The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” as in the other poems in the collection entitled Leaves of Grass, the poet Walt Whitman adopts a mask or persona through whom he speaks. The voice of this persona assumes various tones, usually ones that suggest a robust, celebratory, all-embracing stance toward life. In this particular lyric poem, the persona addresses himself to herbage, or grass, a symbol that is at the heart of the volume of poetry in which this poem appears.
The speaker begins by noting the timelessness of the grass, whose perennial roots are not frozen in the winter and whose blooms reappear every year. Looking at this grass, the persona says that he is reminded of both death and love, two realities that are, for him, beautiful and reminders of still another reality, life. As he muses on the relationship among beauty, death, and life, he observes that he is unable to prefer death or life, for he sees them as intricately connected by the cycle of life-death-life that pervades Whitman’s poetic vision.
His reflections on this cycle compel him to announce his role as a spokesperson for himself and his comrades. As if he is blowing a bugle, initiating a drum roll, and raising a flag, the persona announces his intention: “I will say what I have to say by itself,/ I will sound myself and comrades only, I will never again utter a call only their call,/I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape.”
Following this announcement, the persona makes a subtle shift in the “you” whom he addresses. Up to this point, he is addressing the grass, but now he speaks to death, stating that he sees death as “the real reality.” Additionally, he sees that the cycle of life-death-life has a special time frame, one in which life “does not last so very long” and death lasts “very long”—these two words being the final words of the poem.
This lyric thus moves from a specific symbol—“Scented herbage”—toward the abstraction that is death. The speaker begins his song by singing to this specific symbol, and he concludes by addressing the general, abstract notion of death. Whitman’s poetic mask expands his vision from material to spiritual reality, from the particular to the universal, from the individual to the universal.
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In the center section of “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” the speaker refers to the grass as being “Emblematic and capricious blades.” Those two adjectives suggest the ways in which the poet views both symbolism and voice, two aspects of this poem and other poems that are critical to Whitman’s techniques.
Like many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman was interested in objects as emblems or symbols. Grass, and what Whitman described as the “leaves” of grass, became his emblem, or visible sign, of an invisible reality. By describing this emblem as a part of the natural world and a part of his own physical being—the “Scented herbage of his breast”—he was able to emphasize the way in which grass symbolizes the cyclic quality of nature and the persona’s similarly cyclic quality. Life yields to death, which contributes to new life.
The voice that sings of this cyclic quality is as capricious as the grass that is described in that way. If capriciousness suggests qualities of unpredictability and fickleness, then the voice in Whitman’s poem does indeed possess those qualities. It begins with the gentle observation about grass and the reflective comment that the speaker will think later about the meanings of this “Scented herbage.” Repeating the phrase “I do not know,” the speaker suggests an exploratory approach, a thoughtful posture.
This reflective voice yields to a much bolder stance when the speaker issues an order to the grass: “Grow up taller sweet leaves that I may see! grow up out of my breast!/ Spring away from the conceal’d heart there!” As a result of getting a clearer view, the poet sees his role of singing, on behalf of the human community, a song of death and life, and so he announces his role of singer/spokesperson for all.
The poetic voice then assumes still another tone, this one different from the original exploratory stance and the subsequent commanding and announcing tones. In the final lines of the poem, the persona seems to have become one who has made meaning out of the symbol he was examining. Despite words that suggest tentativeness in the last lines—“perhaps” and “may-be”—the speaker sounds certain: He knows that death lasts as long as immortality, for death is a part of the cycle in which life and death, one and the same, last forever.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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