"The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."
These lines speak to the power of the individual. Whitman interweaves two seemingly contradictory themes in his poetry: democracy and individualism. He emphasizes the idea of a common American spirit, a Democratic self, and an all-encompassing "I", while at the same time maneuvering to empower the individual. This quotation exemplifies the confluence of these concepts. The individual distinguishes himself most by contributing to the group effort of the "powerful play." The "you" in the poem addresses both the individual reader and the country as a whole. For Whitman, America is made up of individual voices joining together to create one chorus, one Democratic self.
"The man's body is sacred and the woman's body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred"
During his time in New Orleans, Whitman witnessed a slave auction. He was appalled by the cavalier commodification and sale of human bodies. Since Whitman saw the body as equivalent to the soul, he saw the institution of slavery as a degradation of something sacred. In these lines, Whitman celebrates the sanctity of the human body and asserts his opinion that that the human body should be treated with respect regardless of one's gender or race. Sadly, Whitman's opinion was contrary to the overwhelming racism and sexism of the time.
"Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day – at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."
In this quotation, Whitman emphasizes the importance of individuality within democracy. Each worker sings his own song, which “belongs to him or her and to none else." However, they are all connected by the act of singing. The specifics of their work and their songs are different, but they are all united under one single identity – America.
"I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance
and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the
field the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers."
Whitman imbues this verse with mythic power in order to elevate it to a higher plane of importance. He sets himself up as the successor to the great epic poets (perhaps even their superior). When the haughty Shade reprimands the poet, reminding him that the most important theme of "ever-enduring bards" is war, he vehemently replies that he too sings of war - but his war is life itself. With this assertion, Whitman portrays himself as a poet-prophet, singing about life and death and defying the ghosts of the past. While he elevates his own role as poet, Whitman also depicts the common man as a hero. "I above all promote brave soldiers," he writes, but the brave soldiers he is describing are everyday people. By equating the working-class with the heroes of traditional epics, Whitman celebrates the dignity and individuality of the common American.
" O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."
Whitman wrote "O Captain! My Captain" as an elegy for the recently-assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. This stanza demonstrates the central allegory of the poem. The Captain represents the late President Lincoln, and the fearful trip is a symbol for the Civil War. This is one of the few poems in which Whitman employs a regular rhyme scheme and meter. The adherence to form makes the poem feel more formal and therefore, more somber. It also evokes the rhythm of soldiers marching.
"Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow."
These are the final two lines in "Beat! Beat! Drums!", in which Whitman implores the drums and bugles to play so loudly that they awaken and disturb the dead. These instruments represent war, and Whitman uses them to express how war infiltrates the lives of everyone in society, not just the soldiers who fight the battles. He uses onomatopoetic words such as "thump" so that readers can also experience the drumbeats - thus ensuring that the sounds of war reach anyone who reads these words.
"How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."
The final four lines of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" contain the poem's underlying message. According to Whitman, wisdom and knowledge are different. Wisdom comes from experience - the speaker of the poem only learns something about astronomy when he goes out and sees the stars for himself. None of the charts or diagrams that the educated, knowledgeable astronomer shows him can ever be a substitute for the real thing. In this quote, Whitman illustrates his point by painting a vivid image with his words. This way, readers can also experience the stars and "the mystical moist night-air."
"For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, Pioneers! O pioneers!"
In the second stanza of "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," Whitman gives the reason behind his proclamation about the importance of the American pioneers. According to Whitman, these brave pioneers have to explore the great unknown to make a better life for the generations that will follow. He acknowledges that they will face danger, and of course some may die, but the growth of America depends on their ability to fulfill the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
"It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is."
In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman uses the boat as a metaphor for the power of shared experiences to unite people across "time or place—distance avails not." As the speaker makes his daily commute on the ferry between Brooklyn and Manhattan, he thinks of how many others in the future will take the same trip and see the same sights. He places himself in their shoes, and assures them that he has felt the same feelings and made the same wishes. Because of these eternal experiences, the speaker shares an unbreakable bond with all of humanity.
"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?"
These two lines compose the entire poem "To You," one of the last pieces Whitman added to the Inscriptions section of Leaves of Grass. Here, he expresses a sentiment similar to what he espouses in "To a Stranger." Whitman believes that if two strangers have a desire to speak to each other, then they should, regardless of society's expectations. According to Whitman, all humans are connected in some way, and therefore it should not matter whether or not they have spoken or met in the past—after all, there is no time like the present.
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...