Who Learns My Lesson Complete? Analysis

Walt Whitman

The Poem

Because “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), underwent numerous revisions, assumed its final form in 1867, and remains in the final edition of Leaves of Grass (1892), it is safe to say that Walt Whitman placed considerable importance on this poem. “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” is a short poem in free verse with twenty-six lines of varying lengths divided into nine stanzas. The title asks a rhetorical question that may be simply paraphrased as “Who are they who are most likely to master the lesson taught throughout Leaves of Grass?” or perhaps, more cogently, “Who stands in greatest need of the lesson taught pervasively throughout Leaves of Grass?” The answer to the rhetorical question is, as is to be expected, contained in the body of the poem itself: Readers—whoever they may be—are likely to learn, and stand in need of learning, the “lesson complete.”

After asking the introductory rhetorical question, the poet immediately welcomes all of humanity to “draw nigh and commence”: “Boss, journeyman, apprentice, churchman and atheist,/ The stupid and the wise thinker, parents and offspring, merchant, clerk, porter and customer,/ Editor, author, artist, and schoolboy.” The reader will note the paired opposites included in the invitation that suggest that all humanity has been summoned to hear the “message complete” to be announced by...

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Forms and Devices

Whitman’s poem essentially has a question and answer structure. The question announced in the title “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” is answered throughout the remainder of the poem. As a writer of free verse, Whitman avoids rhyme and regular meter, preferring the parallel structures observable in the King James Bible and the persuasive prose of the New England Transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for example). The persuasive nature of the poem makes these repetitious structures quite viable. One might observe the first four words of the final five lines of the poem as a lesson in parallelism: “And that my soul,” “And that I can,” “And that I can,” “And that the moon,” and “And that they balance.” The student learns to look, in other words, not at the ending of lines for rhymes but at the beginning of lines for emphatic repetitions.

It may be that Whitman had an ironic pun in mind when he titled his poem “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” The word “lesson” is pronounced identically with the word “lessen.” In brief, the poet announces a lesson that lessens the work normally expected of the student; it is the assumption of a sense of wonder, not a scholarly absorption in facts, that will constitute “the lesson complete.” This ironic lessening is in reality a mystical increase in the student’s appreciation of natural phenomena.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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