This poem begins with a child asking a simple question: "What is the grass?" The speaker muses that it is hard for him to answer the child, since he hardly knows any better than the child does. He goes on to ponder possible responses to the query. First, he calls the grass "the flag of my disposition," woven from his own hopes. Then he calls it the "handkerchief the Lord," intended to remind us of His power. Next he muses that the grass is also child (of the vegetation). He then calls it a "uniform hieroglyphic," pointing out that it grows around all people regardless of race or identity. Then, he writes that the grass seems like the "beautiful uncut hair of graves."
He pronounces that he will "tenderly use" the grass, considering the possibilities of its origin. It may have come from the breasts of young men whom he might have loved. It may have grown out of the remains of old people, women, or children who died too young. He remarks that the grass is very dark to have come from the white hair of old mothers or the colorless beards of old men. The speaker wishes he could translate the grass' hints about the individuals who lie beneath it. He asks for the reader's opinion on what happened to these men, women, and children but then answers his own question. He decides that they are alive and well somewhere; the sprouts of the grass indicate that death is not permanent because it leads to new life. He then concludes that death is different and much "luckier" than he had previously believed.
As is common in Whitman's work, this poem does not have a formal rhyme scheme or structure. It is made up of stanzas of differing length, written in a stream-of-consciousness style. The undisciplined structure (or lack thereof) supports the concept of this poem, in which the speaker struggles to respond to a child's innocent question: "what is the grass?" Occasionally there are one-line stanzas that often begin with "I guess" or "it seems," which suggest that the speaker is describing the different answers as they enter his mind, rather than forming one complete and thorough assessment. Though the majority of the poem is made up of the possible ways to define the grass, the third-to-last stanza contains the speaker's own question - what has become of the dead buried in the ground? In the following two stanzas, he answers this question himself.
This poem contains traces of the democratic ideals that resonate throughout Whitman's poetry, notably in the stanza in which he suggests that the grass is a "uniform hieroglyph" that can unite people regardless of race, occupation, or social status. He reminds his reader that nature connects all human beings and the divisions between us are superficial. The line "I give them the same, I receive them the same" represents Whitman's recommendation that human beings take a cue from the grass and treat one another equally.
Death is a major theme in this poem, which takes the child's innocent query into a much darker place. Whitman incorporates all facets of the human condition into his poetry because, in his opinion, death is a major part of life and nature. Whitman showcases his belief that death marks a beginning rather than an ending. The grass grows, dies, and is reborn in a constant cycle, and Whitman believes that human life is the same.
Like in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman makes something mundane, like grass, seem extraordinary and unusual. He takes this seemingly inconsequential object and imbues it with meaning, making it a symbol for the human condition. By doing this, he challenges his readers to take a moment to ponder the world around us -just like children learning about nature for the first time.