Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

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In "A child said, What is the grass?" from Leaves of Grass, what metaphors and imagery relate to the socio-cultural context of that time?

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The speaker says that he is unable to answer the child, but in fact, he then launches into a series of metaphors, in which he imagines the grass as a number of things. First, he describes it as "the flag of my disposition," suggesting that his nature, like the grass, is verdant, hopeful, and ever growing; next, he calls it God's "handkerchief," as if it were a gift given to us by God and filled with his essence and his personality in the same way that a handkerchief might smell of its owner and be embroidered with his or her initials.

A further metaphor describes the grass as itself a child, the offspring of the earth. It is also a "uniform hieroglyphic"—and this metaphor in particular does contain some socio-cultural context relevant to Whitman's time. The speaker notes that grass grows alike in all "zones," whether populated by black or white. Remember that Whitman lived through, and served in hospitals during, the American Civil War. The country has never been more divided at any point than during this period, and there were, of course, particular tensions related to race. Note also the reference to the "young men" "taken soon" from their families —this could be construed as a reference to the young men wounded by war, the "dead young men and women" Whitman looked after.

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The speaker’s answer to the child is replete with metaphor and imagery for the speaker finds the question too complex, too philosophical, and yet too simple for a straightforward answer. An example of metaphor: he says a leaf of grass is “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.”  Here he compares the grass to himself in that he is part of nature; in being the “flag of his disposition,” it represents who he is, and woven “out of hopeful green stuff” refers to the vitality of nature that always continues through its courses as we see it in life and death as well as the seasons of the year. “Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, / Growing among black folks as among white” provides a beautiful image of color and equality, allowing us to “see” the green growing naturally, spontaneously, and without effort among black people and white people (and then he goes on to mention other groups of people). Here he uses the blade of grass to create a visual image of equality.

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