I Hear America Singing

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I Hear America Singing

Walt Whitman 1860

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

First published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, “I Hear America Singing” exemplifies Whitman’s intense patriotism and his staunch belief in the importance of the “common man and woman” in American society. In the opening line, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear …” the speaker assumes a posture common in much of Whitman’s poetry by asserting his unique ability to see America in all its greatness, or in this particular case, to hear “its varied carols.” What follows is a chronicle of various characters or figures from the working-class, each singing his or her own song. These lines may be read literally to suggest the speaker of the poem actually hears these various people singing, but references to “song” or “carols” in the poem also serve as metaphors for the various characters’ uniqueness.

Each character is “singing what belongs to him or her and to none else …” and together their individual “carols” blend into one enormous chorus that is America. In this manner the poem alludes to the democratic ideal of a government “of the people, for the people and by the people,” each person with a voice—a say in how the government is run. However, by omitting members of the upper-class from the poem, the speaker denies them a place in his particular vision of America. Thus the poem espouses an America in which working people are revered above all others, and by positioning himself within the poem, the speaker asserts his own rightful place in this America. The becomes the speaker’s song, his contribution to the overall chorus.

Author Biography

The second of nine children, Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island, New York, to Quaker parents. In 1823 the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman attended public school. At age eleven he left school to work as an office boy in a law firm and then as a typesetter’s apprentice at a number of print shops. Although his family moved back to Long Island in 1834, Whitman stayed in Brooklyn and then New York City to become a compositor. Unable to find work, he rejoined his family on Long Island in 1836 and taught at several schools. In addition to teaching, Whitman started his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He subsequently edited numerous papers for short periods over the next fourteen years, including the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Eagle, and published poems and short stories in various periodicals.

Whitman did little in terms of employment from the 1850 to 1855. Instead, he focused on his own work, writing and printing the first edition of his collection of poems Leaves of Grass. Over the next few years, Whitman continued to write and briefly returned to journalism. During the American Civil War he tended wounded soldiers in army hospitals in Washington, D.C., while working as a copyist in the army paymaster’s office. Following the war Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior and then as a clerk at the Justice Department. He remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873. Although he lived nearly twenty more years and published four more editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman produced little significant new work following his stroke. He died in Camden, New Jersey, at age 72.

Poem Text

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
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
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

Poem Summary

Line 1

In the first line of the poem, the speaker establishes his position as an observer and listener. The repetition of “I hear” serves to assert the significance of the speaker’s role in the poem. All that follows is filtered through the speaker and is part and parcel of his experience. Thus the poem depends on the speaker, on this individual consciousness, for its meaning. At the same time, the first line introduces the poem’s controlling metaphor: “I hear America singing.” The speaker envisions America as the culmination of the voices of the American people who are unique individuals.

Lines 2-7

The speaker then begins to chronicle various figures or characters familiar to American society at the time. While each is defined by his occupation, he or she is also singing and expressing his or her own uniqueness. Each figure is of the working class and is depicted going about the day’s work. These characters, according to the controlling metaphor, are presented as being “America.” Considering the figures from other socioeconomic classes that the poem omits, it becomes apparent that the speaker is presenting a particular vision of America. Though the poem puts forth the ideal of government as by and for the people, the examples of American people limited to those from the working class. In a sense, the speaker denies figures from other classes a place in the poem, and thus in America. By giving himself a place in the poem, the speaker does, however, assert his own position in this vision of America. Thus the poem becomes his song, his work, his individual contribution to the larger chorus that is America.

Line 8

Line 8 is particularly interesting considering the historical context in which the poem was written. By including the figures of the mother, young wife, and sewing girl, Whitman gives women their due place in the working class and acknowledges their contribution to American society and culture at a time when women still did not have the right to vote—when they literally had no voice in government. The poem thus anticipates a vision of America much more proximate to the one commonly held in modern times, in which women are seen and appreciated for their vital contributions both in and outside the home and in which parenting is regarded as an indispensable occupation.

Line 9

The speaker reinforces in Line 9 the metaphor of “singing” to mean individualism. The idea that each character is unique and has his or her own song, that each by virtue of his or her profession is essential to the whole of American society and culture, is expressly democratic in nature. In this way the poem celebrates American individualism.

Lines 10-11

Up until this point, each figure has been described as engaged in various forms of work or has been presented in relation to his or her respective vocation. The speaker broadens his scope at the end of the poem beyond this work identity, extending the poem’s definition of self and individuality.

Media Adaptations

  • An audio cassette read by Nancy Wickwire and Alexander Scourby titled Dickinson and Whitman: Ebb and Flow is available from Audiobooks.
  • Go Directly to Creation, by Walt Whitman is available on audio cassette from Audiobooks.
  • A biography titled Walt Whitman was released on video cassette as part of the Poetry by Americans Series and is available from AIMS Media.
  • Part of the Voices and Visions Series, Volume 1, is a video cassette titled Walt Whitman that is available from Mystic Fire Video.
  • Walt Whitman & the Civil War is a video cassette released by Video Knowledge, Inc.
  • A video cassette titled Walt Whitman: Poetry for a New Age is available from Encyclopaedia Britannica Education Corp.

When the day’s work is done, “the party of fellows,” presumably not including the women figures of the poem, continues to sing. The individuals presented in the poem, while previously defined solely according to their work, are now seen as more well-rounded human beings who exist outside their work as well. Equally important, the chorus of voices that is America is described as “robust, friendly,” and the resulting song is “strong” and “melodious.” This choice of adjectives suggests Whitman’s particular vision of America as a powerful country of “fellows” where goodwill abounds. Most important, Whitman sees an America in which every citizen contributes to the welfare of the whole, and in which all working people are revered.



When Walt Whitman expresses his awe at these Americans singing, he is making a statement

Topics for Further Study

  • What is America singing? Instead of everyone singing “various carols,” write the lyrics to America’s song, which could be sung by all of the people Whitman mentions.
  • Many poets and songwriters who write about social issues refer to Whitman. Find a poem or a song lyric that mentions Whitman: based on what you know about him from “I Hear America Singing.” Do you think the writer who mentioned him understands Walt Whitman?
  • Do you think people usually sing “what belongs to him or her or none else,” or do people usually sing about what they do not have? Provide examples with your answer.

about human greatness by telling the reader that human achievement is not measured by what one does, but instead by how one goes about doing it. He inspires admiration for these people, not by stating outright that he thinks they do great things, but by giving brief, specific images of each one tending to his or her own business and combining their individual jobs with “singing,” which we usually associate with cheerfulness and lightness of spirit. In only one case does the poem direct the reader’s thought by using a specific, judgmental adjective (the positive word “delicious”), but we can assume that this anomaly says more about Whitman’s lack of knowledge concerning domestic life than any change of strategy. This assumption is supported by his vague mention of the young wife “at work,” indicating that he just could not come up with any specific details about what women do, in the way he provided information about such jobs of the carpenter, mason, and boatman. This poem uses opposites to show how wide the range of Americans and their work environments are: male and female, ashore and on water, preparing or finishing work in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

According to the poem, the independence that all of these different types display in their work is left aside at the end of the day, when they come together as a “party of young fellows” (reflecting the social practices of the day, the females in this poem do not socialize with the males). Here, the corporate mentality that dominates the late-twentieth century is shown to us in its mirror image: While today we think of people working together all day to enjoy “free time” to pursue individual interests at the day’s end, Whitman shows individuals who choose to spend their leisure time by uniting with other people. Perhaps the American way of life has changed this much since the poem was written. Then again, it is possible that the shift in the workplace, from manual labor to manipulating information, has made American jobs less individualistic, or that the rise of self-sufficient leisure activities, such as television and computer games, has given contemporary Americans less incentive to gather with others when the day is through. It could be, though, that the workers in Whitman’s poem reflect an ideal that was just as unreal then as today, while being just as admired today as then. His workers are responsible and proud of their accomplishments and are also friendly and sociable. It is not easy to tell whether these admired traits were more common then, or if Whitman just brought his vision to life in a particularly effective way.


“I Hear America Singing” focuses upon several traits—including individualism and the work ethic—that are considered to have been built into the American character through the country’s historical development. This country was settled, in the seventeenth century, by a variety of groups: the Dutch in New York; the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest; the French through Canadian outposts; and the English, often through for-profit corporations, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company. The group that left the strongest moral impact upon the country’s growth was the Puritans, a collection of religious pilgrims who separated from the Church of England because they felt its values had become too worldly, and thus not spiritual enough. The Puritans believed in hard work for its own sake, not for worldly gain, and their religious convictions were strong enough to drive them halfway across the world into an unfamiliar wilderness to find a place where they could practice their religion without being attacked for what they believed. It is easy to see why Puritan attitudes would have a predominant influence on the American personality. As the various European settlements cultivated the land and drove off or killed the Native Americans, the most successful, obviously, would be the ones who absorbed hardship as God’s will and who thrived on work. Many of the rest would have died or retreated back to Europe. Since Colonial days, Americans have traditionally admired hard workers and individuals who were not afraid to leave their past behind and work alone, or independently, the way the Puritans did. Using these values as a base, Whitman’s poem elevates the common working-class American to an image of near perfection.

Because it is a democracy, and therefore lacks the rigid class structure of traditional European governments from centuries gone by, America is often referred to as a “classless society.” This is only partially true. Although we do not formally categorize people by their social class, we do have separate expectations for people according to their level of economic prosperity. It is generally the nation’s wealthiest citizens who are considered it finest, most exemplary, citizens; they are the ones who attract the attention of politicians and the press, who donate sizable sums to charities, and whose names are memorialized after death on roads, libraries, and hospital wards. In this poem, though, Whitman reminds us that the Americans who truly deserve our esteem are those of the working class: they are the ones that he identifies as “America,” and they have his admiration. The fact that these people are singing expresses more than just their joy, because to a poet, one’s “song” is not just a mild diversion but one’s very identity. In this poem Whitman defines America by its working class, in the same way another writer might define a nation by its more conspicuous or intellectually advanced citizens.


“I Hear America Singing,” like much of Whitman’s poetry, is written in free verse. Free verse is characterized by no regular pattern of meter and, as in this poem, usually incorporates no pattern of rhyme.

The major poetic device employed in the poem is its controlling metaphor. A metaphor is simply a figure of speech in which one thing is substituted for or used to identify another. A controlling metaphor impacts, controls, or unifies the entire poem. The expression “I hear America singing” substitutes “America” for “American people,” and the effect is to identify the two—as well as the people the poem depicts—as one in the same. This distinction, while subtle, is important because the rest of the poem builds on this metaphor by offering examples of the sorts of persons the speaker thinks quintessentially “American.”

Similarly, references to “Singing,” “song,” and “carols” also serve as metaphors in the poem. “The varied carols” the speaker hears suggest the uniqueness of the persons singing them, and they become metaphors for individuality. Finally, when read in light of the controlling metaphor, such references appear to allude to “American” individualism in particular.

Historical Context

It is a measure of Walt Whitman’s love for his country and his faith in the nation’s citizenry that he produced this poem in 1860, just as America was starting, after decades of tension, to rip apart into the two sides that would fight each other in the Civil War. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln set off a series of states resigning their membership in the United States, or “seceding.” Lincoln had run on a platform of moderation regarding slavery: he accepted its existence in states where it was already established, but he opposed it personally and did not want to see the practice extended in the future. Feeling threatened by the new President-elect’s views, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860; during the following January, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana also seceded. On February 4, 1861, the six states banded together as the Confederate States of America. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy would accept the other as a legitimate power, and, as was inevitable, the mounting hostility broke out into armed conflict on April 12, at Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Lincoln responded by drafting 75,000 citizens to fight in the Union Army. By the time of the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run on July 1, 1861, all of the southern slave states were members of the Confederacy.

No single preventable action caused the country to tear in half like this. In a way, it was programmed to happen from the very birth of the nation, when the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” was signed by men who participated in and supported the institution of slavery. At first, the United States government simply proceeded as if this were simply another issue that had two sides, but the supporters of each side felt so strongly about their beliefs

Compare & Contrast

  • 1860: The first Pony Express rider carried mail from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in a journey of ten days. Despite its place in American folklore, the Pony Express only lasted until the following year, when transcontinental telegraph lines made it impractical.

    1876: Alexander Graham Bell developed the first working telephone, replacing the telegraph.

    Today: The popularity of the Internet has revived the importance of reading in up-to-the-minute communications.

  • 1860: The United States population was 31.1 million, double what it had been twenty years earlier.

    Today: The U.S. population is expected to be over 268 million by the year 2000.

  • 1860: The first major labor strike occurred at a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. The workers’ demands were met, although their union was not given official recognition.

    1885: The American Federation of Labor was founded. One of the nation’s most powerful and durable unions, the AFL is still prominent today.

    1894: Labor Day was established as a United States holiday to honor the contributions of the American worker.

    1935: The Congress of Industrial Organizations was founded during the pro-labor period of the New Deal, as Americans struggled to work their way out of the depression. In 1955, it merged with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO, which is an important political force today.

    1981: President Ronald Reagan fired air-traffic controllers who were on strike, setting a precedent for anti-union sentiment that has contributed to the decline of union power in this country.

    Today: Union membership has dwindled to about 18 percent of the work force.

that they could not give anything up nor accept any gains by their opponents. As early as 1803, Congress was forced to deal with the fate of the growing country, when the Louisiana Purchase greatly expanded America’s land territory in the west. Debate raged over whether or not slavery should be allowed to expand into the new territory.

In 1818, when the Missouri Territory wanted to become a state, the issue reached a point of crisis. At that time, there were eleven states that permitted slavery and eleven free states, and neither side wanted the other to achieve a majority in the Senate. The agreement that was reached in March of 1820, called the Missouri Compromise, was supposed to settle the issue: Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state, and the deal stipulated that with future additions to the country, slavery would only be permitted in states that fell south of Missouri’s southern border. This compromise may have kept politicians on both sides happy, but throughout the country, the issue became increasingly volatile. In 1850, the same man who had authored the Missouri Compromise, Congressman Henry Clay, devised a series of five acts that were meant to retain the balance of power and calm the more dangerous elements of both sides. Two of the Compromise Measures of 1850 were seen as losses for the supporters of slavery: California was admitted as a free state and slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. The third act established the territories of New Mexico and Utah, where the slavery issue would be settled by popular vote, and the fourth allotted millions of dollars to pro-slavery Texas for border disputes. The fifth, the Fugitive Slave Act, angered opponents of slavery to an unexpected degree: it made it a federal crime to aid escaping slaves and paid government money to bounty hunters to capture black persons, determine if they were escaped slaves, and return them to their owners. Since these hunters were paid twice as much for each returned slave as they were paid for each person they declared a free citizen, they often enslaved innocent, unsuspecting parties. The outrage felt across the free states in response to this act helped the Abolitionist Movement gather supporters for the cause of eradicating slavery. By 1853, Clay’s Compromise had proven itself to be no solution to the dispute. Senator Steven Douglas of Illinois—the man who is best remembered today for being Lincoln’s debate opponent—proposed yet another compromise scheme, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which ended the federal government’s attempts to balance slave states with free states by letting new states vote on whether to allow slavery. The Act raised the fighting over the slavery issue to an unheard-of degree of destructiveness. Abolitionists and slave holders poured money and guns into the Kansas territory, leading to violent attacks and retribution as both sides tried to influence the vote through bribery and intimidation.

Given that the country had been divided from the start over the issue of slavery and that the fighting over this issue had become increasingly bitter for almost a century—to the point that it was about to cause the country to disband into separate halves—, it is difficult to imagine how Whitman could have written a poem in 1860 praising the American spirit: in fact, it is difficult to see how he could even see something that could be considered “American” at that time of division. In the years since the poem was written, though, it has touched something basic in all Americans and helped the country unite with a common identity.

Critical Overview

“I Hear America Singing” encompasses many of the poetic themes and attitudes for which Whitman has become most well known, particularly his democratic vision, which heralds the importance of “the common man and woman” in American culture and society. English poet William Michael Rosetti may have had “I Hear America Singing” in mind when in his essay titled “Walt Whitman’s Poems” he described Leaves of Grass as “the poem of individual personality and of world-wide diffusion, or of potential ideal democracy.” After all, “I Hear America Singing” is explicitly concerned with this “ideal democracy,” one made up of individual personalities and voices. Similarly, in his essay “The Good Gray Poet,” William Douglas O’Connor makes reference to “I Hear America Singing” when he describes Leaves of Grass as “a work purely and entirely American … sprung from our own soil; no savor of Europe nor the past, nor any other literature … a vast carol of our own land, and of its Present and Future.”

It is both the present and future that are the concerns of “I Hear America Singing.” The poem espouses both Whitman’s vision of what America should be and in some sense what it already is. According to the poem then, this American ideal is already comprised of the working class, the strong, cheerful, robust, and free class of people that make up the majority of America. Nevertheless, it is Whitman himself who best expresses his belief in the importance of the “common man and woman” when he writes in his introduction to the original edition of Leaves of Grass(1855): “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.… The United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or college or churches or parlors, nor even in newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.”


Sean Robisch

Sean Robisch holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Purdue University and has taught composition and literature for eight years. In the essay below, Robisch considers Whitman’s intent in “I Hear America Singing” by analyzing the author’s many revisions to the poem as well as his general philosophy concerning democracy in America.

The critical and marketplace failure of his self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855 was a blow to Walt Whitman, who aspired to be a contender with Longfellow for the title of Great American Poet. But it left him undaunted; he revised the manuscript, and after garnering a supportive jacket comment from Ralph Waldo Emerson, began to infiltrate the circle of American poets and critics. Today, he is considered one of the most influential poets in American history. Unlike most writers, whose manuscripts remain intact after their first publications, Whitman earned his fame partly from his rewriting and re-issuing previously published work. Considering Leaves of Grass to be not a book, but a man’s life (and thus constantly changing),

What Do I Read Next?

  • Editors Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Carpian brought together a collection of essays about Whitman by writers through the generations from 1855 to 1980. The famous writers represented here include Emerson, Thoreau, Swinburne, Hopkins, Robinson, Pound, Lawrence, Stevens, Hughes, Rukeyser, Kerouac, Neruda, Roethke, Ferlinghetti, Simpson, Bly, Ginsburg, and dozens more. The book, Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, was published in 1981 by Holy Cow! Press of Minneapolis.
  • One of the most complete and pleasant to read stories of Whitman’s life is Philip Callow’s 1992 biography From Noon to Starry Night.
  • The American Social History Project of the City University of New York has compiled a series of books entitled Who Built America? that chart the influence of laborers on America’s historical development. The series’ subtitle, Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture and Society should make the series’ relevance to the spirit of this poem obvious. These books are written clearly and laid out in a way that is easy to follow. The world familiar to Whitman is covered in the first volume, “From Conquest and Colonization through Reconstruction and the Great Uprising of 1877.” The series was published in 1989 by Pantheon Books.

Whitman took it through six major revisions, a thirty-seven-year project that straddled the Civil War and lasted until just before his death, when he left permission to distribute a “definitive” edition in 1892.

The critical response to Leaves of Grass has been influenced greatly by these changes in the work over time. As a literary figure, Whitman ranges from messianic or “Hellenistic” (praised broadly by nature writers and Jeffersonians) to agonistic (the “true Whitman” according to one critic), who covered with realism and sadness the tragedies of war and classism. This distinction is often founded on a division of his ante-bellum and post-bellum work, especially the 1855 “Song of Myself” found in Leaves of Grass and the 1865 collection, Drum-Taps. This is too simple a distinction. Whitman was a dynamic poet—a reviser. “I Hear America Singing,” which he altered between 1860 and 1867, is an excellent example of his ability to simultaneously change and preserve a poem’s celebrational timbre according to changes in the nation and despite its civil warfare.

Whitman removed “I Hear America Singing” from a cluster of numbered “Chants Democratic” (it was #20), and gave it its own title. He then made several changes to the 1860 version’s first line, first rewriting it from “American mouth-songs” to one with a more dactylic meter, like a waltz—or a carol—which prompted several composers to put the piece to music. (Eventually, over 300 musical scores would be written to interpret Whitman’s poems.) He added the “I,” the voice of the observing poet who hears a whole nation and then writes to us what he hears. He included the adjective “varied,” to describe the carols, implying at least two major possibilities: that the carols are variations on old standards or themes; and that all songs are varied by nature, different for each singer. Finally, he omitted the last three lines of the first version, which had read, “Come! some of you! still be flooding the States / with hundreds and thousands of mouth-songs, / fit only for the States.” The melodious voices of a whole America, rather than the lines of statehood, would structure the poem.

Two of Whitman’s most famous techniques are his use of the list or catalog without resorting to formal conventions of rhyme and meter, and his use of parallelism to connect the elements in the list. In “I Hear America Singing,” these devices indicate that while each singer is composing an individual carol that “belongs to him or her,” each one is also part of a choir, listed by occupation as a member of the American labor force. The repetition of the participial “singing” gives us an active and present event that briefly turns to the possessive, the woodcutter’s song. Small pivots in the poem, such as this change in a part of speech, accomplish much. They remind us that we are in a poem, surprised by language when its patterns are broken even briefly. They draw our attention back to the facts and names of occupations, Whitman’s journalistic view of the world merged with his poetic one. And they work musically in Whitman’s arrangement of individual pieces, working to form a kind of rondo. The amalgamation of his skills, well-represented by “I Hear America Singing,” would allow Whitman to accomplish what one critic has called his “most fundamental intention: to indicate the path between reality and the soul.”

Whitman alters his repetitions to prevent a sing-songy rhythm that might erase the individuality of each singer. A fine example is the boatman, whose song, like the woodcutter’s, contributes to the motif of ownership that will eventually expand to include days as well as workers. The boatman’s song is his while he is in his boat, implying that once he leaves the boat he will sing a different song. And just in case we are tempted to think that only the owner of the boat is allowed to sing, the poet listens to the deckhand, whose mouth is as open and voice as strong as his boss’s. Each song not only belongs to the singer, but to “none else.”

By 1860, when the poem appeared in its first form, ownership had become the key determination of a person’s class in America, so the boatman’s position is important. His title, “boatman,” rather than the military or industrial captain (a title Whitman would later use in a famous metaphor), especially in the context of the poem’s other laborers, intimates that the boat belongs to the company for which he works. The deckhand is of even lower station, so Whitman’s inclusion of both men indicates that different classes may sing for America, even while the poem implies by its omissions that the so-called upper classes are either songless or unheard. Leadership for Whitman is not found in social or economic power, but in the fulfillment of Emerson’s quest, the poet’s achievement.

Leaves of Grass is governed by the metaphor of poetry as song, and for as long as this metaphor is sustained, manual laborers are its bearers. For Whitman, democracy was an experiment in more than law, it was the potential government of American culture, of agrarian idealism; and its religion was built not on organizations but on individual souls. This means that the America Whitman hears singing is comprised of working-class voices that do not sing the same old anthems of despotism. When Whitman began writing poetry the search for an exclusively American literature, one that broke from especially British views, was still being conducted. He responded to Emerson’s passionate quest for an American poet in a way that Longfellow could not. Whitman took poetry out of the study and put it on the workbench. Infused with prosaic language and metric variation, his poetry lionized the worker, celebrated the self, sang the

“Whitman took poetry out of the study and put it on the workbench. Infused with prosaic language and metric variation, his poetry lionized the worker, celebrated the self, sang the natural world, and rendered the mystical experience in common terms.”

natural world, and rendered the mystical experience in common terms. And he did so during a pre-mass media culture that David Reynolds described in Walt Whitman’s America as conducive to “performances in everyday life,” taking “I Hear America Singing” beyond metaphor. This established his work as what William Saroyan called “the beginning of American poetry … when the unschooled took to the business.”

Whitman assumes the role of the poet-as-leader, a keen listener of the laborers’ democratic chants. He uses the repetition of “I hear” at the beginning and end of the first line to stress that listening, rather than speaking, is the mainstay of his occupation, and though the composition requires a conductor, it belongs to the common laborer, not to the captains of industry, to political leaders, or even to the poet.

Whitman’s goal is to proliferate these songs by praising them. Two singers receive specific compliments; the mechanic’s song is “as it should be blithe and strong,” and the women’s songs are “delicious.” These are the first and final people listed, implying that the poet’s praise bookends the whole of American singers as a collection of open mouths. If we read the poem as a circle, looping back to the first line from the last, then we have a clearly holistic praise of America as a choir of individuals singing strong, melodious, and varied carols. This is praise beyond mere patriotism. Whitman specifically approves of the individuality of the carpenter as the plurality of America, of the shoemaker’s sitting as the hatter’s standing, of one mechanic’s song as well as a collective song for mechanics (note the plural mechanics and singular “it”), of both men and women at work.

This is certainly not a politically radical poem by current standards; the women’s work is “woman’s work,” and only the men carouse to the night’s music. Whitman is not particularly interested in including other nations, either. But presentism asks too much; the poem’s subject is the connection between physical labor and the paradox of the individual/American voice, in which Whitman includes women as well as men, and which must by necessity focus on the identity Whitman wanted to see America achieve. The color of a worker’s skin is irrelevant in Whitman’s America, and singing is free, both by law and by expense. Money is also absent from the poem, though labor is present in nearly every line. So the slave, the indentured servant, the free laborer, all have the right to own a song, and by Whitman’s declaration, the right to sing as an American. It was certainly not enough for Whitman that to be American one merely needed to sing. On the contrary; he declares that despite inequality and hardship one may sing, and one’s song will inevitably affect both America’s harmony and its dissonance.

Just as each occupation has its singers and each singer a song, so do the day and night have their own music. The only line lacking some form of “to sing” leaves the verb implied: “The day [sings] what belongs to the day …” Characteristic of Whitman’s philosophy, a day implicitly has a song that it must sing in order to be a day at all. These resonate with American labor, as the night’s ring with parties and friendship after work. When the day’s verses end, the poem’s only obtrusive punctuation introduces the coda, a dash beginning the night life of the men. We can imagine one of the masons here, forecast in the fourth line that he will sing after he “leaves off work.” We can see him singing beside the ploughboy who changes his song at noon and sundown. Whitman edited out all of the dashes he had used in an earlier version to separate the singers, except this one separating day and night, labor and leisure. He extends Christ’s lesson of letting the day’s troubles be sufficient to the day by giving the night music, in this case (as in many of his poems) the music of male friendship.

“I Hear America Singing” reminds us that there is nuance to what Whitman once called his “barbaric yawp.” He articulates his belief that a symbol must be spoken plainly in order for poetry to become the musical analogy of facts, the song of the self that would shape leaders out of poets and poets out of carpenters. This he accomplished by changing the sentences of critics and authors, the speeches of politicians and citizens, the moods of listeners and troubadours alike.

Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky is a teacher, freelance writer, and sole proprietor of Apocalypse Joe’s, a merchandising firm specializing in millennial kitsch. Here, Semansky offers an interpretive overview of “I Hear America Singing,” in addition to critical and popular response to the work, concluding that the poem embodies Whitman’s “vision of the country as a whole.”

We have all read or seen catalogues, those glossy-covered magazines that arrive in the mail and offer detailed descriptions of products we just cannot live without. A catalogue, however, is also a name for a list, frequently a systematized list, of items. It is helpful to keep both of these meanings in mind while reading Walt Whitman’s short poem “I Hear America Singing,” for the poem describes items, in this case working people, in an effort to sell the reader on a particular vision of America. Included in the “Inscriptions” section of Leaves of Grass, “I Hear America Singing” announces the book’s themes and the poet’s approach to them. As such it serves as a kind of introduction to the form and content of Whitman’s masterpiece. Readers do themselves a disservice if they read only the shorter poems and believe they can grasp the scope and power of Leaves Of Grass.

Listing occupations and activities of the mid-nineteenth-century American citizen, “I Hear America Singing” celebrates the American dream. In cinema-like fashion Whitman presents verbal snapshots of working people “singing” their “varied carols” as they “should be.”

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
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

Whitman’s eye zooms in on individual workers engaged in their daily activities. Happy and healthy, they “sing” for the sheer joy of participating in worthwhile labor. Their pride in what they do is obvious; they embody the American myth of freedom. By illustrating the embodiment of an economic and political system, Whitman shows us his vision of the country as a whole. Whitman critic James Miller observed in A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass that “These songs of one’s own (‘what belongs to him or her’) are carols of spiritual possession—of the possessed individuality, of possessed life and potentiality for contribution to the onward stream of life.” It is only by doing our own part (happily) as individuals that we can join in the life of the country, in building a republic where everyone is valued for his and her intrinsic worth as well as for the work they do, whether that be building bridges, loading boats, or laying bricks, Whitman suggests. In his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves Whitman proclaims that “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.… Here is action untied from strings, necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes.” American workers are Whitman’s everyday heroes, and Whitman their spokesman and champion.

However, while Whitman describes the men in relation to their occupation, he describes the women primarily in relation to men (“mother,” “wife”).

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the
       young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or

By reversing the chronology of women’s roles (mother-wife-girl) he conflates their individuality into a kind of generically feminized identity. The vision of Whitman’s America, then, is a vision of gendered stereotypes, where men are revered for their masculinity, robustness, and procreative possibilities and women for their capacity to joyfully serve those men as mothers and wives. Notice how the young girl is not presented as playing but as laboring. Miller noted that the portraits of the “young fellows” and “young wife” are thematically linked and anticipate the paired sections of Leaves, “Calamus,” and “Children of Adam,” which in more detailed catalog-like fashion celebrate man’s love for his fellow man (what Whitman called “adhesiveness”) and man’s love for woman (what he calls “amativeness”), respectively. This listing of men and women, however, tells us more about the lister than the listees. “There is little or no dramatic effect in [Whitman’s] poems,” Roy Harvey Pearce wrote in Continuity of American Poetry, adding, “even with those huge casts of characters; for the items which are named in them do not interact, are not conceived as modifying and qualifying one another, so as to make for dramatic tension. They are referred back to their creator, who does with them as his sensibility wills.”

The almost generic simplicity of the descriptions account for this poem’s popularity. “I Hear America Singing” employs the same strategy of a Hallmark card by relying on one-dimensional emotion and vapid generalizations to appeal to the widest audience. It is these generalizations, literal-ness, and optimistic tone that also places Whitman in direct opposition to another tradition in American poetry whose lineage is rooted in the more inward, sometimes bleak and claustrophobic poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Unlike other poetries written at the time, Whitman’s was an oratorical poetry, written to be preached as much as read. Notice how “I Hear America Singing” is composed of just one sentence. After the bardic announcement which opens the poem—“I Hear America Singing”—we are presented with what the poet hears—“the varied carols,” after which we are presented with an inventory of those carols. The poem’s imagery moves from general to specific until, finally, we are presented with the image of the “open mouths” of the “young fellows” singing “their strong melodious songs.” The accumulation of detailed illustrations of the carols has an almost hypnotic effect on readers. By the end of the poem we too can hear what the poet hears.

Whitman’s voice is meant to be representative of the American voice. Though in other poems he sometimes participates in the work and scenes he describes, in this one he does not. His unidentified first-person narrator is satisfied to merely name and celebrate his observations. Naming, for Whitman’s speaker, is an Adamic act. As Pearce has noticed, “The poet is a father, giving his name to all he sees and hears and feels. His office is to make everything part of the community of man; the sense of community is revealed as he discovers, and then yields to, his infinite sense of himself.” “Singing” for Whitman is not the literal activity in which the

“‘I Hear America Singing’ employs the same strategy of a Hallmark card by relying on one-dimensional emotion and vapid generalizations to appeal to the widest audience.”

workers are engaged; rather it suggests the emotional response Whitman himself believes they have toward their work, and the response he wants us as readers to have as well. Ezra Greenspan noted in The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman that “the poem blends the individual acts of singing into a harmonious participial ensemble of America singing.” The carols also refer to the songs that Whitman himself will sing about these workers throughout Leaves of Grass. In this way the poem is self-referential because it is about poetry as much as it is about the people the poem describes.

Whitman’s reliance on the long sentence as his primary poetic unit, his incantatory, speech-based rhythms, his neglect of traditional poetic categories such as rhyme and conventional metric patterns, and his assumption that one person can speak for an entire nation have both pleased and frustrated many critics. Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair wrote in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry that “In the history of modern poetry, Whitman has been a rallying cry, a battle ground, an inspiration, and a bad example.… His joyful experiments with language, his pretense of telling all while leaving much to be gathered, his reckless assumption that the poet, his language, his subject matter, and his readers are all a part of one expanding community, have endowed him with patriarchal importance.”

This importance, however, was not always appreciated. Charles Dana, an early reviewer, wrote in the New York Daily Tribune that the poems in “Leaves of Grass are doubtless intended as an illustration of the natural poet. They are certainly original in their external form, have been shaped on no pre-existent model out of the author’s own brain. Indeed, his independence often becomes coarse and defiant. His language is too frequently reckless and indecent though this appears to arise from a naive unconsciousness rather than from an impure mind. His words might have passed between Adam and Eve in Paradise, before the want of fig-leaves brought no shame; but they are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles.”

This spontaneous approach to poetry composition forces readers to either dismiss Whitman’s work as being unpoetic or to embrace it for its unstudied and unpretentious manner, for its celebration of the common man, and for the belief that all human endeavors are inherently sacred. It is this vision and its legacy with which poets who came after Whitman have had to contend.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

James E. Miller, Jr.

In the following excerpt, Miller discusses the characteristics and merits of Whitman’s short poems from Leaves of Grass.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

“It is surprising that in such brief poem so much of Whitman’s total concept of modern man could be implied.”

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Source: “The Smaller Leaves” in A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass, University of Chicago Press, 1957, pp. 142-60.


Allen, Gay Wilson, The New Walt Whitman Handbook, New York: New York University Press, 1975.

Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, fifth edition. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, Inc., 1982.

Broderick, John C., ed., Whitman the Poet, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1962.

Dana, Charles A., “New Publications: Leaves of Grass,” in New York Daily Tribune, 23 July 1855, p. 3.

Davis, Kenneth C., Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1996.

Ginsburg, Allen, “Taking a Walk Through Leaves of Grass,” The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman, Ron Padgett, editor, New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1991. pp. 1-35.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, New York: Cambridge, 1995.

Miller, James E., A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Miller, James E., Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

O’Clair, Robert, and Richard Ellmann, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, New York: Norton, 1988.

O’Connor, William Douglas, “The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication,” reprinted in Walt Whitman, by Richard Maurice Bucke, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, Continuity of American Poetry, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Rossetti, William Michael, “Walt Whitman’s Poems,” reprinted in The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, Simon & Schuster, 1949.

“Walt Whitman’s Claim to Be Considered a Great Poet,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1881, p. 9.

For Further Study

Asselineau, Roger, The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality, Cambridge, MA: Bellknap Press of Harvard University, 1960.

This book is only slightly biographical: for the most part, it focuses on the various editions of Leaves of Grass, examining their technique and their social impact.

Bradley, Sculley, and John A. Stevenson, editors, Walt Whitman’s Backward Glances: “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” and Two Contributory Essays Hitherto Uncollected, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1947.

The title essay by Whitman describes his process of putting together Leaves of Grass through the various editions from 1855 to 1892.

Cady, Edwin H., and Louis J. Budd, editors, On Whitman: The Best from American Literature, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

This book sifts through articles that have appeared in the journal American Literature since its first issue in 1929, gathering the literary studies about Whitman. Varied in subject and not difficult to read, these essays are written for true students of poetry.

Marx, Leo, ed., The Americanness of Walt Whitman, Indianapolis: D.C. Heath and Company, 1960.

This book, a part of the Problems in American Civilization includes essays by some well-known thinkers (deTocqueville, Santayana and Van Wyck Brooks among them) about just what the book’s title says, which is one of the focal themes of the poem.

Miller, James E., Jr., Walt Whitman, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962.

Miller dismisses “I Hear America Singing” quickly, in a discussion of the poet’s brief lyrics, but he gives a great deal of detailed background and analysis regarding Leaves of Grass in general.