Context: After experiences as printer, journalist, and newspaper editor, during which he published a few poems and articles, Walt Whitman, under an abbreviated first name that he used for the rest of his life, published at his own expense a small volume, Leaves of Grass, containing twelve lyric poems, among them "Song of Myself." The book was largely ignored except by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote him a congratulatory letter. In subsequent years through commercial publishers, Whitman issued ten editions, each radically different. At first Whitman was criticized for his daring subject matter and for his long, rhythmical, but unrhymed lines. Readers thought he well characterized himself when he wrote about his "barbaric yawp." Today, however, critics recognize the greatness of some poems, amid the false greatness and mediocrity of the rest. Some of the best of Whitman appeared in its longest poem, "Song of Myself," in 52 cantos. It shows the poet as a mystic, a pantheist, and a lover of humanity. In Canto 6, he combines two of his favorite themes: death and democracy.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;How could I answer the child? I did not know what it was any more than he . . .Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropt,Bearing the owner's name someway in the corner, that we may see and remark, and say Whose? . . .Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,Growing among black folk as among white,Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.