Updated: 06 Jan 2013
Analysis of Walt Whitman's "Salut Au Monde!"
Style, as it pertains to writing, can be defined as a patterning of the medium — the specific nuances, word selection, grammar and sentence structure that the writer uses to convey a point. The purpose of this article is to evaluate Whitman's style, not to evaluate or to interpret the actual or intended meaning of the poem. "Salut Au Monde!", coincidentally, is the type of poem that simply begs for style evaluation, as you will soon learn. One cannot read it without noticing or commenting on Whitman's style.
The sound of a body of work is simply the physical sound of the words as they're read aloud. Poems are similar to works of music because they both contain rhythm. There are exceptions, like everything else in life, to this rule. "Salut Au Monde!" is one of those exceptions as the reader will not discern many textual rhythms. For instance, poems with rhythm implement iambic pentameter, iambic octameter, etc. Writing in iambic assures that every other syllable will be stressed; the words will follow each other like a melody. In the same way, effective songs are written in iambic. "Salut Au Monde!" is chock full of repetition. Whitman drills the reader with repetition. He doesn't repeat specific statements, but using alliteration, repeats the phrases that begin each line. In fact, each section but the last uses flagrant alliteration. Sections Five through Ten and parts of Four use the phrase "I see" to begin most lines. After a dozen or so lines of phrase repetition, the reader tunes these phrases out and simply concentrates on what he sees, or what he hears. "I see male and female everywhere. I see the serene brotherhood of philosophs. I see the constructiveness of my race. I see the results of the perseverance and industry of my race…" (page 145) Whitman used repetition, but repetition doesn't necessarily equate rhythm. Even though a certain phrase is repeated line after line (such is the case in Section Eleven, among other sections), syllabic rhythm is completely absent, a feature that gives it a prose-like quality. As mentioned above, "Salut" is devoid of rhythm as well as rhyming. Before Whitman, the majority of poets used rhyming. Whitman, along with Emily Dickinson, were among the first major American poets to be successful with irregular meter and rhymeless poems. Rhyming, in a highly nominal and list-oriented poem such as "Salut" would be impossible or at the least, cumbersome.
"Salut Au Monde!" is a mostly informal poem. Formalities are sparse, but two stand out to me: "I see plenteous waters, I see mountain peaks…" (page 139), and from page 137, "What myriads of dwellings…" Both lines could have easily been retold in a more relaxed format. "Salut Au Monde!" is written in a mostly loose, unrestrained format. When read aloud, it sounds as though Whitman had merely transcribed his thoughts as they popped into his head. Furthermore, it sparks the imagination. "Salut" is filled with geographic terms (cartography jargon), ethnic terms, locations, cities, rivers, etc. Whitman mentions the "Himalayas, Chian Shahs, Altays, Ghauts…the giant pinnacles of Elbruz, Kazbek, Bazardjusi…" (page 139) These geographic terms are not described or mentioned elsewhere; Whitman is relying on the reader's prior knowledge of these places to spark their memories. There are over 300 proper nouns in "Salut Au Monde!", most are names of places or ethnic groups. When this frequent usage of proper nouns is combined with a conversation-like diction, Whitman creates a poem that uses variety without being overwhelming and repetition without being boring.
The one organization style that stood out to me was Whitman's question and answer technique, which he employed for the first four sections. Section One is basically a collection of questions, which are answered in Section Two. For example, Whitman asks, "What widens within you…?" (page 137) The opening line of Section Two answers that question: "Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens…" (also page 137) In Section Three, Whitman asks of himself, "What do you hear…?" and promptly lists eighteen 'sounds'. There is no organizing principle in place as he lists his sounds. Whitman goes from wild horses of Australia to French liberty songs to Mexican mule drivers all in a single sentence! (page 138) This, I believe, is further evidence that Whitman is simply writing, verbatim, his thoughts. In Section Four, he asks of himself, "What do you see…?" and for the next six sections, he lists what he sees. Whitman is semi-organized here, grouping together subjects into clusters. His list of mountain ranges grace page 139, nautical places on page 140 and rivers take up half of Section Five: "I see the long river stripes of the earth, I see the Amazon and the Paraguay, I see the four great rivers of China, the Amour, the Yellow River, the Yiang-tse and the Pearl…" (page 141) On a larger scale, "Salut Au Monde!" is shaped into two parts — the subjective (Sections One through Ten) and the objective. (Sections Eleven through Thirteen) Throughout the subjective part, Whitman is constantly talking of what he see and hears. For the rest of the poem, he shifts his focus; the majority of the lines now start with 'You' instead of 'I': "You, whoever you are! You daughter or son of England! You of the mighty Slavic tribes and empires! (page 145) It should also be noted that the frequency of exclamation points increases when he shifts the focus from himself to others.
Whitman's sentences in "Salut Au Monde!" are rarely complex, in fact, he opts more for simple and compound, run-on sentences, such as Section Three (which consists entirely of one 280-word sentence). Whitman also uses sentence fragments effectively, such as this passage from Section Eleven: "You Sardinian! You Bavarian! Swabian! Saxon! Wallachian! Bulgarian! You Roman! Neapolitan! You Greek!" (page 146) There are very few adjectives in the poem; for this reason, it cannot be considered a true descriptive work. The proper nouns, though, sometimes act much like adjectives themselves and provide plenty of artistic spice. "Others pass the straits of Dover, others enter the Wash, other the firth of Solvay, others round cape Clear, others the Land's End…" (page 140) This excerpt, while containing no adjectives, still brings to mind visions and memories of the sea: sailboats, the cry of seagulls, the smell of the salty air, etc.
"Salut Au Monde!" is highly stylized and is one of the best examples of distinct poetic style that I can recall. I learned quite a bit in preparation for this assignment, mostly in the area of word choice. I found his diction to be mostly informal and almost always interesting. I deem this poem a stylistic success, save for the over-use of lists: "I am Madrid, Cadiz, Barcelona, Oporto, Lyons, Brussels…" (page 144) As I continue to study Whitman, I am interested in finding out whether or not "Salut Au Monde!" is stylistically representative of his body of work.
Bonus: a summary of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road"
Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" preaches democracy, freedom, and living life to the fullest. He acknowledges that all are welcome on the open road: the poor, the wealthy, the drunks, the sober, etc. On this road, Whitman leaves behind the trappings of life, the "…indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms…" (149), yet still remembers his obligations to his family and friends. A point stressed early on is that the open road doesn't lead to heaven; in fact heaven is inferior to life on earth. The road has a marvelous effect on people who travel on it. Heroic deeds, creativity and the performance of "miracles" are inspired by the road. Whitman finds a lot of goodness in himself as he travels; the road brings out the best in him and also reveals character. Wisdom is not learned or taught in schools, but tested on the open road. He calls others to join him on the road but then recants his earlier promises by saying that "No diseased person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here." (l55) This quote is a direct contradiction to line 19. Nevertheless, Whitman raves that the open road is the place to meet new people, new companions. "Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass'd, content, Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood…" (156) The entire universe is the open road; not all will be perfect or peaceful during the journey. Whitman again urges us to join him on the road and to leave behind the papers on the desk, the books on the shelf and the tools in the workshop — the things that keep us from experiencing what life really is.
- Criticism of D. H. Lawrence's essay on Walt Whitman
- English Romantics and Nature: Blake, Wordsworth, and Clare
- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Eds.: Bradley, Sculley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973.