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.
Summary (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 904 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
“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,...
(The entire section is 1861 words.)
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 journey. The poet then urges his book to fulfill its destiny to carry its message around the world “o’er the boundless blue from me to every/sea …” Whitman dedicates this poem or “song” to his readers or “mariners and all their ships” and declares his love for them: “dear mariners, for you I fold it here in every leaf.”
To Foreign Lands - Summary
In this brief poem, Whitman declares his intention to use his poetry to describe and define America to the people of other countries:
I heard that you asked for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore, I send you my poems that you behold in them...
(The entire section is 939 words.)
Song of Myself: Summary and Analysis
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 times are always temporary, the poet says, and “they are not me myself.” Whitman goes on to urge his readers to “loafe with me on the grass” so that they might fully appreciate their own lives and the world around them.
In the next major section of the poem, Whitman describes a colorful array of people—from happy children and young lovers to wagon drivers, blacksmiths, escaped slaves, and desperate, lonely adults—with equal appreciation and passion. He goes on to portray hunters, deacons, machinists, drunkards, reporters, dancers, parents, prostitutes, pedlars, the President, brides, and “opium-eaters.” Whitman then asserts that he is as much a part of all people as they are of him. Even his thoughts, he claims,...
(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 women. The poem establishes Adam as its (and the cluster’s) central figure, a man reawakened to the beauty of the people surrounding him—“potent mates, daughters, sons.” He is at once in awe of others’ bodies (“all beautiful to me, all wondrous”) and intensely aware of his own (“My limbs and the quivering fire that ever plays through them”).
The depiction of physical desire briefly introduced here is explored in full in the poems that follow. Whitman does not return to Adam specifically until the last poem from the cluster but leaves him, for the moment, in an image suffused with contentment, both with himself and with his mate: “Content with the present, content with the past, / By my side or back of me Eve...
(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 needs to remove himself “from the clank of the world” to such an extent that he is alone “in this secluded spot,” the only place where he can “dare” to write truthfully and openly about “manly attachment” or “athletic love.”
Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand - Summary
As is characteristic of Whitman, he pulls his reader into the experience of this poem right in the beginning by addressing it to “you,” the reader. The reader “holds” Leaves of Grass —and, by extension, Whitman—“in hand” as he/she reads the poems. This poem is patterned “against the fickle nature of human emotions, the ‘ups and downs’ of love between people” in a relationship. Whitman presents a...
(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 pioneers!
Year of Meteors- Summary
The poet recounts some of the significant events that occurred during the year 1859–1860.
Year of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective some of your deeds and signs.
It was a year when “comets and meteors transient and strange” appeared in the sky, but it was also a year of great political and social upheaval in the United States. Eighteen sixty was the presidential election year when Lincoln and Douglas held their famous debates. Other significant events of the time included the abolitionist John Brown being hung for treason on December 2, 1859 in Virginia; ships of...
(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 impressive, not the facts of science. He prefers the quiet of the outdoors at night to the astronomer’s lecture and the noise of the “lecture-room” filled with applause. In that silence, he gains a greater appreciation of the stars and finds himself in awe of “the mystical moist night air.”
O Me! O Life! - Summary
Whitman contemplates his purpose in life, the reason for his existence, particularly when he admits that he is not so very different from the others around him, “the endless trains of the faithless.” In the face of “struggle,” vanity, “the plodding and sordid crowds,” and “the empty and useless years,” the poet asks: What good is my life “amid these”? An answer comes to him that 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 in the street, jumping down, throwing the reins abruptly down on the horses’ backs,
The salesman leaving the store, the boss, book-keeper, porter, all leaving…
The onlookers and the new recruits have yet to experience the horrors of war, and there is nothing but “unpent enthusiasm” as artillery and cannons “bright as gold” move along the crowded streets. War fever has gripped the city and the Union, and Whitman sums up the nation’s mood:
War! an arm’d race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning away;
War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm’d race is advancing to welcome it.
Eighteen Sixty-One - Summary
Whitman compares this...
(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 third and fourth sections of the poem, Whitman introduces two of its key symbols. The lilacs, a perennial flower of spring, contain in “every leaf a miracle,” and Whitman breaks off a “sprig with its flower” to keep with him. The thrush, a “shy and hidden bird,” sings a song “of the bleeding throat, / Death’s outlet song of life.” Its song about death keeps the bird alive.
The next few sections follow the course of a coffin passing “through lanes and streets” and “[t]hrough night and day.” Whitman is describing his impressions of the processions he witnessed or imagined when President Lincoln’s body was carried through more than a dozen American cities. He is affected by the gatherings that witness...
(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 day” that he “goes forth.”
This Compost - Summary
In this poem, the poet wonders at the change that has overcome him, his changing attitude toward nature. He begins by declaring his uneasiness: “Something startles me where I thought I was safest, / I withdraw from the still woods I loved.” Realizing that there are countless “distemper’d corpses” buried in the earth, the poet believes all the ground to be tainted. Though he cannot see where those dead bodies have been laid to rest, he is sure that if he ploughs the land, he will “expose some of the foul meat.” Yet, he is intrigued that the earth, now a “compost” to him, does not “sicken” itself and reveal the signs of the corpses it...
(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 “shed thyself on mine and me, with but a fleeting ray out of thy million millions.” With just a few of its rays, the sun can “dazzle” the poet and prepare him, by casting “shadows,” for the slow coming of the nighttime.
To a Locomotive in Winter - Summary
In this poem, Whitman focuses his attention on one specific object for his “recitative”: a locomotive. In the same way that he lists the attributes of the sun (in Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling) or of the work of many Americans (in I Hear America Singing), Whitman describes in full detail the functions of a locomotive “in the driving storm.” He describes the “black cylindric body” from its “head light” to the “train of cars...
(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 a delicate web:
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
He then compares his soul (“Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space…”) to the spider and the web. Just as the spider attaches its strands of web, his soul searches for a “bridge,” or connection, to all things in the universe:
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
To One Shortly to Die - Summary
Whitman speaks frankly but lovingly to a nameless friend...
(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 have passed before Whitman. He feels the presence of all these people.
The road speaks to Whitman, and he imagines that it makes several statements to him in order to keep him traveling. Whitman wonders if the road implores him not to leave it; he imagines the road advising him not to “venture” off its path. He hears the voice of the road declaring that it is “prepared” and “well-beaten,” and thus ready for Whitman to “adhere” to his journey. Whitman then reassures the road that he will not abandon it, for he has the utmost respect for it: “You express me better than I can express myself, / You shall be more to me than my poem.”
The road encourages Whitman to shed the “limits” he places on...
(The entire section is 2593 words.)