciousness of images. These images seem like parts of a dream, pictures of fragments of a world. On the other hand, they have solidity; they build the structure of the poems.


A symbol is an emblem, a concrete object that stands for something abstract; for example, the dove is a symbol of peace; the cross, Christianity. Literary symbols, however, have a more particular connotation. They sometimes signify the total meaning, or the different levels of meaning, which emerge from the work of art in which they appear. A white whale is just an animal — but in Melville's Moby Dick it is a god to some characters, evil incarnate to others, and a mystery to others. In other words, it has an extended connotation which is symbolic.

In the mid-1880s, the Symbolist movement began in France, and the conscious use of symbols became the favorite practice of poets. The symbolists and Whitman had much in common; both tried to interpret the universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from traditional forms and methods. But the symbols of the French symbolists were highly personal, whereas in Whitman the use of the symbol was governed by the objects he observed: the sea, the birds, the lilacs, the Calamus plant, the sky, and so on. Nevertheless, Whitman did have an affinity with the symbolists; they even translated some of his poems into French.