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Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Walt Whitman

Source

Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Reading of Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"

Commentary

Walt Whitman offers a musical tribute to the laborers of America as they "sing," that is work, cheerfully. This 19th century hat-tip also recognizes the partiers who fill the night time with their good cheer.

The Metaphor of Song

Whitman's speaker describes in the metaphor of song the activities of the working people whom he encounters in a day. By claiming to hear them "singing," he renders them cheerful and skilled in their labor. The speaker's heart is overflowing with praise for his fellow citizens.

Each of the eleven lines sprawls across the page and spills into the adjoining line to facilitate a new line. The elongated sentences must be broken in unusual ways to accommodate the thoughts that this speaker wishes to share.

Whitman's free verse style always employs this rambling, sprawling form as he catalogues all the things his speakers see, hear, think, feel, or enjoy.

Singing Songs of Praise

As the speaker commences his tribute, he reports that he hears "America singing." Each song he encounters is unique. Each "song" constitutes a different carol, not ordinary in the least, but each one offering praise and demonstrating joy in its being.

The joy and praise impress the speaker so much that he seems to be bursting with pride to be a part of such an honorable conglomeration of laboring folks. His admiration makes him abundantly happy as he sings himself, making his poem.

As the speaker observes his fellow citizens, he becomes optimistic, and his feelings no doubt color his reportage. He offers what one might expect to be an exaggeration of the joy and gratitude that seem to envelope people who are ordinary workers. These folks are certainly not likely to become sycophants of the nothing-to-lose-but-our-chains crowd.

Mechanics, Carpenters, Boatmen, et al

The speaker then commences listing the varied laborers whom he hears singing their joyous, praise songs. First, he hears the mechanics. Each mechanic remains busy working in his own unique way. The speaker finds their manner "blithe and strong."

The speaker then mentions the carpenter whose song sings out the measurement of "plank or beam." The mason is singing while he prepares himself for his work day even before he leaves for work.

The speaker hears the boatman caroling about the items that he possesses, items that fill his boat, while the deckhand also is singing on the steamboat's deck. The shoemaker is also singing, working at his bench, as the hatmaker offers his carols where he stands.

A Mother's Delicious Singing

Continuing his catalogue, the speaker hears the "wood-cutter" and the farmer, who is plowing his fields in the morning, at noon, and even as the sun sets in the evening. A mother's carols exemplify a "delicious" song. The young wife is singing as she works, and a girl, who is likely serving as a maid, also sings as she sews and does the laundry.

All of these ordinary folks are performing their tasks uniquely that only each of them can perform. They are not a faceless mass of working slobs; they are unique each and all. They deserve respect; they deserve affection and attention, and the speaker is demanding that they receive that respect, affection, and attention.

Young Fellows and Party Time

There is a time for work, and there is a time for leisure. The speaker's respect for work is equalled by his respect for party time. The time of fellowship is also important as the revelers sing their leisure time. Just as workers, they have offered their service, now as partiers they demonstrate that time away from work is also valuable.

The speaker describes the partiers: "At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, / Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs."

While daytime offers all the beautiful songs of various workers and service providers, nighttime offers a time for the beautiful songs of leisure, fellowship, and renewal of spirit. The sweet melodies of work and leisure are all significant and well worth noting.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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