Study Guide

Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass Analysis

Historical Background

When Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, the United States was entering a period of great internal political conflict that would culminate 40 years later with the Civil War. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the young nation was growing and expanding its territorial holdings as daring easterners and newly arrived immigrants headed west across the Mississippi River to explore and settle the western frontier. In his poetry, Whitman describes these settlers as intrepid Americans who were inspired by a determined pioneering spirit, a need for raw materials, and even competition with other countries who were also actively acquiring new territory. Following the American Revolution, European nations had lost much of their territory in North America; however, the great European powers continued to broaden their colonial empires, focusing their efforts in Asia and Africa. Americans kept pace on their own continent, and by the end of the century, the wild frontier Whitman celebrates in much of his poetry had drastically changed and had almost disappeared. Whitman’s “pioneers” had built settlements, farms, and communities throughout the West, while much of the Native American population was displaced and resettled on government-controlled reservations.

As American writers chronicled the monumental changes in their country, the American Romantic movement began in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson and a group of writers known as the Transcendentalists became highly influential during this time. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden or Life in the Woods which was based on his experience living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. A year later, in 1855, Walt Whitman published a slim volume of poetry titled Leaves of Grass. He dedicated this first edition of what would become his life’s work to his mentor, Emerson. Other important writers of the time included Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Dickinson published few poems during her lifetime (and remained relatively anonymous until the...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Leaves of Grass (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When Whitman published his first edition, readers were astounded: It had no rhyme or meter, it used the language of contemporary America, and it presented a specific human being speaking of himself in physical as well as spiritual and mental terms. It appalled some readers but refreshed and delighted many others.

The book grew as Whitman grew, through six editions and several annexes that eventually added hundreds of poems to the original twelve. It became, as individual poems such as “Song of Myself” suggest, identified with the poet himself.

Besides depicting an individual man, the collection also depicts a nation, America moving into maturity with the harsh test of the Civil War and the subsequent expansion westward. Whitman writes movingly about the war in the “DRUMTAPS” section, drawing from his experiences in Washington, D.C. as a visitor and nurse to the wounded.

Other poems describe America’s natural grandeur and the energy and drama of its people, from prostitute to politician, from pioneer to slave, from Indian to immigrant. Whitman’s resonant, rambling lines amply embody the vitality of a growing nation and the unconfined natural world he observed so closely.

Yet his world was not all bright and fair. He could be critical of his country’s shortcomings while singing its virtues. He also conveys the pain as well as the joy of love, both emotional and physical, especially in the “CALAMUS” poems, some of the greatest ever written expressing love for another man.

Even death finds a place in his scheme. He embraces it as natural and even beautiful, uniting human flesh with the eternal cycles of nature.

Reading LEAVES OF GRASS is a richly uplifting experience. Often addressing the reader directly, Whitman himself leaps from the page, a living presence.

Bibliography:

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. A succinct survey intended to be an introductory work for readers and students of Whitman. A good place to start the study of Whitman.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. First published in 1955, this is still one of the best “life-and-works” sources available on Whitman.

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collection of essays in honor of the centennial of Whitman’s death. Provides a good overview of trends in literary criticism of Leaves of Grass.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on Whitman and his times.

Miller, James E. Leaves of Grass: America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent introduction to the background, themes, and style of Leaves of Grass; especially helpful on the work’s structure.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of articles gathered primarily for use by students. Contains interesting material, including William Carlos Williams’ “An Essay on Leaves of Grass.”

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Not a chronological biography but a very interesting biographical/critical meditation on Whitman’s development.

Leaves of Grass Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Paumanok

*Paumanok. Village on Long Island east of New York City where Whitman was born. His early poem “Starting from Paumanok” describes the village as “fish-shaped,” indicating its (and his) nautical origins, an idea that he developed in detail in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” in which he envisions himself a “little boy again,/ Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman recalls Paumanok’s fragrance as “lilac-scent,” its coastline as marked by “Fifth-month grass” and “briers,” and its seashore inhabited by “two feather’d guests from Alabama,” signaling its fertility and hospitality. Later in the poem, now speaking from an adult’s perspective, Whitman cites “Paumanok’s gray beach” as the site of his initial and continuing poetic inspiration.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. City, which is now part of New York City, to which Whitman’s family moved when his father began work as a carpenter in 1823. Whitman lived in Brooklyn intermittently through the next three decades. He became editor of a leading local newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, in 1846, and formed a habit of walking in the city observing every aspect of urban life. His poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes people traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, using the “heights of Brooklyn to the south and east” and the traffic in the passage between the Hudson and East Rivers as symbols of city life and energy. He describes the “fires from the foundry chimneys/ burning high and glaringly into the night” as an image of industrial might, and the terrain of Brooklyn—“Brooklyn of ample hills was mine”—as homeground.

*Manhattan

*Manhattan. For Whitman, “million-footed Manhattan” was the central city of the new American nation. In admiration he asked, “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?” Multiple vignettes of life in the street (“the blab of the pave”) come together to form an indelible portrait, which images such as “blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil.”

*United States

*United States. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman says that the “United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He saw himself as literally an organic element of the new land. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” In boldly accepting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for an American poet, Whitman frequently proclaimed himself a genuine voice of the nation. “In the name of these States”—a characteristic formulation—expresses his position, and through his poems, there are apostrophes to and evocations of individual states and regions. “We dwell awhile in every city and town,” he asserts in “On Journeys Through the States,” writing many passages like Section 14 from “Starting From Paumanok”:

Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!Land of the herd, the garden, the healthy house of adobie!Lands where the north-west Columbia winds, and where the south-west Columbia winds!Land of the eastern Chesapeake! Land of the Delaware!

Whitman returns throughout his poetry to his evolving conception of the United States by using place-names such as “Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco,/ Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla.” He also uses physical features, sensual imagery, folkloric depictions as poetic persona, and some historic incidents.

Leaves of Grass Quizzes

Inscriptions: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does the “Phantom” represent in As I Ponder’d in Silence?

2. Name the central image to which Whitman compares his book, Leaves of Grass, in the poem In Cabin’d Ships at Sea.

3. To whom does the poet dedicate In Cabin’d Ships at Sea?

4. In To a Historian, what does the poet claim to have written?

5. What are the Eidolons?

6. What advice does Whitman offer in To the States?

7. How does the poet confront adversity in Me Impertube?

8. In I Hear America Singing, where does the shoemaker sing?

9. What is the poet’s request in Shut Not...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Song of Myself: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Whitman, the poet-narrator, doing at the beginning of Song of Myself ?

2. How does Whitman answer the child who asks, “What is the grass?”

3. What does the poet brush away from the face of the sleeping baby?

4. What is the “trapper” wearing when he marries the “red girl”?

5. What does the poet do when he encounters the runaway slave?

6. What sound does the “wild gander” make?

7. How does Walt Whitman describe himself in the poem?

8. What does Whitman call “the journey-work of the stars”?

9. How many men were killed in the massacre in Texas?

10. What will the...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Children of Adam: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Name the central figure in the poem, To the Garden the World.

2. What does Whitman mean when he writes that he is “singing” about something?

3. Describe the significance of the farmer in Section Three of I Sing the Body Electric.

4. What kind of auction does Whitman describe in Section Seven of I Sing the Body Electric?

5. We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d features a transformation of two people. Describe what they become.

6. Who are the “shunn’d persons” in Native Moments?

7. In Once I Pass 'd through a Populous City, what does the speaker remember from his trip to the city?

...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Calamus: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Whitman find, in These I Singing in Spring, that he deems to be especially important, and why is it important to him?

2. In Recorders Ages Hence, what advice does Whitman give to his future readers?

3. In When I Heard at the Close of Day, what makes Whitman happy?

4. Describe the metaphor Whitman uses in Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone to describe his poems.

5. To whom does Whitman compare the tree in I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing?

6. In This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, how does Whitman feel about men in other countries?

7. Explain the subject of Whitman’s envy...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Birds of Passage and Sea-Drift: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What great social and political event does Whitman write about in France?

2. What cargo are the “proud black ships” carrying in Year of Meteors?

3. In A Broadway Pageant, the poet describes what event?

4. What kind of birds does the boy observe in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking?

5. What happens to the female bird in Out of the Cradle?

6. In Out of the Cradle, where is the beach located?

7. Identify the main character in Aboard at a Ship’s Helm?

8. With whom is the child standing in On the Beach at Night?

9. What is the poet doing in On the...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

By the Roadside: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the poem, Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States, about?

2. In A Hand Mirror, Whitman describes a person’s exterior as a “fair costume,” but what is the inside of the person like?

3. Describe the audience’s response to the astronomer’s lecture in When I Heard the Learn ’d Astronomer.

4. How does the speaker react to the astronomer’s lecture?

5. Explain the question Whitman asks himself in O Me! O Life!

6. The “sorrows of the world” listed in I Sit and Look Out include which concerns of Whitman’s?

7. In To Rich Givers, what does Whitman give in...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Drum-Taps: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Name the city the soldiers are parading through in First O Songs for a Prelude?

2. Who are the two speakers in Song of the Banner at Daybreak?

3. In The Centenarian’s Story, what does General Washington read to his troops before battle?

4. What happened to the young soldier in Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night?

5. In A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim, what does the poet see when he emerges from his tent?

6. What does the poet encounter in the woods in As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods?

7. What was the relationship between the two dead...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Memories of President Lincoln: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the underlying occasion that inspired When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, and who is the hero?

2. In Section Three of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, what does Whitman do to the lilac bush?

3. What does Whitman do with the piece of the lilac bush, in Section Six?

4. In Section Eight, what does the star try to tell Whitman?

5. In Section Fifteen, who suffers the most when death occurs?

6. Describe the fate of the captain in O Captain! My Captain!

7. In O Captain! My Captain! what do the bells and bugles represent?

8. Explain why the soldiers are quiet in...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Autumn Rivulets: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Describe the returning heroes in Section Six of The Return of the Heroes.

2. In The Return of the Heroes, what weapons does Whitman want them to trade for their weapons of war?

3. What influences the child in There Was a Child Went Forth?

4. In The City Dead House, who is the corpse that Whitman describes?

5. In This Compost, why is the earth described as a compost heap?

6. Name the subject of Unnamed Lands.

7. Describe how the woman who sings in the prison affects the prisoners in The Singer in the Prison.

8. In Warble for Lilac Time, what three activities does...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

From Noon to Starry Night: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. In Thou Orb Aloft Full Dazzling, how does the sun communicate with Whitman?

2. In Section Four of The Mystic Trumpeter, what affect does the trumpeter have on Whitman?

3. Describe the personification of the locomotive in To a Locomotive in Winter.

4. In Mannahatta, how does the poet feel about the island of Manhattan?

5. Explain how Whitman will deal with his enemies in Ah Poverties, Wincings, and Sulky Retreats.

6. Identify the subject of the poem Mediums.

7. In Old War Dreams, what does Whitman dream about?

8. Name the subject of the poem Thick Sprinkled...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Whispers of Heavenly Death and Songs of Parting: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Name the cities Whitman writes about in Of Him I Love Day and Night?

2. Where is the poet walking in As If a Phantom Caress’d Me?

3. What is the spider doing in the poem A Noiseless Patient Spider?

4. In Night on the Prairies, now that supper is over, what are the emigrants doing?

5. What is the poet doing in Night on the Prairies?

6. In the poem Thought, what does the poet think about as he sits with others at a great feast?

7. What does the poet plan to do when he goes “forth” in As the Time Draws Nigh?

8. In Song at Sunset, how does Whitman describe old...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Individual Longer Poems: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. In Section Two of Song of the Open Road, what are the “unseen existences” that Whitman perceives along the road?

2. What does Whitman invite the reader to do in Section Nine?

3. Name the qualities a traveler needs in order to journey with Whitman, according to Section Ten.

4. In Section One of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman is curious about whom?

5. Whitman is imagining the future in Section Two. How far ahead is he looking?

6. In Section Seven of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, who has Whitman “consider’d long and seriously”?

7. Explain the human attributes Whitman gives the axe in Section One of...

(The entire section is 318 words.)