Walt Whitman: 10 Misconceptions
Least to Greatest

by Mitchell Santine Gould, Curator, LeavesOfGrass.Org

03.Poetic Form

No, Walt Whitman did not invent a new form for poetry. This is a major misconception, considering how often you will encounter that claim that Whitman’s poetic form had never before been seen. It was, in fact, seen in households all over the new nation, because of the popularity of Martin Farquhar Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy. Tupper’s poems were pious and sentimental, but expressed in a fascinating oracular manner. His long, sprawling, casual lines shattered the architecture which dominated almost every other poem: short lines, rigid meter, and obligatory rhymes.

Martin Farquhar Tupper
Martin Farquhar Tupper

Whitman totally stole Tupper’s format, and his oracular tone. His innovation was in the profundity and beauty of his ideas — particularly his thrilling, pantheistic theology; in the unprecedented intimate dialogue he opened with his readers; in his depiction of the mystical pseudosciences rocking the nation; and in his vivid account of life in New York City — including his very-thinly-veiled sex life. His decision to use Tupper’s form was amply justified as a gamble in the marketplace, but it introduced an amazing — and indispensable — capacity to express his most expansive ideas.