'Mannahatta' by Walt Whitman
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I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly,
I see that the word of my city is that word up there,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with
tall and wonderful spires,
Rich, hemm'd thick all around with sailships and steamships--an
island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets--high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies;
Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining
islands, the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the
ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model'd;10
The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business--the houses of
business of the ship-merchants, and money-brokers--the river-
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;
The carts hauling goods--the manly race of drivers of horses--the
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft;
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells--the broken ice in the river,
passing along, up or down, with the flood tide or ebb-tide;
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form'd, beautiful-faced,
looking you straight in the eyes;
Trottoirs throng'd--vehicles--Broadway--the women--the shops and
The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums
A million people--manners free and superb--open voices--hospitality--
the most courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!20
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the
city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after
death to be with them!
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I
often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!
Editor 1 Interpretation
Mannahatta: A Celebration of the American Spirit
Walt Whitman’s “Mannahatta” is a celebration of the vibrant and diverse city of New York that he calls home. In this poem, Whitman captures the essence of the city and its people, paying tribute to their grit, energy, and determination. Written in free verse, the poem is a tour de force of poetic language, imagery, and rhythm. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language of “Mannahatta” and its significance in American literature.
Background and Context
Walt Whitman, born in 1819, is considered one of the most influential American poets of the 19th century. His most famous work, “Leaves of Grass,” is a groundbreaking collection of poems that challenged the traditional forms and themes of poetry. Whitman’s poetry celebrated democracy, individualism, and the beauty of nature. His writing style was innovative, mixing prose and poetry, and abandoning the strict rules of meter and rhyme.
“Mannahatta” was first published in the 1881 edition of “Leaves of Grass.” At the time, New York City was undergoing rapid transformation, with skyscrapers, bridges, and parks transforming the landscape. Whitman’s poem captures the energy and dynamism of the city, while also reflecting on the history and traditions of the indigenous people who lived there before the arrival of Europeans.
Themes and Imagery
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the city directly:
_I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is in a name, a word,
The word itself, Manhattan, means “island of many hills” in the language of the Lenape, the indigenous people who lived in the area before the arrival of Europeans. The use of the Lenape name is significant, as it suggests a connection to the land and its history. The speaker sees the city as an expression of the American spirit, a place where people from all over the world come to make a better life for themselves.
The poem is full of vivid imagery that captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Whitman describes the hustle and bustle of the streets, the glimmering lights of the skyline, and the vast expanse of the harbor. He also references the diverse cultures and communities that call the city home:
_High boats staunch’d with copper,
Their floating spars across the gleaming sky—tentlike,
New-built hearkenings under steam,
Pierced by the peremptory hootings of signals,
By the transit of the swift express, and billowy rise and fall of the steamship.
The poem also celebrates the natural beauty of the city, with references to the Hudson River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the lush greenery of Central Park. Whitman sees the city as a place of contrasts and contradictions, a place where the urban and natural worlds intersect:
_Surrounded by elms, lilacs, and vines,
Muhammad’s temple in the dome by the murmuring waves.
Language and Structure
The language of “Mannahatta” is a reflection of Whitman’s distinctive style, with its long lines, free verse, and lack of punctuation. The poem is structured as a series of descriptions and observations, with each line building on the previous one. This creates a sense of momentum and energy, as the poem moves from one image to the next.
Whitman’s use of repetition and refrain is also notable, with the phrase “Mannahatta” serving as a kind of chorus that runs throughout the poem. This repetition gives the poem a sense of unity and coherence, as if the city and its people are all part of a larger whole.
“Mannahatta” is a celebration of the American spirit, a tribute to the energy, diversity, and resilience of the people of New York City. It is also a reflection on the history and traditions of the land, and the impact of European colonization on the indigenous people who lived there before. Whitman sees the city as a place of contradictions and paradoxes, a place where the natural and urban worlds intersect, where cultures and communities come together, and where the past and present coexist.
The poem is significant in American literature for its innovative style and form, its celebration of democracy and individualism, and its celebration of the beauty of nature. Whitman’s writing challenged the traditional forms and themes of poetry, paving the way for the modernist movement that would follow in the 20th century.
In “Mannahatta,” Whitman captures the essence of New York City, paying tribute to its people and traditions, while also reflecting on its contradictions and paradoxes. The poem is a celebration of the American spirit, a tribute to the energy, diversity, and resilience of the people who call the city home. It is also a reflection on the impact of European colonization on the indigenous people who lived there before, and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. Whitman’s innovative style and form, his celebration of democracy and individualism, and his love of nature make “Mannahatta” a landmark in American literature, and a tribute to the enduring spirit of this great city.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Walt Whitman's "Mannahatta" is a poem that captures the essence of New York City in the late 19th century. The poem is a celebration of the city's diversity, energy, and vitality. Whitman's use of vivid imagery and free verse creates a sense of movement and dynamism that reflects the city's constant motion and change.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the island of Manhattan directly, calling it "the island of Manhattan, / Pioneers! O pioneers!" This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with a sense of excitement and adventure. The use of the word "pioneers" suggests that the city is still in the process of being explored and discovered, even though it has already become a major center of commerce and culture.
Whitman goes on to describe the city in great detail, using a series of vivid images to capture its essence. He describes the "tall growing hedges of the new-comers' gardens," which suggests the city's diversity and the many different cultures that have come together to create it. He also describes the "swiftly-stretching arms of the great city" and the "crowded wharves" that suggest the city's energy and vitality.
One of the most striking images in the poem is the description of the city's skyline: "The sky up there--yet here or next door, or across the way? / The saints and sages in history--but you yourself? / Sermons, creeds, theology--but the fathomless human brain, / And what is reason? and what is love? and what is life?" This passage suggests that the city is a place of endless possibility and that anything can happen there. It also suggests that the city is a place where people can explore the mysteries of the human experience and discover new truths about themselves and the world around them.
Throughout the poem, Whitman uses a free verse style that reflects the city's constant motion and change. The lack of a regular rhyme scheme or meter creates a sense of movement and dynamism that mirrors the city's energy. The poem is also filled with repetition and parallelism, which creates a sense of unity and coherence despite the many different images and ideas that are presented.
One of the most interesting aspects of the poem is the way that Whitman celebrates the city's industrialization and modernization. He describes the "steamers, the heavy-fringed masts, the huge crossing at the ferries" and the "iron bridges arching the flood" with a sense of awe and wonder. This celebration of technology and progress is unusual for a poet of Whitman's time, who might be expected to be more critical of the changes that were taking place in society.
At the same time, however, Whitman is also critical of the way that the city's growth and development have come at the expense of the natural world. He describes the "rude masses shaped against the sky" and the "tall, yellow-faced, swarthy-neck'd, forbidding, savage, / Untamed, Shoreditch-looking, Yankee-hating, / Soul-looking, lazy, loafing, and scheming" people who have come to the city to make their fortunes. These descriptions suggest that the city is a place of both great opportunity and great danger, where people can lose themselves in the pursuit of wealth and power.
Overall, "Mannahatta" is a poem that captures the essence of New York City in the late 19th century. Whitman's use of vivid imagery and free verse creates a sense of movement and dynamism that reflects the city's constant motion and change. The poem is a celebration of the city's diversity, energy, and vitality, but it is also a warning about the dangers of unchecked growth and development. Whitman's vision of the city as a place of endless possibility and exploration continues to inspire poets and writers today, and his celebration of the city's industrialization and modernization remains relevant in an age of rapid technological change.
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