Walt Whitman, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Left, Wearing Hat and Sweater, Holding Butterfly


This photograph of the American poet Walt Whitman, taken in 1877, was one of Whitman's favorites. He used the butterfly-on-hand as a recurring motif in his books and intended for this photo to be reproduced as the frontispiece in this sample proof of Leaves of Grass from 1891. To foster the image of himself as one with nature, he claimed that insect was real and one of his "good friends." In fact, the die-cut cardboard butterfly was clearly a photographic prop. Now in the collections of the Library of Congress, it was tucked into one of the first Whitman notebooks donated to the Library in 1918. The word "Easter" is printed down its spine, and it is imprinted with the lyrics to a John Mason Neale hymn. Dr. R.M. Bucke, one of Whitman’s literary heirs, said that to Whitman the butterfly represented Psyche (the Greek goddess of the soul), or the poet’s own soul. Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, was Whitman’s major work and appeared in revised and expanded editions until the ninth edition of 1891–92.

Last updated: February 12, 2016