Leaves of Grass Summary and Analysis
by Walt Whitman
Whitman begins his collection with a cheerful song of the self. He says he sings for the whole, Democratic self, “from top to toe.” It is the complete “Form” of the self which is more worthy for consideration than any one part. His song is ultimately a song for vibrant life. It is a song for Modern Man.
In “As I Ponder’d in Silence,” Whitman sits and thinks on his past work. As he returns to his old verse, a Phantom rises before him. It is the Phantom of “The genius of poets of old lands…” The Phantom looks at Whitman and tells him that there has only been one theme “for ever-enduring bards” since the beginning of time: it is the theme of “War, the fortune of battles, / The making of perfect soldiers.” Whitman resigns himself to this fact and tells that Phantom that this is also his theme. He tells the Phantom that he wages war in his book, with his poems. It is a battle for life and death and a promotion of “brave soldiers.”
Whitman writes for “mariners and all their ships” in “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea.” These ships sail the “boundless blue” ships. They think “voyagers’ thoughts” of the land and sky and the motion of the ship as it rides the waves. He compares the ships to his own book, their tales “fold” into every page of his story. He then gives a succinct definition of his project in “To Foreign Lands.” In this poetic letter, he says that his goal is “to define America, her athletic Democracy” for those that have puzzled over the New World.
“To a Historian” addresses those that would look into the past in order to find meaning. Whitman describes the historian’s process as one that treats humanity as if they were “creature(s) of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests…” Whitman describes his project as something much more. He desires to see life as it is lived and to uncover the potential of humanity. Whitman says, “I project the history of the future.” This future is also tied up in what Whitman calls an “old cause,” a “peerless, passionate, good cause” which is a “sweet idea” that has survived throughout the ages amongst all people. There has been a great angry war fought for this cause. Many stood to fight for the cause and those that were not able to fight can now “advance in this book.” War revolves around the cause, as does his book, which makes war and the book the same.
The poems “When I Read the Book,” “Beginning My Studies,” and “Beginners” find the poet reflecting on his past and his future. He wonders how the biographies of great men could ever capture who they really were and he ponders the idea of someone one day writing his own biography. It is a funny thought because he admits that he often knows “little or nothing of my / real life…” Whitman remembers when he began his studies and how his consciousness and senses became awakened to the world around him. He admits that he has hardly moved beyond this phase of learning and instead only wants to “loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.” Whitman finds himself a part of the “Beginners,” those that find innovation and new ideas in their work and life. These people are “dear and dreadful…to the earth” as they relentlessly pursue their originality.
Whitman then turns his attention to the United States in “To the States” and “On Journeys through the States.” He has one piece of advice for the states: “Resist much, obey little….” He warns that once a land is enslaved it can never return to its liberty. Whitman then proclaims that he is setting forth on a journey through the States where he will confer with each one. He seeks to bring his message of life and liberty to each citizen so that “what you effuse may then return as the seasons return.”
In “Me Imperturbe,” Whitman describes his time spent in the world as “passive, receptive, silent” just as the land around him is the same. No matter where he is, “the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahatta or the Tennessee” he seeks to be balanced and brave for what he confronts. Whitman rejoices in the particular songs of each American citizen in “I Hear America Singing.” Each laborer has their own particular song. Carpenters, masons, boatmen, shoemakers, and wood-cutters each sing of the particular beauties of their craft. They sing of “what belongs to him or her and to none else….” Whitman makes clear, however, in “Still Though One I Sing” that his one true song is dedicated to Nationality and revolt.
Whitman ends the section with a reflection on his book and a call to his reader. In “Shut Not Your Doors,” Whitman pleads with the country’s “proud libraries” to embrace the message that he brings in his own volume. It is a book “separate, no link’d with the rest nor felt by the / intellect….” Whitman pleads in “Poets to Come” with future generations to take up his own work and to justify his cause. He understands that his own work will only be defined by those that come after. In “To You” and “Though Reader,” Whitman closes with a message for those that engage his work. He asks them to stop and speak with him when they meet him because “Though reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I….”
It is helpful, when analyzing Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to first consider the whole. Whitman published numerous versions of the book throughout his lifetime, the last coming in 1891-92 when he published what is known as the “deathbed” edition just a few months before he passed away. Whitman wrote almost all the poems of Leaves of Grass in free verse and this is considered to be one of his most groundbreaking achievements. Much of the poetry popular amongst American audiences up until Whitman’s time relied on the structured meter and verse inherited from European poetry. Whitman’s verse, however, is long and sprawling. His lines do not often demonstrate patterned breaks and do not rhyme in a traditional way, if at all. Though parts of his poems sometimes come close to iambic meter, Whitman never relies on structured verse to give pattern for an extended period.
The title Leaves of Grass has more than one meaning. At the surface, the title suggests a natural setting and, indeed, there is a strong naturalistic theme throughout the book. On another level, the title is meant as a pun. The term “grass” was often used in Whitman’s day to denote works of minor literature and Whitman uses the word “leaves” to describe the pages of his book. Thus, Whitman is saying that his book is a collection of minor literature. Whitman obviously had a much grander vision for his book, however. He seems to understand in many of the book’s early poems that his unusual style and controversial themes would not gain him a wide audience, yet in several of the poems he also pleads with the world to accept the message that he brings.
Leaves of Grass demonstrates a tension between the lyric and the epic. This tension is evident from the very opening section, “Inscriptions.” Traditionally the lyric poem is a poem that describes the inner thoughts and feelings of its author. These poems do not tell a story but, instead, portray the perception of the author. Epic poetry is very different. Epic poems are usually long poems that tell the story of a hero. The Iliad and the Odyssey are two famous epic poems. The originality of Leaves of Grass comes from Whitman’s ability to fuse the two genres. Each individual poem of the book is an example of the lyric form. It is Whitman’s expression of his own thoughts and understandings of the world, yet taken as whole the book is an ambitious epic journey with Whitman as the hero. His journey is not just through the United Statues but also into death and life.
Whitman begins his book with the section, “Inscriptions.” It is a section meant to identify and name the themes of the entire work. At the outset, Whitman identifies the political themes, the themes of the individual, and the themes of life that he will tackle in Leaves of Grass. It is important to note the subject that Whitman names in the first line of the work: “One’s-self.” This self is not only Whitman, for he considers himself to be a main character, but also the self of all people. Thus, Whitman’s self is also the readers self. The reader’s self is also the self of the democratic whole of the nation. These readers are “modern,” meaning they are not the heroes of past epics.
Whitman puts his journey into context in “As I Ponder’d in Silence.” Like previous epic heroes, Whitman’s own journey is a result of war. This is meant both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, Whitman lived during the American Civil War, the bloodiest American war fought to date. The latter editions of Leaves of Grass were shaped in profound ways by the reality of war. In these early poems, some of which were written before the Civil War, Whitman means for this war to be figurative. His poetry is fighting a war both to be heard and to be taken to heart. His journey is the result of this fight.
The tone of Leaves of Grass varies throughout the book. It moves from ebullient to despairing, but this first section is a celebration of the land he is about to journey towards. Whitman means this in a physical sense and in a literary sense. He plans for his poems to traverse across the spiritual and democratic landscape of the nation in the same way one might travel through cities and towns. This is not a voyage of discovery, however, as Whitman already knows what is there. Instead, this is a celebration of the land and of its people.
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