Through the years, Leaves of Grass grew and sprouted like a tree as Whitman released new editions of the book with new poems and others revised and rearranged thematically. The first edition featured only 12 poems, the last edition consisted of over 400 poems.
In many of the poems Whitman considers the past, present and future of the human race at times placing himself into the future, peering over his reader’s shoulder as they read his poems.
Later, Whitman added Drum Taps, his Civil War poems, to Leaves of Grass. A number of those like “O Captain! My Captain!” are elegies to Abraham Lincoln whose death greatly affected Whitman. And way before Post Traumatic Stress disorder was known as an actual diagnosable illness, Whitman wrote a poem about it called “The Artilleryman’s Vision.” In the poem a former soldier is gripped by a terrible vision in the night beside his sleeping wife and infant. Curiously, that poem ends with imagery from an earlier poem by Francis Scott Key which would become our nation’s National Anthem in 1931.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Whitman had some sort of influence on every American poet and writer who followed him. Willa Cather titled her 1913 novel about the women of the western prairie “O Pioneers” after the Whitman poem of the same name. The Beat Poets and writers of the 1950's and 60's, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among others, who took to the road and experienced America as Whitman did in His Poem “Song of the Open Road.”
And it was on the road somewhere in the deep south where Whitman gained some of his greatest poetical inspiration to transmit into the future to those yet unborn poets.
In his poem “Starting from Paumanok” Whitman (perhaps remembering a day in the past on his journey to New Orleans) writes:
“As I have walk'd in Alabama my morning walk,
I have seen where the she-bird the mocking-bird sat on her nest in
the briers hatching her brood.
I have seen the he-bird also,
I have paus'd to hear him near at hand inflating his throat and
And while I paus'd it came to me that what he really sang for was
not there only,
Nor for his mate nor himself only, nor all sent back by the echoes,
But subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born."
Whitman sees the bird as singing not for the present, but for what the unhatched eggs represent, the future. It’s the bird’s gift occult - the hidden gift- being transmitted into the future to the yet unborn poets in the nest. And that’s who Whitman was writing for, the future of America, his yet unborn readers and poets- me and you.