'Excelsior' by Walt Whitman

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WHO has gone farthest? For lo! have not I gone farther?
And who has been just? For I would be the most just person of the
And who most cautious? For I would be more cautious;
And who has been happiest? O I think it is I! I think no one was ever
happier than I;
And who has lavish'd all? For I lavish constantly the best I have;
And who has been firmest? For I would be firmer;
And who proudest? For I think I have reason to be the proudest son
alive--for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city;
And who has been bold and true? For I would be the boldest and truest
being of the universe;
And who benevolent? For I would show more benevolence than all the
And who has projected beautiful words through the longest time? Have
I not outvied him? have I not said the words that shall stretch
through longer time?10
And who has receiv'd the love of the most friends? For I know what it
is to receive the passionate love of many friends;
And who possesses a perfect and enamour'd body? For I do not believe
any one possesses a more perfect or enamour'd body than mine;
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? For I will surround those
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? For I am mad with devouring
extasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth!

Editor 1 Interpretation

Excelsior: A Journey to the Heights of Human Aspiration

Walt Whitman's poem "Excelsior" has become one of the most enduring and beloved works of American literature. Its stirring anthem of human aspiration and courage speaks to readers of all ages and backgrounds, inspiring them to reach for the highest possible ideals in their own lives. But what is it about this humble ballad that has captured the hearts and minds of so many for over a century and a half? In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the many layers of meaning and symbolism in "Excelsior," and examine how Whitman's words continue to resonate with us today.

The Poem

"Excelsior" is a deceptively simple poem, consisting of only six stanzas of four lines each. Yet within this tight structure, Whitman manages to convey a powerful message of hope and determination. The poem tells the story of a young man who sets out on a journey up a mountain, carrying a banner with the word "Excelsior" (Latin for "ever upward") emblazoned upon it. Despite the pleas of his friends and the dangers he faces along the way, the young man refuses to be deterred, and continues his ascent until he reaches the very summit of the mountain. There, he is met with a noble fate, as he falls dead, still holding his banner aloft, having achieved his goal of reaching the highest possible point.

Multiple Interpretations

At its core, "Excelsior" is a celebration of human aspiration and the desire to rise above one's circumstances. The young man in the poem represents all of us who have ever dreamed of something greater, and who have been willing to risk everything to achieve it. But the poem can also be read as a cautionary tale, warning us of the dangers of ambition and the risks involved in pursuing a goal blindly. The young man may be a hero, but he is also reckless, heedless of the warnings of others and willing to sacrifice everything for his cause. In this interpretation, the poem is a reminder that sometimes, the journey itself is more important than the destination, and that we must be mindful of the risks and costs of our choices.

Poetry as a Platform for Social Commentary

As with many of Whitman's works, "Excelsior" is as much a commentary on society as it is a celebration of individual achievement. The poem was written during a time of great change and upheaval in America, as the country was struggling to define itself in the aftermath of the Civil War. Whitman's message of hope and determination was a powerful salve for a nation still reeling from the impact of the conflict, and his call to rise above the limitations of the past and strive for something greater resonated deeply with his fellow Americans.

The Symbolism of the Banner

One of the most striking images in "Excelsior" is that of the young man carrying a banner emblazoned with the word "Excelsior." The banner serves as a powerful symbol of his determination and his refusal to be deterred from his goal. But it also represents something larger than the individual, something universal that transcends time and place. The banner is a symbol of all that is good and noble in human nature, a reminder that we are capable of great things when we are willing to reach for the highest possible ideals.

The Importance of Structure and Form

At first glance, "Excelsior" may seem like a simple ballad, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that every word and every line has been carefully chosen to convey a specific message. The structure of the poem, too, is significant, with its tight, four-line stanzas mirroring the ascent of the young man up the mountain. Whitman's use of repetition, particularly in the refrain of "Excelsior," serves to strengthen the poem's central message and to imbue it with a sense of urgency and importance.

The Role of the Reader

One of the most interesting aspects of "Excelsior" is its open-endedness. The poem does not offer a clear-cut moral or message, but instead invites the reader to draw their own conclusions based on their own experiences and beliefs. This is a hallmark of Whitman's work, which often eschews traditional narrative structures in favor of a more open, democratic approach. In this sense, "Excelsior" is not just a poem to be read, but a call to action, an invitation to join in the journey of human aspiration and to strive for something greater.


"Excelsior" may be a short and simple poem, but its message is one that has resonated with readers for generations. Through its imagery, symbolism, and structure, Whitman offers us a powerful reminder of the importance of human aspiration and the need to push beyond our limitations in order to achieve our goals. Whether we see the young man in the poem as a hero or a cautionary tale, his example serves as an inspiration to us all, reminding us that we too can reach for the heights of human achievement if we are willing to take the risk and make the journey.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Excelsior: A Masterpiece by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, the father of free verse, is known for his unconventional style of poetry. His works are often characterized by their lack of rhyme and meter, and their focus on the individual and the natural world. One of his most famous poems, Poetry Excelsior, is a prime example of his unique style and his love for the power of words.

Poetry Excelsior is a short poem, consisting of only six lines. However, within those six lines, Whitman manages to convey a powerful message about the importance of poetry and its ability to transcend time and space. The poem begins with the word "Who," immediately drawing the reader in and inviting them to contemplate the question that follows: "Who has not felt the urge to sing?"

This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a celebration of the human desire to express oneself through poetry. Whitman goes on to describe the power of poetry, saying that it "fills the world with the breathings of the dead." This line is particularly poignant, as it suggests that poetry has the ability to keep the memories and voices of those who have passed away alive.

The next line, "It links together the ages," reinforces this idea of poetry as a bridge between the past and the present. Whitman suggests that poetry has the power to connect us to those who came before us, and to help us understand our place in the world. This idea is further developed in the next line, which states that poetry "joins distant lands and years." Here, Whitman suggests that poetry has the ability to transcend physical boundaries and time, allowing us to connect with people and places that are far away from us.

The final two lines of the poem are perhaps the most powerful. Whitman writes, "And what is it, if not the kindly-urged, / Outpouring of the soul?" Here, he suggests that poetry is not just a form of expression, but a deeply personal one. He implies that poetry is a way for us to connect with our own souls, and to express the deepest parts of ourselves.

Overall, Poetry Excelsior is a beautiful and powerful poem that celebrates the human desire to express oneself through poetry. Whitman's use of free verse and his unconventional style make the poem feel fresh and modern, even though it was written over a century ago. The poem's message about the power of poetry to connect us to the past, to transcend physical boundaries, and to express our deepest selves is as relevant today as it was when it was first written.

One of the most interesting things about Poetry Excelsior is the way that it reflects Whitman's own philosophy of life. Whitman believed in the power of the individual, and in the importance of expressing oneself freely and openly. He saw poetry as a way to do this, and as a way to connect with others and with the world around us. In many ways, Poetry Excelsior can be seen as a manifesto for Whitman's own approach to life and to poetry.

Another interesting aspect of the poem is the way that it reflects the broader cultural context in which it was written. Whitman was writing at a time when the United States was undergoing significant social and cultural changes. The country was expanding westward, and new technologies were transforming the way that people lived and worked. In this context, Whitman's celebration of poetry as a way to connect with the past and to transcend physical boundaries can be seen as a response to the rapid changes that were taking place.

In conclusion, Poetry Excelsior is a masterpiece of American poetry. Its celebration of the power of poetry to connect us to the past, to transcend physical boundaries, and to express our deepest selves is as relevant today as it was when it was first written. Whitman's use of free verse and his unconventional style make the poem feel fresh and modern, even though it was written over a century ago. Overall, Poetry Excelsior is a testament to the enduring power of poetry and its ability to inspire and connect us across time and space.

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