Walt Whitman: Poems

Walt Whitman: Poems Summary and Analysis of "As I Ponder'd in Silence"


As the poets sits pondering his past work and his career, an eerie specter appears. He learns that this is the "the genius of poets of old lands," whom he describes as "terrible in beauty, age, and power." The genius observes the poet as he reflects on his past and asks him menacingly, "what singest thou?" There is only one theme for "ever-enduring bards," the phantom claims, and that theme is war. Only the words of poets who write about war can ever stand the test of time. The poet responds proudly that he does write about war, but a much grander and longer war than any other poet has ever attempted to address. This poet writes about the whole world, which is a battlefield encompassing struggles between life and death, body and soul. This is what sets him apart, and what will allow his words to endure.


"As I Ponder'd in Silence" is one of Whitman's introductory poems in Inscriptions, the first book in Leaves of Grass. Whitman proposes a thematic connection between the subsequent verses in his collection and ancient epic poetry. As the creator of modern-day epic poems, Whitman presents himself as an heir to that great tradition - a contemporary bard and successor to Homer and Virgil. This poem consists of two free-verse stanzas, made up of eleven and seven lines respectively.

This poem is the first in which Whitman writes from a first-person perspective. Although Whitman meant for the ambiguous speaker of the poem to represent himself, the character simultaneously fulfills a broader, more symbolic function. This is the first instance of Whitman employing himself as a character who also serves as the "Democratic self." Whitman emphasizes the poet's dual purpose through his interaction with the phantom character. The other-worldly phantom, whom Whitman explicitly describes as representing the genius of his predecessors, adds another dimension to the character of the poet. Whitman portrays himself as both man and myth, poet and prophet.

While the phantom means to draw a parallel between Whitman's work and the ancient epics, Whitman suggests that his poetry carries more significance than the work of the "ever-enduring bards" who came before him. Rather than writing about transient battles, victories, and losses, he writes about an all-encompassing war, a struggle "for life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul." He has taken on a much more difficult task than all the poets before him: life and all its trials and tribulations.

To conclude his poem, Whitman places himself above all previous poets, claiming, "I above all promote brave soldiers." For Whitman, men and women can prove their worth outside of a literal battlefield, although several of his poems are inspired by Civil War soldiers. For the purposes of this poem, though, a brave soldier is any person, male or female, black or white, facing the struggles of life. Undoubtedly, Whitman himself often felt like one of these brave soldiers of life.