The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” as in the other poems in the collection entitled Leaves of Grass, the poet Walt Whitman adopts a mask or persona through whom he speaks. The voice of this persona assumes various tones, usually ones that suggest a robust, celebratory, all-embracing stance toward life. In this particular lyric poem, the persona addresses himself to herbage, or grass, a symbol that is at the heart of the volume of poetry in which this poem appears.

The speaker begins by noting the timelessness of the grass, whose perennial roots are not frozen in the winter and whose blooms reappear every year. Looking at this grass, the persona says that he is reminded of both death and love, two realities that are, for him, beautiful and reminders of still another reality, life. As he muses on the relationship among beauty, death, and life, he observes that he is unable to prefer death or life, for he sees them as intricately connected by the cycle of life-death-life that pervades Whitman’s poetic vision.

His reflections on this cycle compel him to announce his role as a spokesperson for himself and his comrades. As if he is blowing a bugle, initiating a drum roll, and raising a flag, the persona announces his intention: “I will say what I have to say by itself,/ I will sound myself and comrades only, I will never again utter a call only their call,/I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape.”

Following this announcement, the persona makes a subtle shift in the “you” whom he addresses. Up to this point, he is addressing the grass, but now he speaks to death, stating that he sees death as “the real reality.” Additionally, he sees that the cycle of life-death-life has a special time frame, one in which life “does not last so very long” and death lasts “very long”—these two words being the final words of the poem.

This lyric thus moves from a specific symbol—“Scented herbage”—toward the abstraction that is death. The speaker begins his song by singing to this specific symbol, and he concludes by addressing the general, abstract notion of death. Whitman’s poetic mask expands his vision from material to spiritual reality, from the particular to the universal, from the individual to the universal.