Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe


The Lesson


Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman.

Credit: Courtesy of the American Memory Collection.

"Small is my theme  yet has it the sweep of the universe"
—Walt Whitman's notebook, page 19 LOC #94

"… no ideas but in things"
—"Paterson" by William Carlos Williams

Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. As he declared in Democratic Vistas, "America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing. She seems singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, manners, etc., appropriate for former conditions and for European lands, are but exiles and exotics here. …" Whitman wanted his poetry to explore important ideas with "the sweep of the universe" (as the Europeans did), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the individual experience and feeling ("small in theme").

As is suggested by the second quotation above, Whitman's ideas and example had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American writers. But to what extent does Whitman's own poetry fulfill his stated goal of combining universal themes with the closely rendered details of personal experience and feeling? In this lesson, students will attempt to answer that question by working with his words in a variety of media. To help them appreciate his artistic practice, students will also have an opportunity to compose poetry modeled on the poet's characteristic method of using the notebooks as a source of the personal experience and universal themes explored in his poems.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy. To make this lesson plan more compelling and fascinating for students, teachers should screen the brilliant Whitman episode from the NEH-funded series Visions and Voices (scroll down to "12. Walt Whitman") at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Learner.org. There is a log-in process required to access the actual movie, but the registration is free and provides entree to a wealth of educator resources. Additionally, PBS's "American Experience" has created a special on Walt Whitman from which additional resources can be drawn.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Whitman's poetry reflect his attempt to combine universal themes with the individual experiences and feelings?
  • How did Whitman use his experiences of the Civil War in his poetry?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • Give examples to clarify what Whitman meant by "small in theme yet has it the sweep of the universe."
  • Discuss some of the different media in which Whitman wrote and compare his work in each.
  • Compose an original poem from a student notebook entry.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the worksheet Whitman's Notebooks, Whitman's Poetics, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • In this lesson, students will work with one specific aspect of Whitman's poetics: the poet's goal of creating a marriage between universal themes and the details of individual experience and feeling. The class will discuss a brief statement from Whitman's Notebook LOC #94 and use that discussion as a basis for comparing Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" to William Carlos Williams's "To a Poor Old Woman." Next, students working in groups will analyze and make connections between a Civil War photograph and a Whitman notebook excerpt, poem, and prose selection on similar subjects. To enliven their presentation of these materials, students will rework some Whitman notebook material into poems, to be read as part of the presentation. Finally, using their own notebook entries as raw material, students will create a poem from their own experience. Complete directions for the group activity are found in Activity 2.
  • For background information on the life and poetry of Walt Whitman, consult the following EDSITEment resources:
  • The EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory provides information About Whitman's Notebooks, including the following excerpts:
    In these typical writer's notebooks, Whitman jotted down thoughts in prose and expressions in poetry. The earliest examples include journalistic entries with ideas for articles he might write. His first trial lines for what would soon become part of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass appear in an early notebook (LC #80) which bears an internal date of 1847; it was his habit, however, to use these notebooks over a number of years, filling in blank pages at will, and the remarkable trial flights of verse for "Song of Myself" in it are likely to date closer to 1854.

    In the Civil War years, he was more apt to carry tiny notebooks in his shirt pocket in which he took notes about the needs and wants of wounded soldiers whom he visited and comforted in the hospitals in and near Washington, D.C. In these he noted what treats a soldier might like on the next visit--raspberry syrup, rice-pudding, notepaper and pencil--or notes and addresses of family to whom Whitman would then write in place of the gravely wounded or dead young man. Occasionally he would also describe scenes on the battlefield, probably from reports from others in the camps.
    American Memory also provides information about Daguerreotypes, including the following excerpts:
    [Daguerreotypes] occasionally document American laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. The subjects of occupational daguerreotypes pose with the tools of their trade or goods that they have made. Most occupational daguerreotypes depict tradesmen, such as cobblers, carpenters, and blacksmiths…

    Nineteenth-century paintings, prints, and illustrations of the American working class often presented idealized and heroicized images. In contrast, this daguerreotype of a locksmith with his scrawny arms, grave demeanor, and stained apron provides a different perspective on the nineteenth-century American tradesman.
    American Memory provides information about Civil War photography as well in Taking Photographs at the Time of the Civil War.
  • Further information on William Carlos Williams is available on the EDSITEment resource Modern American Poetry and in the biographical entry for William Carlos Williams on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Academy of American Poets.
  • For further reading, consult the Recommended Reading List provided here as a PDF.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. "Small in Theme ...… Universal in Sweep"

Amid mundane notes including addresses and information about people he had met, page 19 of Walt Whitman's Notebook LOC #94, available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, includes this tantalizing fragment: "small in theme yet has it the sweep of the universe." No explanation accompanies the statement, but it could be interpreted to represent one idea Whitman had about his poetry—the desire to explore universal themes using specific, sensory details from his own experience. "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" is an example of one attempt to do so. After observing a spider constructing a web, Whitman becomes aware of his "soul … Ceaselessly musing, venturing, … Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere."

Read aloud to the students Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider." Which details in the poem describe what the spider is doing? In what ways does the poet see similarities between his soul and the spider?

Share with the class Whitman's statement from page 19 of Walt Whitman's notebook LOC #94: "small in theme yet has it the sweep of the universe." (If students have an interest in seeing the original in Whitman's hand, share the page image on the computer or by downloading and copying it.) Would it be accurate to say that "The Noiseless Patient Spider" is "small in theme"? Does it also have the "sweep of the universe" in it?

Now share with the class William Carlos Williams's poem "To a Poor Old Woman," available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of The Academy of American Poets. To use Whitman's term, is this poem also "small in theme"? What about it is universal? Share the following quote about Williams' work from The Academy of American Poets's essay The Modernist Revolution: Make It New!:

William Carlos Williams wrote in "plain American which cats and dogs can read," to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. "No ideas but in things," he proclaimed. In succinct, often witty poems he presents common objects or events-a red wheelbarrow, a woman eating plums-with freshness and immediacy, enlarging our understanding of what a poem's subject matter can be.

What did Williams mean when he said, "No ideas but in things"? If desired, share Williams' famous—and controversial—poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," available on the EDSITEment resource The Academy of American Poets. It obviously features a "thing," and it is certainly small in theme. Is it also universal? In what sense does so much depend upon a red wheelbarrow? Williams wanted the poem to be simple yet explore an idea. Did he succeed?

Activity 2. Whitman and the Civil War

In this section of the lesson, students will work with Walt Whitman's words in three different formats—notebooks, prose, poetry—to deepen their understanding of them and of Whitman's process. Using Whitman's writing as well as Civil War photographs and poems created from Whitman notebook entries, student groups are challenged to create a presentation for the class that demonstrates the connections between the materials they have analyzed.

If desired, begin by sharing some information about Whitman and the Civil War, such as the following excerpt from the Biography of Walt Whitman available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of The Academy of American Poets:

Establish an anticipatory set by sharing with the class a recruiting poster for New York's 51st Volunteers (from the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection on the EDSITEment resource American Memory), the subject of many of the Whitman notebook pages assigned below. What impression about Civil War service do you get from this poster? (The poster does not emphasize idealistic reasons for signing up.)

Next, divide the class into groups limited in size, as follows (note: There can be fewer students per group and fewer groups than those noted below, if desired or necessary.):

The groups will be assigned the following materials, available on EDSITEment resources:

(Note: All the notebook entries listed above are from Notebook LOC #94 on Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection, available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. The photos are from the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection on American Memory. Click on any image for additional, larger images. The prose pieces are from the Complete Prose Works from the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia. The poems (unless otherwise noted) are from "Leaves of Grass" (1891), available via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia.)

Student groups will analyze the assigned photographs, prose pieces, and poems using the "Media Comparison Chart: Cubing Exercise" on page 1 of the PDF (see Preparation Instructions, above, for download instructions). The analysis is intended to help students prepare for presenting these materials to the class and to encourage them to make connections between the sights Whitman saw during the Civil War, the prose pieces he wrote, and his poems. When creating a script for their presentation, students should find useful material in their answers to the cubing exercise.

If you are unfamiliar with cubing, the "Media Comparison Chart" contains basic instructions. In addition, the "Sample Cubing Exercise Answers" on pages 2–3 of the PDF offer one set of sample answers for the "Hundred Day March" media.

After the cubing exercise has been completed, students have one more task before working on their presentations-creating a poem from a Whitman notebook page to be read aloud as part of the presentation. The poem to be created could be considered a "found poem" because students can choose to use Whitman's words exactly as they find them or add and delete as desired, as long as they change the form to poetry, that is, by working with the length of lines and the places where the lines break. (Note: In Activity 3, below, students will create poems from their own notebook entry; novice poetry writers should gain confidence when they discover they can "find" an original poem in their own notebook entry using the same process.)

Model the process for creating poems from Whitman's notebook by sharing an image of page 107 from Whitman's Notebook LOC #94, available on the EDSITEment reviewed website American Memory. Give students the chance to read parts of the entry aloud. Can they discern every word? Probably not. That's okay. In fact, unavoidable misreadings of a few words and guesses about illegible items can become fortunate accidents in the poem and reading to be created.

Once all of page 107 has been read, share with students the sample poem "The Sixth Battle, September 17th 1862" on page 4 of the PDF. In what way is this poem "small in theme"? In what way is it "universal in sweep"? What choices has the poet made in turning the notebook page into a poem? Especially note the shortened poetry lines, the addition of punctuation, the lack of major changes. This poet has chosen to use only words from the original.

Each group member will tackle one page from Whitman's notebook from which he/she will create a poem using Whitman's words. The reading of these brief poems will be part of each group's presentation to the class. The group is responsible for exactly as many notebook entries as there are group members.

After the groups have completed their analysis of the assigned media, and individual students have completed their poems, each group should prepare to present its materials to the class in a way that incorporates reading of the student-created poems while touching on the assigned photos, prose pieces and Whitman poems to communicate the connections between them and the impact conveyed by the combined images and texts. Presentations can be as simple as a brief description of each item assigned to the group followed by a reading of the student poems, or they can be more elaborate, with students, for example, writing a narration or brief skit that allows the presentation of the materials to be part of a dramatic framework. If desired, the readings could be multimedia (live or online) with the addition of appropriate music and display of photographs. Groups are encouraged to use other Civil War photographs from the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection and/or audio clips from the collection Band Music of the Civil War Era, both exhibits of the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory.

  • Hospital Group—3 students
  • Washington During the War, Part I Group—5 students
  • Washington During the War, Part II Group—5 students
  • The Fighting Fifty-First, Part I Group—6 students (Note: This group has one of the longer prose pieces.)
  • The Fighting Fifty-First, Part II Group—5 students
  • A Hundred Day March Group—7 students (Note: This group has a graphic prose piece.)

[Whitman] traveled to Washington, D.C., in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals. Whitman stayed in the city for 11 years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Activity 3. A Poem Small in Theme

Now the students are ready to compose their own poems with small themes (and, perhaps, universal sweep). Remind students of the spider in Whitman's poem and the old woman eating plums in Williams's. At home or in class, have students select a mundane object or event and then write about it freely, quickly, concretely, and in detail-the facts, just the facts. It would be best if students could write while (or right after) viewing the object or event. Students should fill a page or more. The next day in class, students can use their own or someone else's notes from which to create a "found poem" as they did with Whitman's notebook page.

Extending The Lesson


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Media analysis
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • MMS (AL)