In What Ways Do Walt Whitman Anticipate the Modernist Movement? Essay

April 22, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jul 9th, 2021


Modernism is usually introduced as one of the most provocative and captivating periods in the literature. Its peculiar feature is the intention to deviate from traditions in order to save people from a coming civilization decline and discover new meanings of life. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are usually called to be the founders of the modernism movement due to the impact on future modernists and readiness to tell the truth regardless of how dangerous or unpleasant it could be.

Their personal experiences, the chosen lifestyles, and propaganda of a free word make these two authors remarkable figures in the literature, as well as in the history. In this paper, special attention will be paid to Walt Whitman as one of major and the most effective anticipators of the modernism movement because of the chosen fearlessness, intents to promote equalities in everything, and abilities to break all the rules, contradict to themselves, and, at the same time, prove the correctness of their decisions.

Modernism in the Literature

Modernism is a well-known period in the history of the literature that was characterized by re-thinking about the role of religion and politics in social views and the necessity to understand the worth of truth through the prism of relativism and individualism.

The first waves of modernism were observed at the beginning of the 1900s and lasted till the middle of the 1940s. Modernists were united by their dissatisfaction with the current events and the necessity to participate in the war that destroyed so many innocent lives without any evident reasons. People felt like they were betrayed by the war and left without a possibility to change something. Industrialization and globalization continued increasing and influencing human lives, but the outcomes of the war made many questions and concerns to be opened and unsolved.

Fearlessness and Equality

If someone wants to find out a rhyme or connection between the ideas in Whitman’s “Soul of Myself”, it is necessary to be prepared for disappointment and failure. The goal chosen by the author is not to present a nice and simple story but to describe life as it is, without masks and entourage. Whitman states “the atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless” (“Soul of Myself”), meaning that people are free to define their own tastes and rely on their own preferences. It is high time to live and make independent decisions without fears and being “undisguised and naked” (Whitman, “Soul of Myself”). He does not want to hide behind something that is unnatural and is ready to instruct the reader on how to behave, react, and continue developing.

Some kind of premise to modernism and its impact on society is observed in many of Whitman’s works. For example, he believes in the “future use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions” (Whitman, “Once I Passed Through a Populous City”). Innovation turns out to be an essential part of life, and people must respect everything offered to them. At the same time, Whitman leaves the right to make a final decision to people who should rely on their interests and priorities. In his turn, he decides to “remember only a woman I casually met” (Whitman, “Once I Passed Through a Populous City”).

He makes a choice and prefers to stay with one person he believes he is in love with instead of staying “in the rush of the streets” (Whitman, “Song of Myself”). There is no place for fear or other abstract things that distract people’s attention. Whitman is definite in his intentions and does not want to trust books or teachers who explain how to live and whom to love. He breathes in the air and defines its taste, using his personal experience and knowledge.

No Rules and No Mistakes

Although Whitman was not a modernist poet, his works contain some rebellion spirit and the desire to break all the rules that determine everyday life. He calls the reader to refuse the past and open a new page: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems/ You shall possess the good of the earth and sun” (Whitman, “Song of Myself”). It is a provocation for modern writers to demonstrate their powers and readiness to break the rules. It is high time to forget about the past that did not give an opportunity to discover a true potential.

Still, Whitman does not want to define himself as a perfect teacher for the reader. His experience and knowledge are enough and sufficient for him only, and people must rely on their own explanations and interpretations that can be either right or wrong. “You shall not look through my eyes either, no take things from me/ You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self” (Whitman, “Song of Myself”). There is no place for old rules, thus there is no place for mistakes or concerns. A person is free to live this life in accordance to their own principles and interests, and Whitman offers such a chance as the best anticipator of modernism.

Walt Whitman and His Overall Impact on Modernism

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was necessary for people to find out the truth about the world and the events that happened around, and the works of Walt Whitman turned out to be the helpful sources of inspiration and motivation for many authors and ordinary people. Although the works of Whitman were created in the middle of the 19th century when no modernist features were observed, his impact on modernism cannot be ignored.

As well as Emily Dickinson, Whitman demonstrated strong qualities as a poet and introduced interesting stories or even instructions on how to resist the cruelty of this world, how to use the word, and how to express personal feelings. Sometimes, people believe that there are weak or unconfident to take a step and discover what they can do at this moment. Whitman’s poems are based on contradictions that are evident in human life and the instructions on how to deal with everything in the best possible way.


In general, the role of Walt Whitman as one of the main anticipators of the modernist movement in the literature cannot be ignored or misunderstood. He showed how it is possible to resist the already established rules and prove the correctness of the choices made and how to contribute to the future and respect the experience of the past. At the same time, people should never forget about their personal demands and possibilities, and the poems of Whitman help to find out the necessary amount of inspiration and motivation to change something and be proud of the obtained meaning.

Works Cited

Whitman, Walk. “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Web.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Poetry Foundations. Web.

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