See also the poets.org Guide to Leaves of Grass
1. Why does Whitman use a blade of
grass to symbolize his poems?
Among many other reasons,
Whitman considered each of his poems
to be a separate leaf or blade of grass
- because they were divine (though
- because they were symbolic of life
and cycles of birth and death (ever renewed) and
- because they were significant both
individually and in the mass.
2. What are some characteristics of Whitman's
use of free verse?
- Lack of metrical regularity and
- Use of repeated images, symbols,
phrases, and grammatical units as substitutes for regular rhythm and rhyme
- Use of enumerations and catalogs.
- Use of anaphora (initial repetition)
- Use of varying line lengths with
varying numbers of syllables per line. Critic Gay Wilson Allen identified
the Whitman "envelope": identified a short beginning line, long middle
lines, and a short ending line.
- Idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation.
3. What kinds of vocabulary does Whitman use?
Whitman's vocabulary borrows from
- carpentry and construction (kelson)
- military and war terms
- nautical terms and terms related
to the sea
- businesses and professions
- flora and fauna of America
4. What is the structure of "Song of
There are many possible answers to this, but according to Malcolm Cowley, the true structure of the poem is
not logical but psychological--more like a musical progression. Cowley posits a nine-part structure for the poem:
1-4 . Hero introduced to the audience,
leaning and loafing at ease. He lives outdoors and worships his naked body.
- 5. The ecstasy--rapturous union of poet
and soul, described as sexual union. Sense of loving brotherhood with God
and all mankind--eyes open for the first time.
- 6-19. The grass. What is the grass? It symbolizes
the miracle of common things and divinity of ordinary persons. Keynote:
- 20-25. The poet in person: Hankering,
gross, mystical, nude--poet of body and soul, night, earth, sea, vice,
etc. The poet venerates himself as august and immortal but so is everybody
else. This sequence ends with a dialogue between the poet and his power
- 26-29. Ecstasy through the senses. Poet
sets out in a new direction: he decides to be completely passive. He hears
first quiet sounds, then experiences the ecstasy of hearing, then starts
over again with touch, finally rising to the ecstasy of sexual union--a
union actual, not figurative, this time.
- 30-38 . Power of identification. After
the first ecstasy (in 5), the poet was granted a microscopic vision that
enabled him to find wonders. This ecstasy allows him to see telescopically
and spiritually, far into space and time. The secret to this ability is
the power of identification. Since everything emanates from the universal
soul, he can identify himself with every object and person: He is massacred
with the Texans at Goliad, he walks the decks of the Bon Homme Richard,
and he dies on the cross.
- 39-41. SUPERMAN. The poet, like Indian
sages emerging from state of samadhi or absorption, feels gifted with superhuman
powers. He is answerer, healer, and prophet.
- 42-50. The Sermon: The poet is about
to offer a statement of doctrines. Society is full of injustice but the
reality beneath is deathless persons (42); it accepts and practices all
religions but looks beyond them (43). It is the fruit of ages (44), and
her recognizes that the final goal is appointed (45). He must wash the
gum from his listener's eyes (46) but each person must make the journey
alone. He is (47) a teacher of men who work in open air and (48) not curious
about God but sees God everywhere. All is to be reborn in different forms
(49) as the poet harks back to the period after one of his 10,000 deaths
- 51-52 Poet's farewell.