What is the main theme of the poem and what is the poet trying to tell us?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem was published in 1860 during a time when most Americans were fearful that the issue of slavery was not going to be resolved peacefully, and so there was great insecurity about the country's future.  It's not surprising, then, that a poet like Whitman would look around and see society falling apart.  More important, however, is the question of how a person reacts to all these negative signs.

When Whitman begins the poem with " I SIT," we are meant to see the poet as a passive observer of life around him.  This passivity is made even clearer when we look at the beginnings of all the subsequent lines in the poem, all of which begin with some permutation of passive observance, not action.  This is a man who clearly sees nothing but horror around him--oppression, shame, abuse of a mother by her children, pestilence, tyranny, cannibalism--a litany of unrelenting grimness.

What gives this poem some redeeming value, however, is that the poet explicity condemns himself at the end--he sees and hears all the suffering, but he is "silent."  By condemning himself, the poet is implicitly condemning all in the society who observe the many horrors around them and do nothing.

The theme, then, is simply this: all of these horrors are easily observed because they are all around us, and if all we do is "see, hear," and be silent, these horrors will overwhelm us.  The poem is a call to positive action in the face of a society that is headed toward disaster.

natjoseph | Student

Summary: I Sit and Look Out By Walt Whitman is where Whitman is the narrator of the poem, he sees everything that is bad with the world but does says he does nothing to fix it.

Section One:

  • Whitman remarking about the "sorrows, oppression, and shame" that is in the world
  • The following are stated as either a sorrow, oppression, or shame
    • Men that cry in secret after doing something wrong
    • Mother misused by her children, that is dying, neglected, desperate
    • Wife misused by husband
    • Seducer that goes for young women
    • Jealousy, love not returned
    • War, sickness, prisoners, martyrs, and tyranny
    • Sailors that kill some to save the others that are dying of famine(no food)
    • The people that think they are better than others - in particular laborers , poor, black people, etc
  • All of the observations seem to have no end, but he hears and sees it all but does nothing

Other Notes:

  • The first problems are individual , while the second set of problems problems (societal)