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Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"

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

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Introduction and Text of "I Hear America Singing"

Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" is a song of praise. As a useful metaphor, “song” becomes the tool with which the speaker in Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” expresses the cheerful nature of the people he daily encounters in their labors and in also in their play By claiming to hear them "singing," he is rendering them cheerful and skilled in their labor. The speaker's heart is overflowing with praise for his fellow citizens.

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 consider to be an exaggeration of the joy and gratitude inspiring these people who are ordinary workers. These folks are certainly not likely to become sycophants of the nothing-to-lose-but-our-chains crowd.

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 virtually always employs this rambling, sprawling form as he catalogs all the things his speakers see, hear, think, feel, or enjoy.

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 "I Hear America Singing"

Commentary

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing” features a speaker who is offering a musical tribute to the laborers of America; they cheerfully sing as they work. This 19th century effusion also recognizes the partiers who fill the night time with their good cheer.

First Movement: Varied Laborers

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 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.” He then mentions the carpenter whose song sings out the measurement of "plank or beam."

The mason is singing while he prepares himself for his workday 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 hat maker offers his carols where he stands.

Second Movement: A Mother's Delicious Singing

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,

Continuing his catalog, the speaker hears the “wood-cutter’s song" and the song of 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—each in his/her own unique way. They are not a faceless mass of working slobs. They are priceless human beings living their American dreams. Thus, they deserve respect, affection, and attention, and this speaker is revealing the love and cheerful attitudes these hard-working Americans are portraying as they simply go about their daily work routines.

Third Movement: Young Fellows and Party Time

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

There is a time for work, and there is a time for leisure. The speaker's respect for work is equaled 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 a scene of the partiers as they sing open-mouthed. They are young, cordial, hale and hearty as they carouse singing their “melodious songs.” While day time offers all the beautiful songs of various workers and service providers, night time 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