Walt Whitman

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Does the tone in Walt Whitman's "There was a child went forth..." shift from beginning to end?

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In the beginning, the speaker introduces a child who is surrounded by images of natural peace and harmony. As the poem progresses, however, that child becomes a drunkard's son, who sees his father as unjust and mean. At the end of the poem, as he nears death (the horizon's edge), this child again seems to find peace with himself through nature.

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The poem "There was a child went forth every day" by Walt Whitman consists of a series of observations. A child goes out into the world and perceives various objects, and each of these objects become absorbed into the life of the child in the sense that they provide sensory input, memories, and stimuli that lead to learning and growth.

Although the poem is made up solely of descriptions of the child's perceptions, the tone definitely changes from its beginning to its end. Its observances progress from casual to intimate and from simple to more complex. Using this method, Whitman accompanies the child and guides readers from the naiveté of early childhood to the maturity that comes with the proximity to childhood's end.

For example, Whitman begins by describing the child's perceptions of plants, farmyard animals, fish in a pond, crops in fields, and apple trees in blossom. These are the simplest of objects. He then describes strangers, such as a drunk coming home from a tavern, a schoolmistress, and schoolchildren on their way to school. These descriptions are more complex because they are of humans, but still they touch the child only peripherally.

The next descriptions are of the child's parents. With these Whitman takes the poem to a further level of intimacy. The child perceives not only how his parents look, but also how they smell, their temperaments, and how they treat him.

Whitman then delves into the child's interior perceptions and describes the child's sense of reality, doubts, and curiosities. These thoughts and feelings indicate that the child is maturing and wondering about the world and his place in it.

After the few lines about the child's inner puzzlement and confusion, Whitman goes back to objective perceptions of what the child observes. However, the descriptions of the village, the streets, the men and women passing, the wharfs, the boats on the water, and the clouds in the sky are more complex, suggesting that as the child grows, he observes more and accepts more complexity into his life.

We see, then, that there is a clear shift of tone from the beginning to the end of this poem.

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In "There Was a Child Went Forth," does the tone shift from the beginning to the end of the poem?

I would argue that the tone shifts twice. In the beginning, the speaker introduces this child who becomes the first object he looks upon each day. The poem seems to reflect the life span of the child, and his early years are depicted in the beginning lines of the poem. Consider the imagery used there: lilacs, red morning glories, a phoebe bird, and a lamb, among others. These are all natural and peaceful images, each one connoting a sense of warmth that the child enjoys.

The poem's tone begins to shift around this point:

And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern whence he had lately risen,

After so much natural and peaceful imagery, this image of a staggering drunk feels a bit out of place. The child becomes this staggering drunk because it is now part of his experience. Then he sees his "mean, angered, unjust" father and his comparatively "quiet" mother as she prepares dinner. A swelling heart, doubts, and crowded streets follow, and they, too, reflect a very different tone than is represented at the beginning of the poem. The child is no longer surrounded by only images of peaceful contentment but is forced to also become these negative images and emotions.

Near the end, the tone is again more peaceful. The images are of "colored clouds" and the horizon's edge. The imagery representing the divide between land and sea seems to represent the final divide between life and death. As the child nears this divide, it seems that he has again found the peace that he enjoyed in his earliest childhood days.

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