By the Roadside: Summary and Analysis

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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.”

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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 both simple and profound. He must not question why he lives but rather simply accept that “life exists.” Moreover, the larger scheme of life is likened to a “powerful play” in which the poet or any single human being plays only one small part. If he can “contribute a verse,” then he has succeeded in finding fulfillment in life—then he has answered the question of the purpose of his existence.

I Sit and Look Out - Summary
In the same way that Whitman has catalogued the wonders of the American landscape, the American people, and the principles of democracy in other poems, here the poet turns serious and focuses on “the sorrows of the world.” Whitman is affected by what he sees: “all oppression and shame,” the “convulsive sobs” of one who is full of remorse, “the mother misused,” “the wife misused,” “the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny,” the effects of disease and “famine,” and the abuse suffered by “laborers, the poor,” and “negroes.” What is wrong with the world is overwhelming to Whitman, for it seems to him that “all the meanness and agony” are “without end.” In the final lines, we sense the poet’s frustration with his seemingly powerless position in the face of such rampant misery: “I sit looking out upon” all these sorrows, “[s]ee, hear, and am silent.” He is concerned about his apparent silence, yet his poetry speaks loudly on the subject of worldwide oppression.

To Rich Givers - Summary
This poem shows the poet easing his conscience after accepting various gifts of charity—“[a] little sustenance,” “a little money,” a place to write his poetry, lodging, and some food. He asks, “why should I be ashamed to own such gifts? why to advertise for them?” Indeed, Whitman is not ashamed to receive and even seek “such gifts,” for he understands that he gives his poetry in return. He is not a person who does not repay others. His repayment comes when he “bestow[s] upon any man or woman the entrance to all the gifts of the universe.” The gifts he gives back, then, are manifold.

The Dalliance of the Eagles - Summary
During an afternoon walk, the poet observes two eagles in flight, one female and one male. The poem describes their amorous play high up in the air and the rush as they come together “clinching interlocking claws” roughly and quickly. Their union is at first full of activity: “[f]our...

(The entire section contains 1291 words.)

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