The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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.”

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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 the poet.

Ironically, however, the “message complete” is ultimately beyond the ability of the poet to communicate to others: “I cannot say to any person what I hear,” the poet says, adding that “it is very wonderful.” What he has heard are “beautiful tales of things and the reasons of things” that are “so beautiful” he nudges himself “to listen.” Though the poet tells readers that he lies “abstracted” (that is, intellectually focused and emotionally intent) upon these beautiful tales, it quickly becomes apparent that the poet sees nature and the universe not as phenomena to be explained but rather as wonders to be celebrated.

What exactly, then, is the “lesson complete” that the poet attempts to communicate to the reader of this poem and to the student of Leave of Grass in general? The lesson, readers are told, is “no lesson—it lets down the bars to a good lesson,/ And that to another, and every one to another still.” If the lesson is not really a lesson but a removal of obstacles to the reception of a lesson, of many lessons perhaps, then the brunt of the message is that all of humanity can be students of nature and learn the “lesson complete” while free of the usual impediments to knowledge associated with conventional learning experiences. The fundamental lesson transmitted by the poet is quite simply the experience of wonder—hence the recurrent nouns “wonderful” and “beautiful.” However, wonder and beauty lie quite beyond explanation; they are emotions to be experienced, not phenomena to be explicated. Who, then, learns the “lesson complete”? The poet has already supplied the answer to the rhetorical question: “The stupid and the wise thinker, parents and offspring, merchant, clerk, porter and customer,/ Editor, author, artist, and schoolboy,” that is to say, all of humanity can learn the “lesson complete” if they approach nature in the right spirit—the spirit of wonder.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

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...

(The entire section contains 942 words.)

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Themes