Notes on the Text

All of the lines in this anthology are direct quotations from words that Whitman wrote (plus a very few words that others said they heard him say). His best-known work is Leaves of Grass, the collection of poems on which he worked from the early 1850s to the end of his life. I have relied primarily on the text of the 1891-1892 “deathbed” edition, but I have supplemented freely with text from other editions. All of the editions of the work are available at He also wrote extensively in prose. Most of the prose was gathered at the end of his life in Complete Prose Works, available at The largest portion of this anthology comes from these published poetic and prose works. I have also drawn freely on his notebooks, letters, and handwritten fragments now found in archives, all of which were unpublished in his lifetime.  I have used very little from Whitman’s copious journalism (apart from his long newspaper essays on health), nor from his writing before the 1850s.

I have struggled with the questions of race and gender, trying to strike a balance between presenting an accurate view of Whitman as he was and presenting my own version of what I find best in his work. I have largely omitted his frequent praise of “manly virtues,” but I have included a sampling of that language because it appears so often in his writings. I have left pronouns gendered with male bias, in the way that he wrote them, (for example, using man or mankind to mean all human beings,) fearing that to change all such pronouns systematically would put too much of myself and not enough of Whitman in the text. I have included lines on his praise of women, recognizing that by today’s standards those lines are still rather patriarchal and therefore might seem misogynistic, but by the standards of his own day they sounded quite progressive.

Similarly, I have included lines reflecting his respect and sympathy for African-Americans, recognizing that he was a racist in some respects, but by the standards of his own day his published words about race sounded quite progressive. Note that Whitman often uses the word race in the old sense of the word, meaning any group of people who share some common identity; thus it can include what we are more likely to call an ethnicity or nationality. In some contexts, he uses race to mean all human beings—what we might call the human species.

Nearly every line in this anthology appears only once in the whole text. There are many lines that could fit quite meaningfully in more than one section. In almost every case I chose (sometimes almost arbitrarily) the section where I thought the line fit best. In a very few rare cases I used a line more than once, where that line seemed really necessary in more than one section.

I chose not to cite the sources of the words in the anthology, fearing that an endless string of footnotes would interfere with the reading experience. To find the source of any specific line or set of words, type the words into an internet search engine, with quotations marks around them, and add the word Whitman. If you get no useful results, try shortening the string of words.

I have split up Whitman’s units of poetry into separate lines and combined those with lines from other units that treat the same theme, to create a new poem. Occasionally I have changed a few words, or the order of the words, to create verses that read more smoothly, without changing the sense of the line. In a very few instances I have taken the liberty he offered us, filtered his work from myself, and changed or added words in ways that do change the sense, to better reflect my own thoughts, values, and experience. More often I resisted the temptation to add or change words that would change the sense. Above all, I wanted to let the poet speak for himself.

Whitman used capital letters frequently. His capitalization was rather inconsistent, and sometimes seemingly arbitrary. I have removed most of his capital letters for consistency and to make the text easier to read. I have left capital letters only at the beginning of each line and for words that are nowadays typically capitalized. I have also changed some punctuation where it seemed to make meaning of the text more clear.

In this text, the length and layout of the lines drawn from poetry is sometimes different from the original source. This is regrettable, since Whitman was quite exacting about the arrangement of lines on the page in his poetry. When a line of verse was too long to fit on one line of physical print, he indented the second physical line, to tell the reader that this was all a single line of verse. On this website, the limitations of the software made it impossible to reproduce the indentation. Therefore occasionally I split a single line into two lines to make the text more readable. The reader has some control over the length and layout of lines by changing font size and, on a desktop or laptop computer, zooming in or out. On a handheld device, the text will read best in landscape (horizontal) orientation.

NEXT: About the Editor: Ira Chernus