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....

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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 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.

Forms and Devices

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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 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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

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.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

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.

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