Whitman uses an all-encompassing "I" throughout Leaves of Grass. It is an inclusive first-person narrator. Whitman's own opinions and experiences often intersect with the all-encompassing "I" because Whitman often described himself as the archetypal American man. Whitman's use of the all-encompassing "I" is an effective technique in actualizing the concept the democratic self and establishing poetry as a democratizing medium.
The Modern Man
In "One's-Self I Sing," the modern man is an ideal of American society that Whitman hopes to achieve through his poetry.
Whitman casts himself as the subject of several of his poems. As both the poet and a character, he presents himself as an archetype of the American everyman.
The otherworldly specter who visits the narrator in "As I Ponder'd in Silence" and demands to know what he, as a poet, "sings" about. Whitman meant the phantom to represent the ancient poets, whom he saw as his creative equals.
Whitman often refers to the soul as if it were a tangible, interactive entity. He believed that all human souls are connected, and a person's soul is what enables love, spirituality, and ultimately, humanity.
Whitman believed that the body is the vehicle through which a human soul can experience the world. Because of this, his work emphasizes cherishing the body and keeping it sacred. Additionally, Whitman frequently writes that male bodies and female bodies are equally important.
The subject of the poem "For Him I Sing" is an unidentified "him" - a representation of Whitman's ideal self.
In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman describes the mechanics singing as they do their work. They are an integral part of America's collective voice.
In "I Hear America Singing," the carpenter sings as he measures his beams. Whtiman saw the working man as an archetypal American.
In "I Hear America Singing," the mason sings as he leaves for work. A mason is a worker or a builder working with stone.
In "I Hear America Singing," the boatman is singing about his boat.
In "I Hear America Singing," the shoemaker is singing while he sits on his bench and works on shoes.
In "I Hear America Singing," the deckhand is singing on the steamboat deck. On a ship, a deckhand is responsible for maintenance, cargo handling, mooring, and other jobs that require manual labor.
In "I Hear America Singing," the hatter is singing as he stands. A hatter is a craftsman and a salesman of hats.
In "I Hear America Singing," the wood-cutter sings as song as he works. He is likely cutting down trees or branches, perhaps to be used as fuel.
In "I Hear America Singing," the ploughboy sings on his way to work. He is responsible for leading the animals to plough a field.
A major figure in many of Whitman's poems; Whitman believed the female body was incredible in part because of its capacity to carry a child.
In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman describes a girl who sings as she does her sewing and laundry.
The stranger to whom Whitman addresses the poem "To You." Unlike the "Stranger" from "To A Stranger," Whitman has no connection to this "You." He is simply wondering why it is unacceptable for two complete strangers to greet each other for no reason.
Whitman addresses many of his poems in Leaves of Grass to his reader. The obvious example is "Thou Reader." Whitman felt a strong connection to his readers and hoped that his poetry would have an impact on their lives.
Whitman dedicates a section of "I Sing the Body Electric" to a patriarchal farmer whose body he admired when he visited him. A patriarch is a man who is the leader of a family, group, or society.
Whitman describes the body of a male slave in "I Sing the Body Electric." He insists that slavery is wrong because the same blood runs through the veins of this man as in every other man - regardless of race.
Whitman also describes a female slave who is standing on an auction block in "I Sing the Body Electric." Her body is just as beautiful, strong, and capable as any other woman's - black or white.
In "To a Stranger," The speaker feels as if he's seen and interacted with this stranger before, perhaps in a past life. Since they are not acquainted in this life, however, societal conventions dictate that all the speaker can do is walk past the stranger and hope they meet again in another life.
The pioneers were the brave explorers who went out to settle the American West. Whitman admired them greatly for their courage to face the unknown in search of a better life. He celebrates them in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
In "O Me! O Life!" the speaker counts himself among the "sordid crowds" who wander and are constantly seeking something better than what they have. They are forever faithless and therefore not taking full advantage of life.
The subject of "O Captain! My Captain!" is dead on the dock of the boat as it pulls into shore. The speaker of the poem laments the Captain's death even though the crowds on shore are celebrating the soldiers' victories on the battlefield. Whitman wrote this poem about President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated after the Civil War.
In "Beat! Beat! Drums!" the speaker personifies the drums and speaks to them, asking them to play as loud as they can and disturb everyone's peace. The drums are a symbol of war.
The speaker of "Beat! Beat! Drums!" addresses the bugles directly, asking them to blow loudly across the nation. They are also a symbol of war.
The titular astronomer in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" tries to teach the speaker about astronomy using charts and maps, but the speaker feels bored and disconnected.
Whitman felt a particularly strong connection to the soldiers who died in the American Civil War because he served as a nurse in war hospitals. Whitman celebrates their sacrifice and tries to immortalize their bravery in his poetry.
The people in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" who make the commute from Brooklyn to work in Manhattan by ferry each day, just like the speaker. The speaker knows that many have made this commute in the past and thousands more will follow in the future. He uses this shared experience to forge a connection across generations.
voice of the rain
The rain speaks to the speaker in "The Voice of the Rain." It refers to itself as the "poem of the earth" because it makes the journey from the sea to the clouds and then back down to nourish the earth, just like a poem (in Whitman's opinion).
In "A Noiseless Patient Spider," the speaker observes a spider patiently weaving its web.
Walt Whitman: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Walt Whitman: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
"To a Stranger" is similar to Whitman's earlier poem "To You." In both poems, Whitman expresses astonishment at the societal norm of polite reserve between strangers. "To You" questions why it is inappropriate to address a stranger if both parties...