The great American poet Walt Whitman was born on this day in 1819 in the little village of West Hills on Long Island, New York. Whitman’s voice is a quintessential American voice of the nineteenth century, and every homeschool student should have some familiarity with his work.
Whitman had little formal education. He worked as a newspaper boy, typesetter, writer, teacher, editor, publisher, government clerk, and during the Civil War as a nurse in the military hospitals around Washington, D.C.
But regardless of how he supported himself at different times, he had determined early on that he had one goal in life, and that was to be a poet. He made his grand entrance onto the literary stage in 1855 with the publication of his book Leaves of Grass, which Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”
Whitman’s writing is famously expansive, self-centered, visionary, and sometimes sensual in ways that may not be appropriate for younger readers. But many of his poems have long been required reading in high school English classes, including “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” O Captain! My Captain!,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and his beautiful long masterpiece “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Although Whitman’s poetry is rarely metrical in a formal sense, it’s nevertheless very artful, with a style that was much influenced by the sound of the King James Bible. This week for Whitman’s birthday, why not copy this little six-line picture of maternal personification onto your homeschool bulletin board and read it aloud with your students a few times, and perhaps transport yourself back to the America of the nineteenth century:
Center of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
(“Oh, ‘adamant’ is a beautiful word — let’s look it up in our dictionary.” Hint: it’s noun definition #1.)
So, happy birthday, Walt! I have no doubt that the American people will be remembering you for many, many years to come.
What wonderful words did you find and what literary discoveries did you make in your homeschool this past Leo Term? 😊
❡ Chair’d in the adamant of Time: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our posts, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new literary friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. ✒️
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