Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I / know it.
Whitman seeks to explore many dualisms in Leaves of Grass, including the paradox of life and death. Whitman does not see death as a negative thing but as a part of the natural world, just as good as the earth, stars, and sun. Death for a true artist is not death, for they live on in their work and deeds. The artist and the person true to their self has discovered that life never ends but is continual. It is lucky to die, therefore, because one becomes fused again with nature and with the unity of all things.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
These opening lines from "Song of Myself" introduces ideas of individuality and collectivity that Whitman explores throughout his work. The self, he says, is a form to be celebrated. The self should not be subdued or censored in deference to anything. Whitman freely wrote of sexuality and the body in tones as intimate as those he uses to describe the soul. "Song of Myself" is sometimes referred to as Whitman's "haughty" poem, but it is haughty only in the way that the author understands his own self and his desires and does not sublimate those to the desires of others. Instead, he seeks to transfer his own desires for nature and community to those that read his work. Thus, their assumptions are like his; every thought that he has, the reader understands as their own.
What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place / avails not, /
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, / I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the / waters around it / I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me..."
Whitman wonders at the reality of collectivity in his poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." In this quote, Whitman seeks to understand what it is that bridges humanity across time and space. He is a New Yorker, of Brooklyn and Manhattan, just as many were before him and many will be after him. He feels, however, that there is something "between us," his self and the selves of those before and after him.
Whitman gives two answers for the connection in this quote. The first is that the natural world connects the living and the dead. The living come from and return to the earth and so, when Whitman walks the streets and swims in the river, he is within the earth that contains the souls of all before and after. There is also a metaphysical dimension. Whitman feels as though his questions of meaning are not new to him, nor original in any way. They are the same questions of existence that every human being grapples with. These questions create a link between all, living and dead.
Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow! / Over the traffic of cities -- over the rumble of wheels in the streets; / Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no / sleepers must sleep in those beds....
This quote, from the poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" is a call to arms, written during the first months of the Civil War. Whitman's poetry was often very patriotic and he was a vocal supporter of the Union. The poem uses a militaristic meter to emulate the patterns and beats of a military march. His cry for sleepers not to sleep is a plea for all Americans to lay down their everyday lives in order to support the cause of the Union Army. It is also a description of war as something that cannot be ignored or denied. It pierces into every part of life.
I sing the body electric, / The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them, / They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, / And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of / the soul.
"I Sing the Body Electric" is Whitman's reflection on the nature of the body and the soul. Whitman does not subscribe to a strict dualistic approach to body and soul in which each is separate from the other. Instead, Whitman sees the body and soul as intertwined. This is true not only for the individual, but for all souls and bodies throughout space and time. This is what he means when he says that the "armies of those I love engirth me...." Whitman's love extends to all people, past and present, and their spirits, souls, and bodies are a part of his own. The electricity of the body is a result of a "charge of the soul."
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again, / Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves, / I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter, / Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them, / A reminiscence sing.
In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Whitman recounts both a reminiscence of his childhood and describes a re-birth in his adulthood. As a child, Whitman remembers how he was inspired in a nameless way by the natural world around him. He recounts a story of a pair of birds, one of which dies and leaves the other alone and pining for her return. It is this scene of love and death that first sparks his wonder at the natural world.
Whitman also describes his birth as a poet. This experience is, as he describes, a return into childhood. To become a poet means reconnecting with the same wonder and excitement that a child might have. His poetry is born out of a confrontation of all the "pains and joys" of life. It is a uniting of present and past, the physical and spiritual.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; / Rise up -- for you the flag is flung -- for you the bugle trills, / ...Here Captain! dear father! / This arm beneath your head! / It is some dream that on the deck, / You've fallen cold and dead.
"O Captain! My Captain!" is Whitman's best known and most popular poem amongst the general public. It is also the poem that is least like his other poetry. The stanza, meter, and rhyme of the poem display a regular form, much different from the free verse of Whitman's other poetry.
The poem's imagery is also more straightforward than much of Whitman's other poetry. This poem, published in 1865, is an ode to President Lincoln who had been assassinated just months before. Whitman compares Lincoln to a captain of a ship who has steered the vessel and crew to safety through much danger. The captain does not see the results of his bravery, however, because he has died during the voyage. Whitman symbolizes America as a ship that has reached safe harbor.
I met a seer, / Passing the hues and objects of the world, / The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense, / To glean eidolons. / Put in thy chants said he, / No more the puzzling / hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in, / Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all, / That of eidolons.
"Eidolons" is the second poem in Whitman's 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass and it is a poem that sets the tone and theme of the entire work. An eidolon is the perfect form of an idea, a Platonic notion of reality in philosophy. Whitman meets a seer, or wise person, on the road and this meeting is apparently a catalyst for the awakening of mind and spirit that frames the rest of the work. The seer calls on Whitman to put aside the learning of this world and, instead, focus on shedding light for all. This light is eidolons. These eidolons are the perfect ideas of mind and body. These are the higher ideas that one can grasp for. They are a higher form of being and a type of enlightenment.
Shut not your doors to me proud libraries, / For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet needed most, I bring...
In "Shut Not Your Doors," Whitman cries out for the acceptance of his teachings. Whitman frames his work as the opposite of established institutional learning. This theory of pedagogy was instilled in him during several miserable years that Whitman spent as a teacher. Whitman sees established learning as a barrier to true intellectual enlightenment. In this poem, Whitman seems to be saying that he does not wish for all established knowledge to be thrown out, but only that the institutions of learning make room for the kinds of intellectual enlightenment that he brings. These institutions, which have become staid and uninspired, need the kind of prophecy which Whitman brings in his poetry.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he. / I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Whitman uses the imagery of grass throughout his book and also uses it in his title. A leaf of grass is meant to symbolize several things: the pages of the book that he writes, the form of his poetry, and a physical piece of grass that grows from the ground. In this poem from "Song of Myself," Whitman uses the imagery of grass on two levels. The first is a physical and natural meaning. The child is really asking Whitman what is the meaning of the natural world, something for which Whitman does not have an answer. He later describes this nature as something that goes "onward and outward" and never ends. On another level, Whitman is describing his own poetry. The creativity behind his work has no explanation, he is saying. It simply is a representation of his own selfhood; his hopes, dreams, fears, and spirit.
Leaves of Grass Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Leaves of Grass is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.