It doesn’t seem so far out there to suggest that Walt Whitman would have embraced the idea and activity of the internet. He would have ‘got it’, immediately recognising how the online reality, at its very best, can yield a vista of democratising possibilities and a capacity to nurture connections. Indeed, maybe there’s a wilderness to the online world, and Whitman would have recognised the hyperlink thrill of it all, reaching and weaving like the branches of a tree. If generosity is concerned with reaching out (and how potent that image is in this moment when so much seems to emphasise an isolationist sensibility!), then Whitman’s writing and his own actions as a citizen offer us an encouraging example.

Whitman’s deep commitment to an outward expression of his inner feeling characterises his writing, and in this year of the 200th anniversary of his birth there seems to still be very much a space for his ways of seeing.

A quick sketch of Whitman’s life: he grew up on Long Island and worked in New York in the print trade and then as a journalist. He wrote poetry, too, but initially attention was modest. And then, in 1855, in his late thirties, Whitman published Leaves of Grass and appeared to suddenly arrive on the scene. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde describes how, at the age of 34, Whitman had experienced “a moment of ‘cosmic consciousness’ ”. It’s this sensibility that informed so much of what Whitman would write, in both his poetry and his prose, from expansive mythic visions to various whimsical miniatures. Just look to ‘Bumble-Bees’ in Specimen Days for an example: “(Is there not … some bumble-bee symphony?) How it all nourishes me, lulls me, in the way most needed.”

This whimsicality is scattered across Whitman’s work, and in his short prose piece ‘The Lesson of a Tree’ – Whitman’s contemporary, and political hero, Abraham Lincoln also had an affinity for trees – he exults in the physical and temporal immensity of Nature. In doing so, Whitman invokes the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Here he is, then, on the fascination that trees provoke: “What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming.” And then, “one does not wonder at the old story fables … of people falling into love-sickness with trees.”

Indeed, Whitman’s expression of love-sickness is a feeling that suffuses a great deal of his writing, and his deep feeling for Lincoln informs one of his most recognised poems, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. A sombre and epic poem that articulates Whitman’s response to Lincoln’s death, it registers various ideas around the profundities of both loss and delight and uses Nature imagery to get at these abstractions. In this respect, there’s a fascinating conversation unfolding between Whitman’s prose and his poetry. Just look at this statement from his prose piece Specimen Days: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on – have found that none these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains? Nature remains.”

It is not only in his poetry that Whitman digs into Nature. His prose also provides a lens through which to view his delight in Nature as experience and metaphor for a specifically human experience. In the opening line of Democratic Vistas, Whitman announces that “the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom.” In this opening declaration, he makes the connection with a specifically American experience, in what we might think of as its most idealised form. Certainly, we can appreciate how compromised idealised beginnings can become. Whitman pursues this interconnection between Nature images and democracy and distinguishes an American sense of Nature that is a counterpoint to the Old World version found in Europe.

No matter how big the vision or sense of interconnection that Whitman pictured and explored, he would return to the individual, and he proposed that the word (and idea of) ‘democracy’ was the “younger brother” of the word ‘Nature’, and all that it conjured and referred to.

The most powerful embodiment of Whitman’s generosity, in its most essential way, finds its fullest expression in the time that he spent in Washington, DC during the American Civil War. He went there in 1862 to care for his wounded brother George, and in the process found himself in the hospitals, where he decided to stay on and work. Again in The Gift, Lewis Hyde eloquently assesses this wartime collision with fate that Whitman experienced, explaining that it “not only touched his sympathy and generosity but gave him a chance to ‘emanate’ – to heal through attention and affection”. Whitman would write letters home, taking dictation from wounded soldiers, and, fascinatingly, he communicates this particular activity in broad terms, deploying a Nature image reference in his poem ‘The Wound-Dresser’: “These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).”

So, to draw our threads of thought together, it seems true to say that in turning to the work of the ursine, hypersensitive Whitman we might just rekindle a flame that’s been lost in ourselves. Whitman’s words encourage us to be alert to Nature and the interconnectedness of all things, and, in this time of acute division, between those who want to look inward and retreat from the diversity of the world, and those who recognise the value and need to keep those interconnections, Whitman’s work and the example of his life assume new urgency.

Famously, Whitman considered himself “one of the roughs” (to quote the phrase from his poem ‘Leaves of Grass’), and he shows how we can jostle with the crowd but also, as needs be, how important it is for us to disconnect and go to Nature. In his poem ‘Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone’, he contrasts the solitude of Nature with the rough and tumble of the city. It was in Nature that Whitman found a sense of solace and ‘empowerment’ that very much marks him as an inheritor of Thoreau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The land, the water, the sky and the greater cosmos all constitute Nature: constant and both tangible and numinous. In ‘The Sky – Days and Nights – Happiness’, Whitman fixes reverentially on the comfort he finds in the big blue, writing: “Hast Thou, pellucid, in Thy azure depths, medicine for case like mine?”

James Clarke is a freelance writer and educator. @jasclarkewriter