The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 542 words.)