When it comes to discussing American poetry, it is almost de rigueur to mention Walt Whitman. He is undeniably one of the most read and controversial poets the country has known. Among Walt Whitman’s greatest works, we have the poem “Song of Myself”, which contains 52 sections. It was published in 1855 and later expanded under “Leaves of Grass” poetry collection. The most important and memorable moment of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is portrayed in section “6”, when a child with his hands full of grass asked the question: “What is the grass?” This question institutes the central symbol of the poem and the response to this question lifts the veil on the meaning of the entire poem: human society, the cycle of growth and death and principally the symbolism of the grass as a representation of democracy as a way of life.
The symbol that guides the poem is patently the grass and the entire poem is organized around this symbol. When a child manifests himself with his hands full of grass and questions the poet: “What is the grass?” (5); the poet is not able to answer the question but refuses to let the question unanswered as he continues to deeply ponder the meaning of the grass. Whitman is able to solve this central enigma by comparing the grass to different components of nature and the society. First, Whitman responds to the child’s question by saying” How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. “(5) This answer places the reader and the poet at the same level as both are not able to answer the question. By assuming that he did not have the answer to the question, Whitman embarks us with him on a journey to discover the meaning of the grass. He also uses a non-authoritative language by using “Or I guess” (5) and “or”(5), letting the reader being comfortable about his ability to help the poet to find the answer.
In his first attempt to answer the question, Whitman confers a godly and vital nature to the grass. Whitman refers to the grass as a “handkerchief of the Lord” (5) and he implies that the grass is a reminder of God. He also refers to the grass as “a child, the produced babe of vegetation” (5). The grass appears, here, as a metaphor embodying the birth of a child and representing a new life.
In the second place, Whitman compares the grass to the human society. He refers to the grass as a uniform hieroglyphic in the line “Or I guess it is hieroglyphic” (5). For Whitman, the grass symbolizes the equality of all people and things, as humans are equal and differ only by their personality and race. In the next line, he adds: “And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,” (5) Whitman’s intention in this line is to show us that the grass grows everywhere, and, in the same way, people live everywhere. Even if there is a distinction of race and physical condition among humans, they are the same; and, this idea, Whitman conveys it in the line: “Growing among black folks as among white.” He then adds: “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the / same, I receive them the same.” (5) Through this line, Whitman conveys that humans regardless their job, race, will live and die the same way. Furthermore, Whitman says: “It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, /It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken,” (5). Whitman shows that the grass which starts out as seed, needs attention in order to grow; in the same way, a human baby cannot survive by himself, he needs the assistance of an adult in order to grow. From all these images, we could easily notice Whitman’s definition of an egalitarian society and also his engagement in the protection of the right of individuals in a society based on equality for all citizens. Whitman has an immense expectation of democracy in America because this political form of government respects the individual.
In the second part of the poem, Whitman starts by revealing the mortuary aspect of the grass. He stops celebrating life and explains death through the symbol of grass. Whitman stands among graves covered with grass, contemplating the area of the cemetery. This is a metaphor for the correlation between humans and nature. Death, feared by humans is omnipresent in our life. Whitman suggests to the child to not fear death because, “there is really no death” (6) For Whitman, the grass growing among graves in the cemetery is “beautiful uncut hair of grass” (5). This, to testify that, even, in the presence of death, Whitman estimates life as beautiful. Whitman explains to the child that there is a life after physical death.
“They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,” (6-7).
From these lines, Whitman considers that the grass could regrow at the same spot and he refers to this new growth, he calls sprout, as a new birth, leading to the creation of new generations. Whitman links this fact to the cycle of life and suggests that it “goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,” (6). Whitman conveys that, even after the death of a human, his life continues.
The omnipresence and universality of grass as a symbol of life and productivity, the variety of creatures which are equally and intimately linked to the grass, lead Whitman to consider it as a perfect symbol for embodying democracy. Also, when we look deeper, the symbol of grass appears to be the medium through which, Whitman sends his call for a spiritual transformation in the society. According to many critics, Whitman’s goal was to be the poet of the common people. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Whitman uses the grass, the most common plant, as the foremost symbol in his poetry.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Kindle edition.
Vitale, Tom. “Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ Marks 150th Anniversary.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web.
21 Feb. 2014.