Walt Whitman

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What is the main theme of Walt Whitman's "I Sit and Look Out"?

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The main theme of the poem "I Sit and Look Out" is human cruelty and the misery it causes. Whitman describes a long list of "slights and degradations" that he has observed, but he points out that although he sees and hears them, he remains "silent." He is suggesting that the human tendency is to ignore others' suffering and not intervene if it is not directly related to oneself.

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The speaker in Walt Whitman's poem “I Sit and Look Out” ponders the inhumanity of human beings. He looks at the sorrow, oppression, and shame of the world, hearing the cries of remorseful young men as they remember their wicked deeds. He notices how people misuse each other: mothers neglected by their children, wives abused by their husbands, and young women seduced by their suitors.

The speaker contemplates jealousy and love gone wrong. He muses about tyranny, battles, disease, “martyrs and prisoners.” He thinks of famine and degradation. He broods about arrogant humans who refuse to acknowledge the humanity of their fellow human beings but treat them like objects to be used. He mourns the “meanness and agony without end” that he sees in the world.

Yet the speaker merely sits and looks. He does nothing. He says nothing. He makes no effort to change anything. This is Whitman's primary point. People often see the cruelty that is so prominent in the world, but they sit back and let it be. Either they think that there is no way they can change anything and feel helpless, or they are simply too lazy to make a move, afraid perhaps of the difficulties and negative consequences that action might bring to their lives.

Whitman is trying to get his readers to ponder whether or not they do this very thing—namely, allow evil to continue through their silence. Everyone has probably done so at some point, too scared or indifferent to speak out. In that case, one has actually participated in the evil by refusing to try to stop it. Indeed, Whitman would likely agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once remarked that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil...Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

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The primary theme in this short poem by Walt Whitman seems to be human cruelty and the misery which can come as a result of it. Whitman observes that the world is full of sorrows, and that many people live in "oppression and shame." He makes it clear, however, that this is not a passive oppression or an anguish that comes from simply existing in the world. On the contrary, he uses active verbs, such as "deeds," "abused," and "casting," to underscore the fact that these are very much slights done unto humans by other humans. The misery that Whitman is observing is all caused by things that humans have done to each other.

Some of the examples that Whitman remarks upon include young men who have caused anguish to themselves after having committed certain unnamed deeds; mothers and wives misused by their husbands and children and dying of neglect or in misery as a result of adultery; and sailors casting lots as to which man has to die to save the others.

Whitman also observes, at the conclusion of the poem, that many of the degradations inflicted upon humanity are a result of "arrogant persons," perhaps in government, who behave as if they are tyrants and mistreat the poor or people of color.

The title of the poem gives an indication of what message it is trying to convey. Whitman is telling us not only that all this misery is always going on around us, but that our natural tendency is to be "silent." We see and know that other people are behaving badly and that this causes pain. However, unless we are directly affected, we will probably not intervene.

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The main theme or message of Whitman's "I Sit and Look Out" is that it is not enough to witness the horror, suffering, and pain of the world: every person who can needs to do something about it. The poet is trying to tell us it is wrong simply to observe suffering. He is attempting to make us impatient with the speaker, who sits, sees, and does nothing.

The speaker knows that the world is filled with "sorrow," "oppression," and "shame." He catalogues some of the troubles he is aware of: men filled with remorse for wrong they've done, women neglected by their children and left to die, spousal abuse, war, disease, tyranny, famine, slavery, and degradation.

Yet the poem ends on the word "silent": the speaker says nothing. If we feel frustration with the speaker for his silent inaction, that should galvanize us to act against the injustices in our own world.

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This poem was published in 1860 during a time when most Americans were fearful that the issue of slavery was not going to be resolved peacefully, and so there was great insecurity about the country's future.  It's not surprising, then, that a poet like Whitman would look around and see society falling apart.  More important, however, is the question of how a person reacts to all these negative signs.

When Whitman begins the poem with " I SIT," we are meant to see the poet as a passive observer of life around him.  This passivity is made even clearer when we look at the beginnings of all the subsequent lines in the poem, all of which begin with some permutation of passive observance, not action.  This is a man who clearly sees nothing but horror around him--oppression, shame, abuse of a mother by her children, pestilence, tyranny, cannibalism--a litany of unrelenting grimness.

What gives this poem some redeeming value, however, is that the poet explicity condemns himself at the end--he sees and hears all the suffering, but he is "silent."  By condemning himself, the poet is implicitly condemning all in the society who observe the many horrors around them and do nothing.

The theme, then, is simply this: all of these horrors are easily observed because they are all around us, and if all we do is "see, hear," and be silent, these horrors will overwhelm us.  The poem is a call to positive action in the face of a society that is headed toward disaster.

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