I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

by Walt Whitman

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is a short lyric poem made up of thirteen lines of free verse (verse written in no traditional meter). The speaker of the poem may be identified with the poet or at least with “Walt Whitman,” as the reader comes to know him in Leaves of Grass, the book in which this poem appears. The poem begins with a memory: The poet remembers the live oak tree he saw standing by itself in Louisiana, whose “rude” and “lusty” look reminded the poet of himself. In one important respect, however, the tree was very different from the poet, for the tree was “uttering joyous leaves” even though it stood without another of its kind (a “companion”) nearby, and this is something that the poet knew he could never do. That the tree was in Louisiana may have some autobiographical significance: Whitman, who lived most of his life in New York and New Jersey, spent some time in Louisiana. In any case, the live oak flourishes in Louisiana, and the geographical reference grounds the poem in fact. The poet is speaking of a real tree he actually saw rather than of a metaphor for his feelings.

In speaking of the tree as “uttering” its leaves, Whitman uses a word that is perfectly appropriate on a literal level. In this context, “utter” can simply mean to “put forth” or “sprout.” However, since the word is more commonly used to describe human speech and since Whitman habitually refers to his poems as “leaves” (as in the title Leaves of Grass), the word implies more. The tree that “uttersleaves” is an image not only of the man but also of the poet. The poet tells the reader that he broke a twig from the tree and that he now keeps the twig, with a little moss tied around it, in his room, where it remains a curious token. Its purpose is not to remind him of his friends because, he reveals, he thinks of little else. Rather, it stands for manly love or the love of man for man. Yet the phrase is ambiguous. A reader might take “manly love” to mean the love a man may feel for a woman. Whitman probably accepted, even intended, the ambiguity.

The poem’s last lines return to the theme of the opening. In this restatement, the live oak’s isolation is still more strongly emphasized: “solitary/ in a wide flat space.” The phrase “friends and lovers,” uniting two forms of human relationship in one grammatical unit, appears for the first time. Furthermore, the poet is again in awe at the memory of the tree “uttering joyous leaves” in its isolation. The poet’s response is reaffirmed in the last line of the poem: “I know very well I could not.” For the poet, then, it is in the presence of companions, friends, and lovers that he finds the inspiration to utter his leaves; for the man, to be isolated from those he loves would cause him pain beyond his powers of expression.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

Whitman was a pioneer in the development of free verse, but, as any experienced reader knows, successful free verse is never really free. Free of meter (the regular distribution of stresses across a line that dominated English verse from the Renaissance to Whitman’s time and beyond), free verse must find its own principles of rhythm. A number of qualities contribute to the overall rhythm of Whitman’s verse. Two of these are line length and syntax. Using the syllable as the unit of measurement, the reader can find in the poem a rhythm of expansion and contraction. The first line is shorter than any other line except for the last. The longest lines, the fifth and sixth, are followed by three relatively short lines of fifteen syllables each. Line 10 expands to twenty syllables, line 11 to twenty-five. Line 12 contracts to seventeen syllables, leading to the eight syllables of the eloquently concise last line.

Syntax also contributes to rhythm. Each line is capable of standing alone as at least a complete sentence, and line 11 could be written as two sentences. Yet only line 11 ends with a full stop of any kind, and the first period appears only at the end of the poem. The result is a rhythmically significant tension between sense and sound as the punctuation forbids the major pause at the end of the line that the sense would seem to call for. Syntactical subtleties also produce effects beyond the rhythmic. An air of straightforward simplicity is suggested by the repeated use of the simple past tense in the early lines of the poem. Yet the subjects of these verbs shift from “it,” a pronoun whose antecedent is “live-oak,” through “moss” and “its look” to “I,” defining the progression of the poet’s thought. Furthermore, while the last lines restate the theme of the opening, what had been in the past (“stood”) is now in the present (“glistens”). An experience of the past transcends temporal categories to live in the present of the poet’s, as well as the reader’s, imagination.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168

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