Walt Whitman

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Interpret the poem “Had I the Choice” by Walt Whitman and discuss its use of similes, metaphors, personification, and so on.

The speaker of “Had I the Choice” employs apostrophe, allusion, and personification to convey the idea that the beauty and poetry of one moment in nature is far preferable to the beauty and poetry of even the greatest of writers.

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In “Had I the Choice” by Walt Whitman, the speaker begins with an imaginary scenario. He thinks about what would happen if he had the choice to “tally” the world's greatest poets, to “limn” or describe them, and to “emulate” or copy them. He then goes on to allude to three of those great poets: Homer, who composed The Iliad and The Odyssey; Shakespeare, with his tragic characters; and Tennyson, who draws word portraits of beautiful ladies. These poets, he continues, are superior in meter and wit, in their imagery and rhyme.

But then the speaker considers another option, which to his mind is better yet. If the sea would transfer only one of its waves or one of its breaths of breeze into his verse, this would be a finer thing than even the ability to imitate the greatest poets. Whitman is commenting here on the beauty of nature and the contribution it can bring to poetry that surpasses every human effort and talent.

Notice Whitman's language choices here. He addresses the sea personally (a technique called apostrophe) as if it were a living thing. He also personifies the sea, giving it the ability to transfer one of its waves or its breaths to his poetry. He will “gladly barter” with this watery being, giving the sea all the fine poetry if it will give him a bit of itself.

Whitman also uses metaphors when he speaks of Shakespeare's “woe-entangled” characters, as if they were caught up in a web of grief and unable to free themselves. He speaks of the “trick” of a wave, suggesting a sleight of hand perhaps, some hidden magic in the motion of the sea. He speaks also of the “odor” of the sea's breath that can somehow fall and remain upon his verse, heightening it and perhaps allowing readers to catch an imagined whiff of sea breeze.

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In this poem, the speaker claims that, if he had the choice to be as great a writer as the “greatest bards” or to write with the beauty of nature, he would “gladly” choose the latter over the former.

In terms of literary devices, the speaker directly addresses the sea, saying, “O sea, all these I'd gladly barter” to know the “trick” of just one of its waves. This technique, addressing something that cannot and does not respond in the text, is called apostrophe. The poem also employs allusions, references to other writers, texts, or events, in order to deepen the emotion the speaker is expressing. He refers to the ancient Greek writer, Homer, and the subjects of his epic poems; Shakespeare, and his troubled and doomed tragic heroes; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, an English poet, and his beautifully drawn women and verse. We are given to understand, then, that it is no meager talent the speaker would trade away but, rather, the immense talent that has made men famous, legendary for their skill.

The speaker does personify the sea as well, giving it the human quality...

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of possessing a will to “transfer” to him the “trick” of its waves. He also gives the sea the human quality of breathing, saying that he would prefer “one breath of [the sea’s] upon [his] verse” rather than possessing all the talent of, say, Homer or Shakespeare.

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"Had I the Choice" contains allusions to great works: Homer's the Odyssey (Hector, Achilles, and Ajax), three tragedies of Shakespeare, and the poet Tennyson's "A Dream of Fair Women" as the speaker recognizes the beauty and mastery of technique and style exhibited by these formidably talented writers. The speaker goes on to express the idea that if he acquired these skills (their mastery of meter, the conceits they employ, or their wit, generally), he would trade them for the ability of the sea to make a wave and inspire his poetry.

The poem has the dual purpose of acknowledging the artistry of great writers and the beauty, power, and mystery of nature. The last line expresses his desire to bring the two together in his own work.

The poem does not contain direct similes or metaphors. It is plausible to claim that Whitman attempted to emulate the movement of waves with regard to the poem's meter. It is a pattern of short and long lines that mimic the way waves alternate when they reach the shore in patterns that are unpredictable.

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The language of imagery is present in Whitman's poem.  Driving from the subjective sense of self, Whitman is able to construct a realm where he is able to link the personal experience with an external conception of self, aided by figurative language as a way of re-describing the internal consciousness.  There is not much in way of direct simile or comparative language.  Yet, Whitman is able to draw upon the metaphor of the writer as a part of an intertextual connection to past artists.  Whitman creates the idea that literature is a book of different artists representing different parts of it and in employing the images of Shakespeare, Tennyson, or Homer, he is suggesting that all literature is linked to one another.  He personifies each writer with a description of their subject.  Homer is personified with wars and warriors, Shakespeare is linked to personal torment, while Tennyson is embodied by "fair ladies."  In being able to link each writer to a particular concept, Whitman is able to employ language descriptive of that writer and reflect a part that he, himself, would wish to have.  In the end, if the choice is between technical skill or emotional connection with each, Whitman advocates for the latter in pure subjective expression.

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