Like an aftershock grumbling in the wake of the bloody French Revolution, the poetry of the British Romantics rocked Britain to its core. These were revolutionaries who used words instead of weapons to proselytize on liberty, transcendence and the importance of the individual. Yet, for such subject matter, it could be argued that no land was more ready for fertilization than that of the New World, with its democratic ideals still in their infancy. America -- a nation whose literature was like the land itself, struggling to fashion its own identity -- discovered its first truly American poet in Walt Whitman.
"Leaves of Grass" and "Song of Myself"
Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” was published in the 1867 edition of his famous collection, "Leaves of Grass." His best known poem, “Song of Myself,” was also included here. While in “Song of Myself” Whitman chose to exalt the individual -- a very typical theme in Romanticism -- in “I Hear America Singing” he shone a spotlight on another of Romanticism’s core concerns: the role of the individual as a crucial element within the “varied carols” of a collective.
Whitman says he hears people singing. Yet the voices in this author’s choir are not those of classically trained mezzo-sopranos, but simple laborers -- carpenters, mechanics and shoemakers. In this way, he assures us that we are all artists, “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” Thus, as the artist is a kind of god, access to the transcendental is open to everyone.
Common Is King
This celebration of the common man was a rebellious retort to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and is key to understanding the foundation of Romanticism. Indeed, Romanticism cannot be fully understood without considering the political climate of the time. The artists of the United States, in particular, sought to establish themselves as tireless pioneers, mindful of their work from dawn 'til dusk -- “in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.”
The Delicious Singing of the Mother
Although most of the makers in Whitman’s poem are presumably male -- as masons and woodcutters typically were -- Whitman further propagates his inclusionary philosophy by tipping his hat to the feminine in referencing “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work.” Considering the embarrassingly humble status of such women today in the 21st century, it was undoubtedly a radical (and undeniably Romantic) move for Whitman to treat with reverence the simple scene of a “girl sewing or washing.”