Exploring America’s Voice: Whitman and Hughes’ Patriotic Verse
Walt Whitman wrote about America. The country was his muse. In his great work, Leaves of Grass, he wrote on several subjects that attempted to capture the essence of the United States. His work addresses a variety of definitively American subjects. One subject he writes about is his optimism about the equality between American citizens. Whitman writes about this in his poem, “I Hear America Singing,” in which the word 'singing' appears in all but six lines. Whitman’s message is that each American has a story to tell. Each story is different from the other yet they all have the chance to be heard. Whitman suggests the freedom of the United States extended to all its citizens. Whitman speaks of the great freedom the United States has to offer every citizen no matter the financial positioning they hold. Langston Hughes wrote, “I, Too, sing America,” as a response to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman’s message in his poem was that the United States offers its citizens a distinct kind of freedom that is uniquely American. Whitman wrote with optimism of a new, equal America. Hughes’ poem addresses the fact that while Americans, black men and women did not experience the freedom Whitman spoke of in his poem. Hughes’ poem was written during the Harlem Renaissance, a time in the 20's in America when racism was strong, and black society was struggling with discrimination and segregation. The first line of the poem, “I, too, sing America”(1), reminds the reader that African Americans deserve the same American freedom that Whitman spoke of in his poem. Hughes may be addressing a problem, but his poem is still filled with the same hope and optimism as Whitman’s. Hughes’ poem ends with the verse, “Then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am, and be ashamed---I, too, am American.” Hughes ends the poem with the assurance that one day his race will not only be treated as equals, but others will be ashamed at the way the black race had been treated. The poem is not bitter, but optimistic for change and full of faith in American society, like Whitman’s poem. The poems are similar, patriotic, optimistic and similar in style as well. The poems are written in open verse, utilize repetition, symbolism and metaphor. Hughes most likely intentionally wrote his poem in a similar style to Whitman’s in order to get his point across, which is Americans have access to a unique freedom in which by “singing” their voices can be heard, and their stories can be told.
The specific literary devices utilized in both poems are similar, with a few differences. The best approach to analyzing the poems is to look at them individually; the literary devices used and argue why these specific devices were used. First Whitman’s poem will be examined and analyzed. In ”I Hear America Singing,” the prominent literary terms he used include rhythm, synecdoche, metaphor, personification, repetition, and imagery. Synecdoche, a special type of metaphor used where the parts equal the whole or the whole equals the parts is seen strongly throughout the poem. "America" in line 1 represents the whole of the individuals discussed in later lines, more specifically, workers. Each line that follows in the poem where Whitman describes specific workers, is an example of synecdoche, the individuals mentioned make up the “America” Whitman mentions in the beginning verse of the poem. The poem also uses singing as a metaphor for American progress and jovial confidence. The poem describes various American workers going about their daily tasks “singing.” The worker’s and citizens’ song is really a metaphor for prosperity and freedom. The fact that Whitman paints a scenario where all American workers casually sing, “strong melodious songs,” as he writes in the last verse, paints a picture of a happy, free and prosperous country. In the first verse, “I HEAR America singing,” personification is used. Whitman attributes a human activity, singing, to the country of America, in which he later breaks down into individual Americans in the lines that follow. The song of America is very much a main point he addresses in the poem, and by using personification he is able to attribute the country with a tangible symbol of freedom, joy and optimism. The author also uses repetition. The repetition of "the" in the final seven lines help create rhythm much in the same way the repetition of worker actions establishes a work rhythm. Also the word singing adds to the repetitive pattern of the poem. Also, the fact that each individual American gets a line and a song establishes the idea of equality that Whitman saw amongst the people. As far as his choice of words are concerned, Whitman uses the word “carols” to describe the singing he hears. The word brings a certain joyful, carefree and celebratory tone to the poem.
Langston Hughes uses a few of the same literary devices as Whitman, and a few different techniques in his poem, “I, Too.” Hughes attacks the idea that Americans are uniquely free, expressed by Whitman. In the poem he states, “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes,” the dinning room that the narrator is sent away from is a symbol for all areas in America that African Americans are restricted access. Hughes ends the poem optimistically, first he states, “When company comes. Nobody'll dare. Say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen,’” These lines continue in the same vein as the previous three, wherein the speaker imagines a future in which he'll be treated with the same kind of respect with which white people treat each other. Hughes continues, “They'll see how beautiful I am, and be ashamed.” The narrator's basically saying to white America, that once they come to their senses and realize that I've been your equal all along, you will all feel pretty foolish. Hughes finishes with, “I, too, am America,” which almost repeats the first verse, but he chose to replace “sing” with “am,” because Hughes wanted to emphasize that as a member of a oppressed race, “I am an American,” is asserting that he, too, belongs in America, is a part of it and is integral to its very existence, just as much as anyone else. As I previously mentioned, Hughes also uses allusion in the poem, referencing Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
As far as sound and imagery are concerned, both poems are written in a free verse style, sometimes referred to as open form. This style means the structure of the poem does not have a specific metrical pattern. However, the poems get a sense of flow through the repetition utilized by both authors throughout the poems. Hughes’ poem is broken into very small precise verses. This serves to guide the reader slowly through the material. The short verses naturally cause the reader to pause after each line, which further emphasizes the context of the poem, and the message Hughes has for the audience, which, as stated before, is one that both reminds America that it is not equal and that African Americans are part of the citizenship, and predicts the future equality and acceptance Hughes believes will come to pass. Like Whitman, Hughes uses auditory imagery in his poem. Along with the sensation of singing, he mentions laughing, and at one point quotes “they” which refers to white society, saying, “Nobody’ll dare say to me ‘Eat in the kitchen.” Hughes also refers to the narrator as, “the darker brother,” which gives one an image that this speaker is exactly like every other American, like the Americans Whitman refers to in his poem, just “darker” and thus emphasizes his point, that his race is every bit as American as any other race in the United States. Mostly the images are joyful and optimistic, instead of anger Hughes chooses to focus on the similarities between the races and appeal to the reader’s humanity. Like Hughes, Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing” is also free verse and thus has no formal rhyme scheme. Also like Hughes, he uses repetition to create a poetic rhythm. Whitman’s poem has a certain narrative structure, listing in long, sprawling lines stories of the average American. The majority of the sentences in the poem begin with “the” which creates an informal structure. His descriptive images are auditory as well as visual. The singing continues throughout the entire poem. The visual descriptions of the workers bring to life the chorus that makes up America and it’s song. Each singing worker is portrayed with optimism, for example, “The delicious singing of the mother,” conjures up pleasant images, the optimistic and spirited tone is reflected throughout the poem.
The idea of American freedom, or the spirit of American democracy are addressed in both “I Too, Hear America Sing,” and “I Hear America Singing,” although the authors of the two poems look upon this idea in a different manor. Langston Hughes expresses his frustration at the inequality he experiences as a Black man, and does not feel his race has been given access to Whitman’s idea of the uniquely American freedom. Walt Whitman expresses joy at what he sees as an American society that is progressing toward equality between the classes. The idea of Americans contributing to a great song is a wonderful metaphor used by both authors. Optimism and hope for America’s future set the tone for both poems, for Hughes concludes that one day his people will be considered equal. Hughes does not come across as angry or bitter, but hopeful and rational. The patriotic notion that all men are created equal is prevalent in the works.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. “I, Too.” Ed. Arnold
Rampersad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. “I Hear America Singing.”
Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. Print.