Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
One of the best ways to approach the many meanings of this lyric poem is to see where it fits in the collection in which it appears, Leaves of Grass. It is one of approximately fifty poems that appear in a section entitled Calamus. Whitman explained the reason he entitled his section as he did: “Calamus is the very large and aromatic grass, or rush, growing about water ponds in the valleys—spears about three feet high; often called Sweet Flag; grows all over the Northern and Middle States. The recherché or ethereal sense of the term, as used in my book, arises probably from the actual Calamus presenting the biggest and hardiest kind of spears of grass, and their fresh, aquatic, pungent bouquet.”
This notion of aromatic grass explains why Whitman would describe his major symbol as “Scented herbage,” and it suggests why he would add the reference to his breast. For Whitman was, in many ways, a poet of the physical, physiological body, and his poetry is replete with references to the human anatomy and to songs celebrating the beauty and strength of the body. In this poem, the persona is indeed rhapsodizing over the aroma, the hardiness, the life that is symbolized by the grass and that is inherent in the human body.
The persona is also singing of comradeship, a theme that connects the cluster of poems in the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass. Many critics have analyzed this section as suggesting ideas about relationships among male lovers, and this may, perhaps, be the focus of the persona’s attention. Yet the more universal focus is also clear: a call to connections between the visible and invisible worlds, between the individual and community, between the self and the other, between death and life.