"Thoughts" is a collection of Whitman's thoughts on several different subjects, separated into numbered sections. In the first section, Whitman considers people. He thinks about digging deeper and getting to know things better, rather than just glancing at their "visages." He thinks about ugliness, because he believes (and accepts) that ugliness is just as important as beauty. He wonders about "detected persons" and criminals, stating his belief that everyone has the potential to become a criminal, including the President.
The second section is about nature. The speaker ponders water, forests, hills and beautiful sights, in addition to all of the innovations human beings have added to the planet. In the third section, he reflects on people whom society honors, and argues that prizes do not affect the nature of a person's body or soul. He observes that these "persons of high positions" often live in false realities, which he proclaims to be "sad." He also describes them as perpetually "walking in the dusk."
In the fourth stanza, the speaker reflects on ownership and equality and wonders why society deems it fair for certain individuals to have more rights than others. In the fifth section, the speaker describes sitting at a feast when suddenly, he starts thinking about an a shipwreck in the ocean and all the people drowning. He wonders whether the soul can survive after death, or if it dies with the physical body. In the sixth section, he ponders the act of writing - both his own and others'. He wonders if written history is as "complete" and "lasting" as his own poems, as "shreds" of recorded incidents could end up representing the narrative of an entire nation. In the final section, he wonders why human beings are so inclined to follow leaders who do not care about their followers' individual livelihoods.
Per Whitman's typical style, this poem is in free verse and does not follow a specific meter or rhyme scheme. It is organized into seven stanzas, or sections, each of a different length. This poem is another example of Whitman's beloved list format. The whole poem is a list; each section deals with a different issue that Whitman is currently pondering. Most of the opening lines begin with "of," as the speaker describes the subject that weighs most heavily in his mind at that moment. Whitman does not specify the context in which he is thinking about these topics, except in section five. Here, he starts imagining a shipwreck while at a feast where music is playing. It is possible that the revelers at the feast inspired Whitman's questions about humanity and the soul.
These musings are not particularly cohesive. Instead, Whitman provides his readers with small, disjointed glimpses into his mind. He poses questions without answers, forcing the reader to consider the same quandaries that occupy his own thoughts. Many of the thoughts in this poem refute certain societal conventions. For example, in the first stanza, Whitman claims that everyone has the potential to become a criminal, even the President.
In section three, Whitman denounces people in high positions. He espouses the opinion that material wealth rots the "core of life," and that people who strive for these external markers of success are living in false realities, distanced from their humanity. Whitman stresses his belief that happiness comes from truth and reflection and not from money or social status.
Whitman wanted his poems to speak to the human condition and universal truth, and he is hardly the first poet to declare his own work immortal (Shakespeare did it, too). However, Whitman goes so far as to claim that his poems are more important than recorded history. He supports his claim by calling history "shreds, the records of nations," while his poems are universal and apply to any person from any nation - without any omissions.