The failure of the 1848-49 European revolutions was crucial in the evolution of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman shared the revolutionary spirit of 1848-49, portraying an ideal America of unique and growing diversity. How does Whitman as an American national poet with revolutionary sympathies compare with his European contemporaries, such as Mickiewicz of Poland, Petőfi of Hungary, or Shevchenko of Ukraine? Whitman sympathized with liberal European revolution, but not with European xenophobia, which after 1848 was increasingly associated with nationalism and the poetry of nationalism. Whitman is spiritually closest not to European national poets but to poets of the East such as Tagore and Iqbal. His identification with America as heir to xenophobic, dying Europe took added force from his father’s death. Whitman, despairing at the reality of American politics in the 1840s and 1850s, sought an idealized freedom of the Self in a universalist mystical vision. The tolerant inclusiveness of Whitman’s poetry found a practical outlet in the Civil War, in his saintly, self-sacrificing behaviour as a hospital nurse and the expression in his poetry of the horror, not glory, of war. Through his inner conflicts, in which his sexual identity was central, Whitman spoke for the uncertainties of American national identity after 1848. Whitman’s poetry revealed his power, and that of the Nation, to contain and resolve painful contradictions and grow through them; and in this way, too, a multicultural America could emerge.
Nationalism and Poor Law are not usually mentioned in the same breath, and to add Shakespeare and Wordsworth is to invite bafflement. I’d like to begin by suggesting a number of similarities between the ages of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, though their social and political conditions were two hundred years apart, in the 1590s and 1790s. Both poets wrote with unusual empathy about the poor in times when capitalism came into conflict with the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of the poor. Both poets saw the legitimacy of welfare questioned, in opposition to the spirit of Jewish law and Christian love. Both were part of historical debates on state responsibility, Shakespeare at a time when the so-called Old Poor Law evolved and was codified for the first time in secular legislation; Wordsworth, when the Old Poor Law was made obsolete by the Industrial Revolution, ultimately to be replaced by the New Poor Law in 1834.