25 Famous Walt Whitman Poems (Free Printables)

Thought-provoking poetry to read and share.

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Walter Whitman Jr., better known as Walt Whitman, is considered one of the most influential American poets in history. He was also an essayist and journalist, and his works feature transcendentalism and realism. He is often considered the father of free verse as his poems often lack a rhyming scheme or regular meter. Whitman is well known for his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was considered controversial at the time due to its themes. These 25 Walt Whitman poems are among his best, highlighting his themes of self, life and death, nature, and patriotism.

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I Sing the Body Electric

I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

Initially published in 1855 in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, this free-verse poem was considered controversial and obscene during its time due to its themes of sexuality, sensuality, and the body. Whitman also seeks to bridge the gap between the body and the soul. Throughout the poem, Whitman investigates each of the parts of the human body and how they come together to form a whole.

O Captain! My Captain!

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O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.

Whitman wrote this poem in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He used the death of a ship’s captain as a metaphor for the death of the president. While there are many Walt Whitman poems expressing grief at the loss of Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” is the most popular and memorable. A widely recognized poem, it is considered an elegy as it laments the dead.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

Originally published as part of a larger poem for a London magazine in 1868, “A Noiseless Patient Spider” was eventually included in Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass. The main theme of the poem is loneliness, featuring a metaphor of a spider standing in for the speaker’s soul. The spider attempts to attach itself to something while building its web as it seeks out connection.  

This Dust Was Once the Man

This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of These States.


Like “O Captain! My Captain!,” “This Dust Was Once the Man” is another Whitman poem focusing on the death of President Abraham Lincoln. In it, Whitman refers to the dust of Lincoln’s decayed body while praising what he stood for while alive, calling him “gentle,” “just,” and “resolute.” One particular line of the poem has been the subject of scrutiny and conflicting interpretations. In the third line, Whitman refers to “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age.” While some believe he was referring to slavery, others believe he is referring to either the assassination of Lincoln or the secession of the Confederate States of America.

The Sleepers

I wander all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers …

“The Sleepers” was part of the 1855 anthology Leaves of Grass and is considered one of the top five poems in Whitman’s entire body of work. The poem explores the theme of empathy and specifically democratic empathy. While in other Walt Whitman poems, death stands in as an equalizing force, here Whitman uses sleep to act as a leveler. Critics, including Paul Zweig, have called this poem the “dark twin” of “Song of Myself.” In it, Whitman explores the unconscious world of sleep or the dark side of human consciousness.

Patroling Barnegat

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering,
Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing,
Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing …

Another free-verse poem, “Patroling Barnegat” describes for the reader a fierce storm at midnight. While frightening, the storm is also exciting. Juxtaposing normal life and extreme conditions, some may say that the poem seeks to distinguish this life from whatever is beyond it.

There Was a Child Went Forth

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There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

“There Was a Child Went Forth” centers around the theme of self and, in this case, Whitman’s childhood. As the child interacts with things in the world, each sensation and experience becomes a part of the child. The maturation of Whitman’s poet persona is formed through all of the childhood observations. The poem can be said to be an attempt to recapture the child’s wonder at the world around them.

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Originally published in 1865, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” was written as an homage to the westward expansion in 19th-century America. Whitman uses first-person plural throughout the 26 stanzas of the poem, which allows for a strong emotional response from the audience toward the pioneers he is describing. He praises them for their perseverance and enthusiasm in the pursuit of exploration. Whitman also employs imagery from the American West to paint a picture of the environment of the poem. The poem touches upon one of Whitman’s most frequent themes—patriotism—and the United States in particular.  

When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

“When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d” is yet another of Whitman’s poems that takes place in the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It is a pastoral elegy that mourns for Lincoln while also recognizing the beauty found in nature. This poem has many of the same themes as other Whitman poems including nature, life and death, and patriotism. The speaker of the poem comes to realize that the American people will rebuild following Lincoln’s assassination. The sure return of springtime following winter is a metaphor for the mourning process.

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force …

This three-stanza poem was written around the start of the Civil War and deploys a lot of war imagery throughout. The first stanza begins by setting the wartime stage, conjuring up images of blowing bugles and beating drums. The remainder of the first stanza and the second and third drive home the poet’s point that nothing will stop war from bursting into the lives of civilians. The juxtapositions of life and death and peace and war are featured throughout.


To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves – the ships, with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

While most people think of miracles as extraordinary and unlikely events, Whitman takes an opposite approach in this poem. Whitman reiterates throughout the poem his belief that miracles are found all around him in ordinary, everyday occurrences. Like so many of his other poems, the theme of nature takes center stage as he uses imagery to call to mind animals, birds, insects, etc.

Cavalry Crossing a Ford

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A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the sun—Hark to the musical clank.

“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is a small six-line poem written in 1865 as the third poem in the Drum-Taps collection by Whitman, which focused on the Civil War. The poet begins by painting a picture of a cavalry entering into a river. The second part of the short poem focuses on the war-torn group reemerging from the river. Color is a predominant theme throughout the poem.

To a Locomotive in Winter

Thee for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm, even as now the snow the winter-day declining.

“To a Locomotive in Winter” was one of Walt Whitman’s later poems. The opening line of the poem describes it as a recitative, or a dialogue in an opera that is sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech. In the first stanza, he uses imagery to describe all the various parts of the locomotive including “thy black cylindric body” and “thy great protruding head-light.” He goes on to ask the locomotive to serve as his muse and join in the verse.

Hush’d Be the Camps To-day

Hush’d be the camps today;
And, soldiers, let us drape our war-worn weapons;
And each with musing soul retire, to celebrate,
Our dear commander’s death.

“Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” is the first of Whitman’s poems to deal with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was reportedly written on April 19, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s funeral. As with other Whitman poems, the themes of life and death and the natural world are featured heavily.  

The Dalliance of the Eagles

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together …

Originally published in 1880 in the magazine Cope’s Tobacco Plant, “The Dalliance of the Eagles” was not well received in its time since, like other Walt Whitman poems, it was considered obscene. In it, Whitman describes, in detail, the mating of two eagles high up in the sky. “The Dalliance of the Eagles” is written in first-person voice with the poet as the speaker. The poem is an allegory with the eagles standing in for human relationships.

Bivouac on a Mountain Side

I see before me now, a traveling army halting;
Below, a fertile valley spread, with barns, and the orchards of summer;
Behind, the terraced sides of a mountain, abrupt in places, rising high …

“Bivouac on a Mountain Side” is another poem from Walt Whitman’s collection Drum-Taps written in 1865 about the Civil War. Unlike some of his other Civil War poems, however, this one doesn’t depict soldiers actively engaged in battle. As with so many of his poems, nature takes a front seat with descriptions of valleys, mountainsides, cedars, and orchards. He ends the poem with a line about the “eternal stars.” There is a juxtaposition of wartime with a peaceful tranquility found in nature.

By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame

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A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow;—but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim outline,
The darkness, lit by spots of kindled fire—the silence …

Whitman employs literary devices like personification and similes in “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame. The poem, which was part of the Drum-Taps collection, is set during the Civil War and features juxtapositions of war and peace and life and death. It is told from the perspective of a soldier lying on the ground by a campfire as a procession winds around him. He comforts himself with thoughts of loved ones and home while immersed in war.

I Thought I Was Not Alone

I thought I was not alone, walking here by the shore,
But the one I thought was with me, as now I walk by the shore,
As I lean and look through the glimmering light – that one has utterly disappeared,
And those appear that perplex me.

This is a short and simple poem told from the perspective of someone going through a difficult time. In short, the people that the speaker expects to be there for them during trying times are not. It ends suggesting that those that are there are perplexing.

Aboard at a Ship’s Helm

Aboard, at a ship’s helm,
A young steersman, steering with care …

“Aboard at a Ship’s Helm” explores many of the same themes as Whitman’s other poems, including the natural world and life and death. Similar to “O Captain! My Captain!,” the third stanza of the poem describes a fallen captain of the ship. This work also explores the joys in the everyday, another common theme in Walt Whitman poems, including the poem “Miracles.”

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, and the stars.

“A Clear Midnight” is one of Whitman’s later poems, likely written around 1880. In it, the poem’s speaker talks about moving away from earthly things like books and art and toward more ethereal themes like life, death, and the stars. Again, the theme of life and death is front and center.

All Is Truth

Where has fail’d a perfect return, indifferent of lies or the truth?
Is it upon the ground, or in water or fire? or in the spirit of man? or in the meat and blood?

This poem was published as part of the Leaves of Grass collection. In it, Whitman argues that everything is truth, including things that appear to be lies. As with other poems of his, including “I Sing the Body Electric,” there is a celebration of self. Whitman writes toward the end of the poem, “And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am.”

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …

“I Hear America Singing” touches upon a few common themes found in Whitman’s poetry including patriotism, beauty in the everyday, and love of self. Each of the professions he mentions, which are decidedly focused on manual labor, have a carol that is included within the larger song of the poem. While they all come together to complete the whole, the individual selves are still present.

Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand

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Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.

Like other Walt Whitman poems, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” is filled with sensual language that at the time was considered obscene. This poem is an attempt to make a connection between the physical body and the spirit. Some suspect that he is also drawing connections between others and his poetry when he wrote, “Who is he that would become my follower?” The familiar imagery of nature and, specifically, the sea is also present in this poem.

Song of the Open Road

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

“Song of the Open Road” was first published in 1855, and it is a well-known narrative poem that expresses joy at the journey of life. The speaker brings the reader along as he travels through both his community and the natural world. There are life lessons embedded throughout, including to be true to oneself as well as to find joy in life despite troubles or obstacles.

A Woman Waits for Me

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth.

“A Woman Waits for Me” is the fourth poem in the section of Leaves of Grass called “Children of Adam.” The poems in “Children of Adam” are overtly sexual in nature, and this one is certainly no exception. The poem deals with the idea of perfection and the glorification of women. It also deals with the themes of procreation and creation.

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive.

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a narrative poem written by Whitman in 1859. This work, more so than other Walt Whitman poems, connects him to the Romantic poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth due to its theme of the birth of the poet. The poem depicts a young boy’s maturation as an artist as he is affected by the world around him. The familiar juxtaposition of life and death that is ever present in Whitman’s works is also included here.

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