Poetry – Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”

by The bookworm on January 13, 2012 · Rare Poetry

Whitman Leaves of Grass

The art of poetry recitation has been with us for a long time. With the invention of printing, poets moved towards writing more for the eye than for the ear. It is one thing to enjoy the theatrical aspect of poetry and yet another to read and disseminate intellectual verse. Rare poetry book collectors have to also be poetry readers and poetry lovers at the same time. Just as the art book collector visually examines the artistic content of a book, the poetry collector reads and experiences the verse, which is certainly also an object of literary beauty.

Poetry book collectors came alive in 2011. The genre of poetry books had a solid price appreciation as recorded by our Rare Book Sale Monitor. The finest works by Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Pierre de Rosand, Wilfred Owen, Charles Bukowski, Robert Frost, Robert Burns, Robert Herrick, William Blake, Lord Bryon, John Keats ,William Wordsworth, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Archibald Rutledge and Charles Baudelaire, just to name a few, have in the past year attracted a great deal of interest and have sold at higher prices.

The highlight of the year was the sale of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in a Sotheby’s auction for 230,000 USD. The estimate ranged from 140,000 to 160,000 USD, at the auction event held in New York last October. Whitman began his writing of Leaves of Grass in 1851. The beauteous 1855 first issue contained twelve unnamed poems in a small folio with ornamental boards and a frontispiece portrait of the poet by Hollyer on thick paper. Unfortunately, later printings had much of the spine gilt and gilt-lettered title with floral ornaments on the covers and page edges removed, in an attempt to cut production costs.

The Leaves of Grass was a lifelong masterpiece that proved to be a work in progress for most of the duration of Whitman’s life. The poems did receive names in subsequent editions, as well as a number of other revisions and additions.  For example, the 1856 second edition contains an additional thirty-two poems.  These second editions are also quite scarce because of the few copies sold during 1856. They are currently priced around 30,000 USD, an amount significantly lower than that of the first edition. The third edition was published in 1860 by Thayer & Eldridge, after Whitman added another 124 poems. 1000 copies were sold and the publisher went out of business. Whitman continued to add, revise and consolidate the contents of the Leaves all the way through the eighth and final edition during 1891-92, right before his death.

Shortly after each work was printed, however, the poet and occasionally the publisher were attacked on a number of fronts. Primarily, the content was criticized because of Whitman’s exaltation of the body and sexual love. Secondarily it was the structure of the poetry itself that came under attack, because of its free verse form, comprising of long rhythmical lines instead of the customary structural rhyme that mimics ballads or sonnets.

Today it is a different story. Leaves of Grass is considered to be the most influential volume of poetry written in America.

…Good in all,

In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals,

In the annual return of the seasons,

In the hilarity of youth,

In the strength and flush of manhood,

In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age,

In the superb vistas of death.

….Song at Sunset. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass

 

In 1967, the standard bibliographical reference book “Printing and the Mind of Man,” referenced Leaves of Grass as “America’s second Declaration of Independence: that of 1776 was political, this of 1855 intellectual.” Perhaps the time has come to add the third – “this of 2011 monetary.”

 

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan @ Your Stuff 4 Cash January 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm

“In the grandeur of old age,”
Excellent. I’m turning thirty tomorrow. Ok, ok, maybe some will not consider this old age, you know, around birthdays we tend to reflect a little. I’ve never read any Whitman, but this makes me want to see if I have any of his work on my shelf.

Any thoughts reasons why poetry has seen a rise? I’m thinking times of social unrest or change bring out more deeper feelings that poetry helps us express. For example, Mayakovsky was a great poet born of great social need for expression. I wonder if any wall street occupiers or young political activists have some favorite old poets. Better yet, I wonder if America will see a great poet rise that helps communicate national sentiment about our current social situation(s).

Great article as always!

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Admin January 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Book collectors, especially high end book collectors are primarily looking for investment value. Rare poetry books provided and may still provide a good investment value. On the other hand, the popularity of poetry as well as art, thrives only when the public is the master of time and not the servant, hardly the case during these times.
Happy Birthday!!

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Daniel July 23, 2013 at 1:35 am

I was wondering about an appraisal? I have a copy of Franz Wright’s “The Earth Without You” and it is signed by him. Could you send me an email with information please?

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Gloria April 26, 2016 at 6:37 am

I have Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Can you advise how I can find the value and where I might sell them?

Thank you!

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