Study Guide

Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass Summary

Introduction

The poet the world has come to know as the American bard was born Walter Whitman in West Hills, Long Island in New York on May 31, 1819. His mother, Louisa, immigrated from Holland and his father, Walter, from England. Whitman’s father worked mostly with his hands as a carpenter and a housebuilder, trades Whitman himself would pursue early on in his life.

Shortly after Whitman was born, his family moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman would receive his schooling. As a young man, he held various jobs: he set type in a printing office, and he worked as a schoolteacher.

By 1841, Whitman was beginning to focus his career on writing—first in the form of journalism. He became something of an accomplished journalist in his own right, reporting for and editing several newspapers and periodicals. Bettina Knapp notes that Whitman completed a “temperance novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, in 1842 to secure funds for Leaves of Grass. He later disavowed this novel due to its poor quality.” It was then, after a brief occupation as a carpenter, that Whitman finally determined to dedicate his time to writing poetry, though he had begun to formulate ideas about what a new American literature would look like much earlier. His vision stems, in part, from his experiences during a trip across America that he undertook in 1848. As he traveled from New York to Louisiana, Whitman was deeply affected by the people and places he saw. These images became a collage of America and a source for his writing.

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a lifespan of several editions and 37 years, for Whitman was constantly in the act of revising and augmenting his collection of poems, finally conceiving of it as a “single poem.” Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, a thin volume of a dozen poems. By the final impression in 1891–1892 (sanctioned the “deathbed” edition), the volume had expanded into the text we study today.

The earlier editions (1855, 1856, and 1860) announce the arrival of a brand new voice in American literature and represent Whitman’s experimentation with form and subject matter in poetry. In his work, Whitman ignores many poetic conventions in order to achieve his purpose of creating something new in American letters. For example, Whitman rarely follows a patterned rhyme scheme, and he is not concerned with any regularity of meter; indeed, his poetry is written in free verse, a style of writing that is appropriate to Whitman’s subject matter.

The later editions (1867, 1871, and 1881) are characterized by Whitman’s experiences while caring for the wounded during the Civil War and his response to the assassination of President Lincoln. As Whitman kept crafting the editions of his masterpiece, he made extensive revisions, including: adding new poems, retitling poems, reshuffling the order in which the poems appear, deleting or reworking lines in various poems, dropping several poems, and refashioning punctuation.

In an essay written late in his life, entitled “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman seems surprised by what he has accomplished:

My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to ’80—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull’d enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future!

Indeed, Leaves of Grass grows as America changes, ever evolving with the landscape, politics, and vibrant life in America, which proved to be an endless source of material for the poet who was gifted with an unusual sensitivity to his surroundings.

Whitman was committed to the role he envisioned for himself among Americans. He was a poet, a seer, a spiritualist, and a lover—above all, straightforward and full of life. Though he is often perceived to be too much of an egoist, Whitman means for his bold declarations of self love to be reflective of a credo for all Americans. Writing about himself in the third person, Whitman explains his goal:

His whole work, his life, manners, friendships, writings, all have among their leading purposes an evident purpose to stamp a new type of character, namely his own, and indelibly fix it and publish it, not for a model but an illustration, for the present and future of American letters and American young men.

He serves as an “illustration” of what an American was then and what an American could be; his poetry forms a blueprint for the potential successes and failures of Americans in the future.

Though in “No Labor Saving Machine,” Whitman writes as if he feels obliged to concede that all he contributes to America are a few simple poems, most scholars and readers argue that he was more of an inventor than he presumed to be. Van Wyck Brooks, for example, explains how Whitman “precipitated the American character”:

All those things that had been separate, self-sufficient, incoordinate—action, theory, idealism, business—he cast into a crucible; and they emerged, harmonious and molten, in a fresh democratic ideal, based upon the whole personality.

Whitman was just as much of an innovator through his poetry as any of the inventors of the time. His work was not only his poetry in Leaves of Grass, but also includes, more importantly, his shaping of the national character. Many consider his accomplishment to be the invention of a new kind of person: free, strong, vocal, at ease with himself, learned yet unbiased against the illiterate, proud, friendly, and honest—in short, American. In creating his book of poetry, Whitman also created himself for the American people.

Walt Whitman died in his home in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26, 1892. He is noted for his daring experimentation and his steadfast belief in democratic principles.

Leaves of Grass Synopsis

Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 and contained only twelve poems. Whitman continued to add to and revise his collection over the next 30 years. Over the years, Whitman published a number of volumes of Leaves of Grass as he wrote more poems and increased the collection. He explores many issues and themes in his work, and it is impossible to breifly summarize the entire work here.

These eNotes attempt to describe and analyze many of Whitman’s major poems. The entire “deathbed” edition of Whitman’s work contains over 400 poems. While it is not possible to discuss every poem, a fair sampling is offered here. The oganization of this MaxNotes follows the sections of the Norton edition of Leaves of Grass. Poems from each section are included for analysis and discussion.

Estimated Reading Time
The Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass is 707 pages long and includes the entire “deathbed” collection of almost 400 poems along with an assortment of uncollected poems and manuscript fragments. Much of the language is dated, and Whitman uses some unusual and unique images, words, sentences, and even spelling throughout the text. It may be difficult for readers to fully comprehend the entire collection, a section, or even one poem during a first reading.

The average reader might want to divide his or her reading time into many sessions of two to three hours, focusing on a few poems in each section during each session. It should be noted here that Whitman spent over 30 years writing and revising Leaves of Grass. The reader should plan to spend a considerable amount of time with each poem and/or section of the book.

Leaves of Grass Summary (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Brought up in a family with Deistic and Quaker leanings, the second oldest of eight children, Walt Whitman never belonged to a church but attended Sunday school at times and was surrounded by the religious and political foment of antebellum America at home and during an apprenticeship in the publishing trade. A journalist, editor, and publisher in early adulthood, he blended the styles of journalism and the King James Bible to develop a long-lined free verse that coheres as biblical poetry does: with rhythmic phrasing and repetitive syntactic strategies (such as anaphora).

Whitman envisioned his book as a new bible for the United States, one that would give the people a sustaining literature of religious love, ecstasy, faith, and common values that would define, guide, and elevate a national people to greatness. The aim to write a new bible for the United States, “the new Israel,” was common in the antebellum decades; however, it was Whitman’s book that achieved the range and rhythms of American voices and ideals in powerful and unique poetry that viewed the whole of individual and national life as spiritual.

Although a lyrical expression of the self’s experience, Leaves of Grass as a whole strives to function as an epic. In an essay, “The Bible as Poetry,” Whitman located the Bible as the center of his own art for its “naturally religious poetry” that, without artificiality, celebrated a people’s greatness and contained the whole of the people’s shared life history, psychological development, strong forthright heroes, honest and direct emotion, sensuality, friendship, “the fervent kiss,” ecstasy, faith, and mortality.

The “I” of many of the poems accomplishes democratic individuality within the political body by shifting fluidly from a single consciousness to a representative American to America itself. The speaker wanders about the cities and lands, looking in on scenes and often imaginatively becoming a “representative” person (for example, a carpenter, hunter, slave, slave auctioneer). People and objects in nature are perceived through eyes of intimate love as divine. Throughout, the “I” and the United States are divine—creative, loving, beautiful, and good, and chosen to bring to the world the first spiritual democracy.

In the poems written in the mid-1850’s, Whitman’s vision is almost wholly positive. The long masterpiece, “Song of Myself,” recounts an ecstatic experience of union in which the divine stretches out on the prone body of the poet in a crosslike position and plunges its tongue to the poet’s heart. Whitman’s belief in sexual energy as the principal creative force behind the universe is evident in this formative encounter. The experience brings spiritual knowledge, which is proclaimed throughout the poem: equality of body and soul, equality of all in the divine reality, the unreality of death, and other intuited truths. Readers are asked to see what the poet sees through the eyes of intimate love—an ever-present “now” in which America’s people and land are great, beautiful, loving, equal, and divine, united in one spiritual political body.

However, critics have noted that the poem derives its terrific dynamism from an undersurface of tension arising from personal and national anxiety about identity, disunity, and death. As Whitman subsequently plumbed these tensive qualities through nine editions, his vision of spirituality and the nation grew more complex.

Leaves of Grass expanded from twelve poems in 1855 to 383 poems, grouped in fourteen sections, in the final (1891-1892) edition. With the Sea-Drift grouping (1860), despairing loss and grief brought a maturer love, achieved through acceptance of doubt, suffering, and death as inevitable and natural. In the great operatic ode, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” birth and death emerge as a single force in the symbol of the sea as a mother who gives and takes life. This conceptualized figure was developed further in the wartime poems of Drum-Taps and Memories of President Lincoln. Dying soldiers on both sides are divine; sacrifices of suffering and death are Christ-like, for the salvation of a unified nation. The great elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” stands as Whitman’s greatest artistic achievement in the use of natural symbols for spiritual realities: lilac, star, and bird entwine in a “trinity” of love, immortality, and suffering transformed to joy.

After the war, Whitman attempted to retrieve the failed promise of unified democracy by setting its fruition into the future (“Passage to India,” “Prayer of Columbus”). In the six postwar groupings, spiritual doubt and yearning, often accompanied by patient calm, replace the exuberant sureness of the early poems. God becomes more distant, as traditional terms (for example, “To Thee, O God”) replace companionate and merged identity relationships. Many lovely late lyrics express wonder, praise, awe, and gratitude; accept the unseen and unknowable; and celebrate figures, aspects, and achievements of American life.

As Whitman’s ideas of democracy and spirituality matured, his groundbreaking associative mode acquired more form. From the opera, he took recitative, aria, and antiphonal structures in the late 1850’s, and the Civil War inspired him to use traditional meters and forms (for example, dirge, dramatic monologue, and elegy). The war poems broke new ground in subject matter, with the first photographic short lyrics of war scenes and poems detailing the horrors and suffering of wounded and dying soldiers rendered in graphic and intimate terms. However, the groundbreaking free verse, open form, fluid consciousness, and national personality secured the book’s importance to subsequent literatures.

Leaves of Grass Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“America” is the first word of Walt Whitman’s 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, but this most American of poetic achievements is also the most universal. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” Whitman says, a belief that informs Leaves of Grass and led Whitman to redefine “poem” in such a way as to change forever the face of poetry.

Whitman paid for the publication of the first version of Leaves of Grass and even set some of the type himself. It is a slim volume, containing a preface and twelve poems, each several pages in length, sprawling across the pages, and looking quite unlike the neatly rhymed and metered poems then popular with readers. Whitman revised and expanded the book six times and reprinted it twice more. The final and most complete version of Leaves of Grass, published while Whitman was near death (1891-1892), includes hundreds of pages and dozens of poems. Through its various versions, Leaves of Grass always remained a unified whole, and several themes and stylistic innovations remain constant.

Whitman believed that his lyrical epic poem about a new land required a new voice. Leaves of Grass represents a major innovation in poetic form. It is the first great nineteenth century work in English in what has come to be called free verse, poetry without obvious rhyme or meter. Whitman draws on other poets’ experiments with unrhymed, nonmetrical poetry and on the sonorous rhythms of the King James version of the Bible, but he develops the form in volume and expressive power. Free verse—long lines and loose rhythmic structure—became the perfect vehicle for poems with themes of identity, nationality, and transcendence.

At best, the poems of Leaves of Grass are brilliantly rhythmic, with an eloquent use of the American language to describe ordinary experience. In “The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles,” for example, colloquial diction and onomatopoeia re-create the sights and sounds of the streets. Whitman takes risks by presenting himself as a typical American working man, “one of the roughs” and a democratic Everyman, but also as a poet of frank sexuality. This image of the poet as sensuous Everyman represents the masterly centerpiece of all the versions of Leaves of Grass, that long poem that Whitman did not title in 1855 but that he eventually called “Song of Myself.” In the 1855 edition, Whitman’s name does not appear on the title page but it appears in the poem: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,/ Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding.”

“Myself” in the poem is and is not Whitman, for the poem is at once personal and an elevation of the individual to the mythic. A central idea of “Song of Myself” is that the cycle of life constantly renews itself and so triumphs over death: “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death.”

Whitman is preeminently a poet of joy and of the intersection of body and soul: “I and this mystery here we stand.” Individual identity therefore becomes at once fragile and transcendent. The individual dies and “life” goes on. By recognizing and absorbing this knowledge, Whitman says, all may feel unity with life and so triumph over death.

Early in “Song of Myself,” Whitman introduces leaves as a metaphor, likening the grass to a flag, handkerchief, child, and hieroglyphic, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” and “so many uttering tongues.” By using metaphor, Whitman helps the reader see grass differently. Like the speaker, who is an ordinary man, grass represents an ordinary creation so plentiful it is likely to go unnoticed. However, just as in a democracy every voice is important, in Leaves of Grass every leaf is a reminder of the beauty and transcendence of life.

Like Leaves of Grass as a whole, “Song of Myself” progresses toward its climax by dilating and contracting on a number of themes and images. Section by section, this poem includes many subtle and not-so-subtle modulations in tone. Sometimes these shifts occur from one section to the next, from, for example, “twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore” (section 11) to “the butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes” (section 12). Over the larger structure of the poem, Whitman’s expression ranges from passages of personal emotion such as “To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand” (section 27) to descriptive passages that, while also intensely emotional, find their focus outside the speaker’s consciousness, as in “The spotted hawk swoops by” (section 89).

The sections of the poem shuttle constantly between general and specific, between description and emotion, and between the body and the soul. These shifts are appropriate to the theme of endless renewal, but “Song of Myself” also moves toward a conclusion in which the poet disappears into the cycle of life, and readers are left to find their own way.

The roughness and sensuality of Leaves of Grass offended and even frightened many of Whitman’s early readers. “Song of Myself” in particular still has the power to surprise and even shock, as when Whitman says in section 24, “The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,” words that still dismay some readers. Sexuality is the common denominator of human beings, and Whitman wants to strip away pretense (represented by clothing) to reveal the naked body, which is also the naked soul, for soul and body are one: “Behold,” he says in “Starting from Paumanok,” “the body includes and is . . . the soul.”

In addition to long poems such as “Song of Myself,” the smaller poems in Leaves of Grass also contribute to the book’s unity. Many readers have found homoerotic imagery in Whitman’s celebration of “adhesiveness” and “manly love,” though Whitman himself denied that connection. In “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” which first appears in Leaves of Grass in 1860, Whitman uses the live oak tree as an image of solitary strength; unlike the tree, the speaker says he could not live “without a friend or lover near.” In another major poem that appears in every version of Leaves of Grass, “The Sleepers,” Whitman provides counterpoint to the joyous optimism of “Song of Myself” when he describes the narrator going from bedside to bedside like an angel overseeing suffering humanity. The imagery of “The Sleepers” takes on a special poignancy from the fact that, long after he wrote this poem, Whitman cared for hospitalized soldiers during the American Civil War. When his brother, George, was listed among those wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, he headed south to look for him; George’s wound was slight, but Whitman stayed on in Washington, D.C., to visit the sick and wounded soldiers in the military hospitals.

Whitman’s charitable work in the hospitals allowed him to participate in the war without fighting and to express his complex amorous and charitable feelings toward men. These feelings surface in Leaves of Grass:

I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and most restless,

I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,

The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.

“The Sleepers” is a difficult, visionary poem, full of troubled and troubling imagery, as in the line “The wretched features of the ennuyés, the white features of corpses.” The poem has the quality of a nightmare but might more accurately be characterized—as it was by Whitman’s friend and first biographer, Richard M. Bucke—as “a representation of the mind during sleep” moving rapidly over loosely connected images. The central metaphors are darkness and sleep, which stand for confusion and death. In the end, however, just as night disappears into sunrise, death must disappear into life and the poem returns to the affirmative voice of “Song of Myself.”

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” added to Leaves of Grass in 1856, describes the immortality of the individual across the sweep of time. As the speaker rides a ferryboat across the East River, he contemplates the crowd on the boat, the flow of the water, and the motion of the boat, finding in them a transcendent continuity: “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,/ I am with you, you men and women of a generation, of ever so many generations hence.” When he is gone, other people will look at the crowd and think the same thoughts he is thinking. These others will in that sense become him. By accepting one’s own identity, by trusting life and the soul’s natural impulses, one can be happy and recognize the interrelationship with all of life, past, present, and future.

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” published first in 1871 in a separate volume of poems entitled Passage to India, and later incorporated into the expanded 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, is a poem of reminiscence. The speaker looks back on his boyhood to a time when, near the ocean, he is awakened from innocence to an empathetic experience of a male mockingbird’s loss of his mate. This empathy leads him directly to an enlightened state that gives him a sense of his identity and his vocation as a poet, or a bard. By revising “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman brings the italicized sections representing the mockingbird’s song to an increasingly subtle onomatopoeia, which unites the bird’s song and the poet’s words just as the poet’s empathy for the bird’s loss has united them through the bird’s song. “My own songs awaked from that hour,” the speaker says.

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s great elegy for Abraham Lincoln, also first appears in Passage to India, before it become part of Leaves of Grass in 1881. Just as “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” weaves together a bird’s song, ocean, beach, and memory, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” uses three key symbols—the blooming lilac, the “western fallen star,” and the warbling of a thrush in a swamp—to mourn the death of Lincoln: “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul.” Whitman adored Lincoln as the preserver of the Union, and in this poem he pays homage to Lincoln’s greatness and comes to terms with his tragic death.

In “A Passage to India,” the title poem of the 1871 collection of that name, Whitman celebrates the great breakthroughs in communication during his lifetime: the Suez Canal, which opened access to the East; the transcontinental railroad, which made travel across the United States easier; and the laying of telegraph cables across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which made virtually instantaneous international communication possible. Whitman himself describes that the poem concerns the way evolution unfolds “cosmic purposes.”

Leaves of Grass is a work of integration and wholeness. Through its dozens of poems and many revisions, the central themes of the work—the transcendence of the individual through knowledge of the wholeness and continuity of life, the naturalness of death, and the beauty of the living world—serve to describe the joy Whitman took in his own American century.

Leaves of Grass Summary and Analysis

Inscriptions: Summary and Analysis

One’s-Self I Sing - Summary
Inscriptions begins with the poem One’s-Self I Sing, a celebration of “The Modern Man.” Whitman begins by declaring: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,/Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” He continues his salute to both men and women (“the female equally with the male I sing”), and he describes human life as “immense in passion, pulse, and power.”

In Cabin’d Ships at Sea - Summary
Whitman depicts a sailing ship at sea (“joyous full of faith, spreading white sails”), and then goes on to compare his book of poems to a ship, calling it “a lone bark cleaving the ether …,” and his readers mariners on a...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Song of Myself: Summary and Analysis

Summary
One of the major poems of the collection, Song of Myself, is divided into 52 separate sections and is comprised of 1,346 lines. In Song of Myself, Whitman pays tribute to himself and his readers (“I celebrate myself and sing myself…”) as he depicts the physical, emotional, and spiritual world around him. The poem begins with Whitman describing himself as he “loafes” or relaxes contentedly, “observing a spear of summer grass.” The poet delights in his environment, fully appreciating the sights, sounds, and smells that surround him. He tells his readers that in spite of the difficulties and distress human beings experience, the world and all life is, and always will be, perfect. Hard...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

Children of Adam: Summary and Analysis

To the Garden the World - Summary
In many ways, the few lines of this first poem belonging to Children of Adam establish the many themes Whitman writes about throughout the whole of the cluster: the paradise of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the meaningfulness of procreation, an admiration for the human body—male and female, and a celebration of physical love between men and women.

The opening line, “To the garden the world anew ascending,” immediately presents Whitman’s vision of rebirth. This is a return to the Garden of Eden to experience “anew” all its passionate innocence and abundant splendor, as well as its revelry in the paradise of self fulfilling physical love between men and...

(The entire section is 2630 words.)

Calamus: Summary and Analysis

In Paths Untrodden - Summary
The opening poem of the Calamus cluster in Leaves of Grass establishes what the collection will be about: affection between men. Whitman plainly declares that he is “Resolv’d to sing no songs to day but those of manly attachment.” Indeed, he identifies his specific subject matter as “all who are or have been young men,” and he intends to “celebrate the need of comrades.” The poem also establishes the difficulty of choosing such a subject; in order to do so, Whitman must find himself “Escaped from the life that exhibits itself, / From all stands hitherto publish’d.” He needs to think in a new and different way and find “standards not yet publish’d.” He...

(The entire section is 2397 words.)

Birds of Passage and Sea-Drift: Summary and Analysis

Pioneers! O Pioneers! - Summary
The poet describes and pays tribute to the American pioneers who bravely set out to discover and settle new lands in America’s western frontier. Whitman says he too is a part of this “resistless restless race” who through “the battle” and even in “defeat” continues its relentless journey of discovery. The pioneers have chosen to abandon the comfort and safety of their homes and endure dangers and hardship in their quest for adventure and a better life.

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

By the Roadside: Summary and Analysis

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer - Summary
The poet attends a lecture, where an astronomer is impressing the audience with his intelligence and the evidence he has gathered to support his claims, his findings: the “proofs,” “figures,” and “columns” of facts; the “charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure.” The astronomer is met with “much applause,” but the poet finds himself unimpressed with the science he has just been taught. He seems baffled, to an extent, by his reaction: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.” It is as if his mind tells him that he should be impressed with the astronomer’s lecture, but his heart tells him that the glory of nature itself is...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)

Drum-Taps: Summary and Analysis

First O Songs for a Prelude - Summary
Whitman begins this section, which is devoted to the Civil War, with a rousing portrayal of New York City and the Union preparing for war. The poet describes regiments of soldiers marching through Manhattan as exuberant crowds line the streets, cheering on their heroes. Men from all occupations rush to volunteer while women sign up to serve as nurses.

To the drum-taps prompt,
The young men falling in and arming,
The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the black-smith’s hammer, tost aside with precipitation,)
The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court
The driver deserting his wagon...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)

Memories of President Lincoln: Summary and Analysis

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d - Summary
The first poem of the Memories of President Lincoln grouping is its best known. As an elegy, it commemorates the death of President Lincoln by assassination on April 14, 1865, though it never mentions the president directly. Whitman begins the poem by painting a picture of spring and fading flowers, which mark the event of the death of the president. In the same way that spring will return and the lilacs will bloom again, so will the president remain in Whitman’s thoughts. Caught in a moment of deep grief over the loss “of him I love,” Whitman feels “helpless” at the “cruel hands that hold [him] powerless” in the face of death,

In the...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

Autumn Rivulets: Summary and Analysis

There Was a Child Went Forth - Summary
The subject of Whitman’s poem is a child growing up. Everything that touches the child’s life is in some way absorbed or remembered by the child: any and all objects “became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, / Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.” Whitman then goes on to list the variety of objects that influence this child and become a part of his identity: flowers, plants, animals, trees, people, landscapes, parents, family traditions, city streets, automobiles, boats, ocean waves, the sky, and the air. Each object in its own way makes an impression upon the young child, who will carry these impressions and experiences with him “every...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)

From Noon to Starry Night: Summary and Analysis

Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling - Summary
In this poem, Whitman conveys his impressions of the sun, as he celebrates the “full dazzling” effects it has on him. He sees the sun shining its rays on land and on water, and he writes that he has “always loved” the “illustrious” sun from his youth to the present time. Whitman understands that the sun does not answer his worshipful declarations with words, but he feels that the sun communicates with him in its own way: “sudden breaks and shafts of flame gigantic, / I understand them, I know those flames, those perturbations well.” After praising the sun for sending its “fructifying heat and light” to all lands and waters nationwide, Whitman asks that this orb...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)

Whispers of Heavenly Death and Songs of Parting: Summary and Analysis

Whispers of Heavenly Death - Summary
The poet begins the final clusters of Leaves of Grass with a series of reflective poems about death and dying. In this first poem, images of “unseen rivers,” “currents flowing,” and enormous clouds “swelling and mixing” remind the poet that death is a common, and inevitable, human experience. And while the end of life may be a sad event, there is nothing to fear. The clouds and the sky are “mystical,” peaceful images that suggest the ubiquitous presence of death. When one gazes heavenward, one can be assured that “Some soul is passing over.”

A Noiseless Patient Spider - Summary
In this brief poem, Whitman observes a spider spinning...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Individual Longer Poems: Summary and Analysis

Song of the Open Road - Summary
Whitman extends an invitation to the reader to travel with him, spiritually and literally, and he will lead by example. The opening lines of the poem celebrate both the options that lie before Whitman and the length and breadth of the continent: “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” Whitman finds all he needs (“The earth, that is sufficient”) in these possibilities, as he begins to walk on the road. He imagines all who have traveled the same path before him, believing “that much is also unseen here.” Not only is there the physical path of the road for the traveler to behold, but the road is full of the “unseen existences” or “spirits” of those who...

(The entire section is 2593 words.)