Poetry of the Late 19th Century: Whitman and Rimbaud

The 19th century was the top for poets within the Romanticism movement but it was also a time for profound change. Poetry moved to a more vaguely defined form containing more free verse and prose. At the end of the 19th Century the Symbolists emerged and stretched poetry outside the physical realm in search for new sensations. 

good and evil in poetry 19th century

Romanticism was much about beautifying nature which can be seen in Walt Whitman‘s work but he was also very influenced by Scientific Realism. Walt Whitman kept writing and re-writing his masterpiece, titled Song of Myself, throughout his life. Whitman sees himself as a Seer, he was religious and equalized all living things (even the mundane was important). With a provocative rebellious attitude (for those times) he stretched concepts on what was considered poetry and inspired many. 

Whitman is too religious for my liking. He also maintains a slightly condescending tone and at sections he “hammers in his points” through excessive use of catalogs which I feel dumbifies his readers. He also doesn’t like taking sides but prefers always listing dichotomies to stay in the “grey zone”. I don’t like the overall tone in the poem where he acts as the wise man teaching “his children” a lesson of life. Some of the quotes I like:

“I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven”

“The white-topt mountains show in the distance, I fling out my fancies toward them”

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” 


The Symbolists worked with stretching reality into mental creations. Creating an ordered chaos to find beauty in evil. They take every sense into the extreme, making it very personal and close. Rimbaud was a very young poet who wrote all his work before he turned 20. He lived a very extreme life with plenty of drugs, sin, homosexuality and alcohol to reach the unknown. “The poet makes himself into a visionary by long derangement of all the senses”. In his poetry titled “A season in hell” he has a dyptic part between the sections named Delirium I and Delirium II. In the first delirium he mocks his own relationship through the voice of his lover where he compares himself to a devil. The second part is also a confession but this time mocking himself as a poet. The text utilizes a lot of parody, he is innocent but guilty. Rimbaud also stretches the imagination, how can Hell have seasons?

This poetry is more my style because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Utilizing a lot of black humor and seeing beauty even in evil which I like. Rimbaud also makes use of many strong contrasts next to each other like when he lists church latin, eroticism, grandmother novels and fairy tales after each other. Mixing and merging objects and ideas by creating beautiful poetry. I really like some of the small images he manages to create with just a few words e.g. “the slumber of virginity” and “I had been damned by the rainbow”. Not much more than this is needed. To me good poetry should take a while to understand fully which symbolism poetry definitely does. 

“Beneath the bush a wolf will howl
Spitting bright feathers
From his feast of fowl:
Like him, I also devour”

“I began it as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.”

“For a long time I boasted that I was master of all possible landscapes and I thought the great figures of modern painting and poetry were laughable.”

 Edit: Several different versions are used by people reading this poem. Makes us see how drastically a text can change meaning depending on the form of it. Different translations means only that translators saw the meaning of the text very differently which is then multiplied with us reading their different translations deriving even more separate meanings from the words.

[pic: CC-BY-NC-ND, Thorsten Becker]

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Josef Ohlsson Collentine

A transparent and kind American/Swede who likes cultural patterns and Social Media. A creative early-adopter who sports, discusses and explores. More about me
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