Lesson Plan

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

Photo of Walt Whitman taken in Brooklyn, New York in September 1872.
Photo caption

Photo of Walt Whitman taken in Brooklyn, New York in September 1872.

"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.

Guiding Questions

How does Whitman's poetry reflect his attempt to combine universal themes with individual experiences and feelings?

How did Whitman use his experiences of the Civil War in his poetry?

Why do Whitman's words continue to resonate with people today?

Learning Objectives

Analyze Whitman's line "small in theme yet has it the sweep of the universe."

Compare Whitman's works with other Modernist poets and evaluate their significance at the time and now.

Evaluate how Whitman used different media to convey his work.

Compose an original poem from a student notebook entry.