Berkeley Digital Library

A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Excerpts From Walt Whitman's Poetry
Published in Mother Earth in 1906, 1916, and 1917

[ Questions on Poetry | Art and Literature | Next Section ]

CONTEXT: Emma Goldman hoped that her magazine would become a political and cultural forum. She introduced her readers to writers and poets whose work expressed the optimism of her belief in social harmony and individual freedom but did not hesitate to give voice to the outrage against the injustices around them. Although poetry is no longer as popular a form of expression, Walt Whitman's poems have remained an emblem of the American belief in individual freedom and democracy. By prominently including Whitman's poetry in her magazine, Goldman hoped to link the American anarchist tradition with the European anarchist tradition. Later in her life, Goldman wrote an essay about Whitman himself, and the ways in which his homosexual identity deepened the meaning of his poetry, and how negative social attitudes about homosexuality prevented him from fully expressing himself.

Mother Earth
May 1906


When I peruse the conquered fame of heroes, and the
victories of mighty generals, I do not envy the
Nor the President in his Presidency, nor the rich in his
great house;
But when I hear of the brotherhood of lovers, how it was
with them,
How through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging,
long and rong
Through youth, and through middle and old age, how
unfaltering, how affectionate and faithful they
Then I am pensive--I hastily walk away, filled with the
bitterest envy.

Mother Earth
August 1916


I SIT and look upon all the sorrows of the world, and
upon all oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at
anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying,
neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous
seducer of young women,
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love
attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see
martyrs and prisoners,
I observe a famine at sea, I obseve the sailors casting
lots who shall be kill'd to preserve the lives of the
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant
persons upon labourers, the poor, and upon negroes,
and the like;
All these--all the meanness and agony without end I
sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

Mother Earth
March 1917


I DREAM'D in a dream I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there then the quality of robust
love; it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that
And in all their looks and words.

* * *

WHAT think you I take my pen in hand to record?
The battle-ship, perfect-modell'd, majestic, that
I saw pass the offing to-day under full sail?
The splendours of the past day? or the splendour
of the night that envelops me?
Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread
around me?--no;
But merley of two simple men I saw to-day on the pier in
the midst of the crowd, parting the parting
of dear friends,
The one to remain hung on the other's neck and passionately
kiss'd him,
While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in
his arms.

Questions on the Poems:

  1. What themes link these three Whitman poems?

  2. Do you think that Whitman's perspective is optimistic and/or pessimistic about the world he lived in?

  3. What kind of history books and newspaper articles would be written if the authors shared Whitman's perspective on what is fundamental to life?

General Questions on This Exhibit:
  1. What kinds of changes do you think must take place in the world to create Whitman's "new city of Friends"? Can a poem be part of the process of change?

  2. How does the power of poetry differ from prose? Does it seem more accessible or less accessible? Why, and in what ways?

  3. What kind of poetry is part of your life? Can you give an example of a contemporary song or rap that speaks to people and social issues in a unique way?

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