Whitman Versus Frost: Two Different Approaches to Verse

Walt Whitman Versus Robert Frost: Two different approaches to Verse

The formal structure of a poem has always been considered important to writing poetry. Several people have also argued in the favor of the formal structure. Many of them argue that a poem is not a poem without a formal structure. However, all scholars are not of the same view with regard to the structure of a poem. Some of them argue that since the formal structure can limit a poem, it is not always necessary. In this regard one can compare the works of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost to understand the relevance of structure in the context of a poem. While the two have used two very different approaches and seem like each other’s opposite, yet each one has been effective in his approach.  In this way, it is not up to a definite formal structure or its absence but its effectiveness of use that matters.

Walt Whitman did not follow the standard verse. He rejected it right from his first book, “The Leaves of Grass”.  The lack of standard verse was criticized by many and appreciated by several and called a form of innovation. When Whitman did it, his work gave rise to both acclaim and criticism. It was acclaimed a Whitman’s ability to question the existing norms and establish new ones. For Whitman it was like the invisible influence of the sea on his composition. Like you cannot give the sea a definite formal structure, you cannot limit a poem which is unlimited like the sea. In the times of Whitman, the themes of the poem followed a norm that was rather bookish and did not have a mass appeal.  These lofty themes hardly appealed to the common folk.

True poetic innovation is said to have begun with Walt Whitman. Apart from being known as the creator of free verse, he is the first American poet to have done so. Whitman relied on natural rhythms of speech (cadence). His emphasis remained on vernacular and not on  elevated style sued by his American and European predecessors. However, while Whitman continued to use figurative language, his special emphasis was on sensory imagery. The ‘Song of Myself’ by Whitman is a classic piece of narrative poetry. It has more than 1300 lines.  Song of Myself is considered to be among the most influential and innovative literary works of 19th century. Especially outstanding about this work is the rhythmic flow of verse and the theme of sexual longing which was also controversial.

Robert Frost too holds an isolated and unique position among the American literary figures. Many of the 19th century tendencies culminate into his works. Apart from the 19th century traditions, parallels to the works of his 20th century contemporaries can also be felt in frost’s work.  Frost chose his symbols carefully from the public domain and also developed an original modern idiom plus a sense of directness and economy reflecting the imagism of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell.   Frost was not an innovator and neither did he take an experimental approach. Neither did his poetry mark a departure from the nineteenth century poetic practices.   As he himself noted using traditional verse to his advantage he remained free from being an experimentalist. Mostly an austere and tragic view of life can be found in the works of Robert Frost.

Frost’s verse is darker because his life’s tragedies had affected his work. The poems like Desert Places and Design reflect the loneliness that was there in the life of Robert Frost. His verse went far beyond the regional. Georgian poets T.E. Hulme, Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, and Edward Thomas had an important influence on the career of Robert Frost. Ezra Pound mistook the unobtrusive irony and traditional forms in Frost’s works for simplicity.  Frost was in no way eager to adopt free verse and he had noted it clearly.  In the “Mending Wall” and Birches” his absorption of blank verse is notable.  So, when compared with each other Whitman and Frost stand at two opposite ends of poetry and Whitman’s penchant for democracy is also clearly demonstrated in his works.  Frost’s poetry is darker and lonelier exhibiting what was there in his life. Still, the two had their own unique strengths and are celebrated for their contribution to literature.



Written by Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.


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