Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetry written over Walt Whitman's entire lifetime organized thematically into sections. Whitman revised and added to the book throughout his life, the final edition being published only months before his death in 1891. Whitman was intentional in not organizing the book in any chronological way. Instead, he was concerned with the journey of the poetry. He desired that the reader would see a self formed through the words and themes of the book.
The opening section, "Inscriptions," gives the reader an overview of the work and the purview of its author. Whitman names the subject of the work - "One's-self." This is not only Whitman's self, though he certainly identifies himself as the hero of the epic, but it is also the reader's self as well as a more encompassing democratic self. The subject, then, is Whitman, the reader, and the nation. The themes of "Inscriptions" are as varied as the themes of the entire book. He writes poems of a political, social, personal, and sexual nature, all ideas that he will elaborate on in later sections.
"Starting from Paumanok" is a kind of road map for the literary work ahead. Whitman understands the entire book as a journey and so he begins with his own beginnings of self-awareness and poetic inspiration as a boy on Long Island, New York. Whitman intends here to name those that will accompany him on his journey and he catalogs a vast list of people and places that will play a part in his travels. His poems are of these people and for these people. Whitman, however, is not just concerned with the physical but with the spiritual as well. His own soul is named as a character in the book and his poems, he says, are written with the soul in mind.
"Song of Myself" is a celebration of the individual. It is one of the book's original poems, appearing in the first 1855 edition although it did not take its final form until the 1881 edition. Whitman does not call on religious methods or traditional institutions to help create his self. Instead, Whitman becomes the quintessential modern man, created through nature and created through his own journey of self discovery. In "Song of Myself," Whitman is creating his own poetic world and he is creating himself as a character within that world. He encompasses both the basest desires of the human flesh and the loftiest visions of the human soul. As he describes it, he becomes "multitudes."
"Calamus," one of the most controversial sections of the book because of its vivid autoerotic and homosexual themes, moves from a celebration of the self to a celebration of what Whitman terms "manly love." Whitman is chiefly concerned with the love that men feel for each other. He means not just brotherly love, or familial love, but sexual love as well. In "Calamus," Whitman seeks to become joined with another man in as intimate a way as possible. The relationships that men feel for each other, he believes, is incomplete until all facets of friendship are explored. It is only through these facets of love that a person can come to understand the true nature of another person and the meaning of another being. This is the basis for the democratic relationship and the purest expression of it.
In the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman moves from the interpersonal exploration of relationships to an exploration of the unity of the collective population. While observing crowds of people crossing the river from Brooklyn into Manhattan, Whitman gains a vision of the unity of all things. He knows that future generations will feel the same feelings, ask the same questions, and contemplate the same thoughts that he has while on this ferry ride. All people, in all time, are joined together in a great scheme. Whitman does not attempt to name this scheme for he is not attempting to write philosophy or theology. Instead, he only seeks for his reader to become joined with him; to understand that they are unified through time and through the page.
Whitman lived through some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the United States. He was a witness of, and participant in, the United States Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Whitman chronicles this profound historic event in the sections "Drum-Taps" and "Memories of President Lincoln." "Drum-Taps" begins with a celebration of a call to arms. Whitman sees the promise of democracy as yet unfulfilled, chiefly because of the injustice of slavery and the inability of America's population to achieve its hope of individuality. The Civil War was an antidote to this evil. As the war draws on, however, Whitman's tone becomes less celebratory. Death becomes the reality and Whitman laments at brothers killing brothers. The summation of this death is the killing of Abraham Lincoln, the man that Whitman saw as a model of leadership and greatness. In his most famous poem, "O Captain! My Captain!," Whitman compares Lincoln to the fallen captain of a ship that has come through much trial and tribulation. He encourages the country to sing for its victory, but he admits that he can only mourn for the fallen leader.
The closing sections of Leaves of Grass seek to reassess the themes and motifs of the previous sections while continuing the journey of discovery and exploration of the self. "Autumn Rivulets" and "From Noon to Starry Nights" can be seen as a halfway mark on Whitman's own artistic and physical journey through life. He has a clear understanding and view of death, now, yet he also seeks for his own work to become inspired with the light of his previous years. In all things of nature, he understands that even death is a regeneration of life, just as autumn leaves fall and grow again in the spring. Whitman ends his work with "Songs of Parting." He is not saying a permanent goodbye to the reader, however. Even death is a part of the journey. Whitman encourages the reader to see his book not as a book, but as a chronicle of a life. It is a life that the reader can live as well and, in this way, Whitman lives on just as does the reader.