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  • American poet Walt Whitman celebrates the act of voting in “Election Day, November, 1884.”  He emphasizes that the “heart of it” is not the actual election of a president, but instead “the act itself … the quadrennial choosing” that honors American democracy.
    Election Day, November 1884
    If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
    ‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
    Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
    Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
    —This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
    (The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
    The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
    The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
    The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
    Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
    Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
    —Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
    These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
    Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
    Instructional Ideas
    English Language Arts
    Consult Common Core ELA Literacy Standard 5.5A: Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.
    • Discuss the water metaphors Whitman uses in “Election Day, November 1884.”
      • Discussion questions about how Whitman might have interpreted “stormy gusts” and “precious ships” of state are presented in Questions 1-2 in the Questions tab.
    Social Studies
    Consult National Geography Standard 17.2: Describe and analyze the change in the number of states in the United States and their boundaries.
    • Analyze how the geography of the United States has changed since Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.”
      • How has the physical geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about states and territories are presented in Questions 3-4 in the Questions tab.
      • How has the cultural geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about voting rights and representation are presented in Questions 5-6 in the Questions tab. 
    1. Walt Whitman uses water imagery and metaphors throughout “Election Day, November 1884.” What are some examples of water or nautical imagery in the poem? What are some water-based metaphors?

      Whitman’s concrete, navigable imagery includes:

      • Niagara Falls
      • Colorado River
      • Yellowstone’s “spasmic geyser-loops”
      • Oregon’s whitecaps (Note: “White cones” could also refer to snow-capped mountains)
      • Great Lakes (particularly Lake Huron)
      • Mississippi River

      Whitman’s metaphors include:

      • a “ballot-shower”
      • “stormy gusts” that waft “precious ships”
      • the swelled “sails” of revered presidents


    2. Despite its patriotism, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky thinks “Election Day, November 1884” is “not wet or glibly sunny.” He says Whitman presents voting as “not beautiful or sacred, but as powerful.” What language in the poem supports this interpretation?

      The poem begins with Whitman inventing a new word—“powerfulest.” Then, in Pinsky’s interpretation, “He compares [voting] not to forest glades or meadows but to the fluid, dynamic energy of rivers, geysers and waterfalls and to the immense scale of mountains and prairies.”

      Whitman alludes to the immense, invisible pressure that creates both “spasmic geyser-loops” and “stormy gusts.” He openly welcomes “the darker odds, the dross” of the election process.

      Even the ending of the poem is active—“the heart pants, life glows.” The energy, the pressure, the darkness—these forces ultimately swell the sails of the ships of state.

    3. Take a look at the election map of 1884. How is this political map different from the political map of the United States of 2016?

      The United States has added a number of new states and territories since 1884. States that were admitted to the United States after the 1884 election are:

      • North Dakota (1889)
      • South Dakota (1889)
      • Montana (1889)
      • Washington (1889)
      • Idaho (1890)
      • Wyoming (1890)
      • Utah (1896)
      • Oklahoma (1907)
      • New Mexico (1912)
      • Arizona (1912)
      • Alaska (1959)
      • Hawaii (1959)

      Territories added to the United States after the 1884 election are:

      • Guam (1899)
      • Puerto Rico (1899)
      • American Samoa (1900)
      • U.S. Virgin Islands (1917)
      • Northern Mariana Islands (1986)
    4. Take a look at the list above, of new states and territories added to the United States since Walt Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.” What geographic features in these states and territories would you include if the poem was written today? Consider Whitman’s preference for active, energetic imagery.

      Answers will vary! Examples might include:

      • the still-forming Grand Canyon (Arizona)
      • the spastic lava-loops of Hawaii’s volcanoes
      • the calving glaciers of Alaska’s coast
    5. Consider the voting population of 1884. How have the demographics of voters and candidates changed since “Election Day, November 1884”?

      Many groups have been formally empowered to vote  in presidential elections since 1884. Some of these groups include:

      • women (1920)
      • Native Americans as a whole (many had voting rights, but many did not) (1924)
      • residents of Washington, D.C. (1961)
      • those unable or unwilling to pay a poll tax (1966)
      • citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 (1971)
    6. Briefly consider presidential leadership since Walt Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.” What presidents endured particularly “stormy gusts and winds”—who would you recognize if the poem was written today?

      Answers will vary! Examples might include:

      • Franklin Roosevelt (who led the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II)
      • John F. Kennedy (the nation’s first Catholic president)
      • George W. Bush (who led the U.S. through the events of 9/11 and the Great Recession)
      • Barack Obama (the nation’s first African American president)
    • Read through these poems on election season in the U.S.: “On Election Day” by Charles Bernstein or “Election Year” by Donald Revell. How does their language and outlook differ from Whitman’s robust, optimistic verse?
    • “Election Day, November 1884” is not the only Walt Whitman poem that uses a nautical theme to evoke presidential leadership. Whitman’s breathtaking “O Captain! My Captain” uses nautical metaphors to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln.
    • The actual presidential election of 1884 pitted New York Governor Grover Cleveland (D) against Speaker of the House James G. Blaine (R-Maine). (The incumbent president, Chester A. Arthur, was not nominated for a second term.) The race was very close and very ugly. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, while his opponent earned the nickname “James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Blaine’s camp also made notoriously anti-Catholic statements. Cleveland eventually won the election, and is the only U.S. president to have served two non-consecutive terms. (He was defeated for re-election by William McKinley in 1888, but voted into office again in 1892.)
    • Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is among the most influential poets in American history. His monumental work, Leaves of Grass, was self-published in 1855 and Whitman continued to update it for the rest of his life. “Election Day, November 1884” is from the final edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    canyon Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: canyon
    democracy Noun

    system of organization or government where the people decide policies or elect representatives to do so.

    dross Noun material of little or no value.
    election Noun

    selection of people to public office by vote.

    ferment Verb

    to undergo the natural or artificial process of fermentation, or changing a food's sugars into alcohols.

    geyser Noun

    natural hot spring that sometimes erupts with water or steam.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geyser
    gust Noun

    sudden, strong wind.

    metaphor Noun

    word or phrase used to represent something else, or an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept. 

    nautical Adjective

    having to do with oceans and sailing or navigation.

    paradox Noun contradiction, or a statement that seems contradictory.
    prairie Noun

    large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

    Encyclopedic Entry: prairie
    purify Verb

    to cleanse thoroughly.

    quadrennial Adjective happening every four years.
    waft Verb

    to carry or convey lightly and smoothly, usually through air.