(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “Song of the Redwood Tree,” the poet injects himself into the consciousness of a century-old California redwood as it is being felled. In a musical structure that Whitman often used, the song of the tree is presented as a grand operatic aria, and it alternates with passages of recitative in which the poet repeats and expands upon the message that the great tree imparts. The poem testifies to Whitman’s belief in the evolutionary growth of the universe toward perfection, culminating in the new land and peoples of America. These themes are particularly evident in Whitman’s poems written after 1865, such as “Song of the Universal,” “Pioneers, O Pioneers,” and “Passage to India.”

In Whitman’s universe, consciousness pervades everything, even vegetable and mineral forms, and the sensitive soul of the poet can tap into the consciousness of the nonhuman world and interpret its meanings. Thus the death chant of the tree, which is accompanied by wood spirits who have dwelt in the woods of Mendocino for a thousand years, is unheard by the workers who are felling the tree, but the poet hears it.

The tree chants not only of the past but also of the future. It sings of the joy it has known throughout all the changing seasons in its long life—it has delighted in sun, wind, rain, and snow. It confirms that it, too, has consciousness and a sense of selfhood, as do rocks and mountains. The tree declares that it and its companions are...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

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Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.