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Poetry, as an unalienable part of the culture, largely helps in shaping the national idea. Essentially, poets, using live language spoken by people in the natural environment, unite the global ideas of the population and generalize them in a relatively short form. While this does not express the national idea completely, it works as an enormous part of its expression. One of such poems is “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman. By signing an ode to what might appear trivial things and concepts, Whitman manages to capture the base of the American national idea of freedom, independence, and unity.
Singing to America
Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” was first published in his 1855 collection Leaves of Grass and was written as an ode seemingly to average people of different professions across the United States. Throughout, Whitman mentions mechanics, fishermen, carpenters, and “the girl sewing and washing” (Whitman 8). At first, it appears that Whitman attempted to express his thankfulness to all people across America who make life in the country not only possible but also comfortable for all Americans. However, behind their love for his own people, Whitman managed to express a much greater and deeper idea.
From the very first lines, it also becomes apparent that Whitman feels fond of America’s cultural variety and richness. The poem opens with the line “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear” (Whitman 1). Whitman, thus, starts off with his praise for the versatility of American culture, such as songs and carols. At the same time, the author subtly provides that despite such versatility, the United States still manages to remain a united country. Hence, Whitman’s fondness is expressed not only towards American culture itself but people’s ability to live in such an intense cultural environment in peace and prosperity.
As Whitman goes further in the poem, he names those who sing the mentioned “varied carols” more specifically. The author mentions, the mechanics, the carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker, woodcutter, as well as mothers, wives, and girls (apparently daughters) of all American men (Whitman 2-8). Here, Whitman underlines the importance of every profession typical for the people of the United States at the time along with American women. The lines demonstrate not only the workers of the country but also their hard-working nature and the joy of doing what they do the best.
As he mentions the workers and women of America, Whitman also underlines their independence and autonomy from society. near the end of the poem, the author states that “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” as they perform their work (Whitman 9). At this point, Whitman implies that doing their job and feeling autonomous is exactly what belongs to people. Here, the author odes the American democratic and liberal tendencies by underlining the freedom of everyone to do what they want as long as it supports the society. along the lines, the reader can also find that every worker is supplied with the tools they need, providing that America helps its people to achieve their goals and be successful at what they do.
Upon combining all mentioned elements and symbolism of the poem, it appears that, in such a brief way, Whitman attempted to grasp all major components of the American national idea. Those were freedom, unity, and prosperity earned by hard work. Indeed, in his article Whitman’s nationalism, Nathaniel O’Reilly provides that the poem along with the rest collection of Leaves of Grass has been published during the peak of nationalism in the United States. Whitman attempted not only to show what America looked like to him but also how he imagines its perfect version (O’Reilly). This element of “imagined” version of the United States works perfectly with the concept of the national idea in the first place.
National ideas are important and relevant for all countries at all times. While it is impossible to express it in its entirety in a short form, it is vital to deliver the national idea through all channels and in all forms. Such a broad scope of certain elements is important not only for the unity of one nation but also for the direction the nation is to take. For Whitman, the big American idea relied on freedom, independence, unity, and hard work for prosperity. In many regards, the modern United States appears to follow this line until the present day.
O'Reilly, Nathaniel. "Imagined America: Walt Whitman’s Nationalism In The First Edition Of Leaves Of Grass – Irish Journal Of American Studies". Irish Journal Of American Studies, 2022, http://ijas.iaas.ie/imagined-america-walt-whitmans-nationalism-in-the-first-edition-of-leaves-of-grass/.
Whitman, Walt. "I Hear America Singing". Poetry Foundation, 2022, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46480/i-hear-america-singing.
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