Tag Archives: leaves of grass

“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

It took me quite a while, but I finally finished reading all of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. My overall feeling is that I now have a deep sense of who Walt Whitman was and what it was like to be an American during that period in history.

Whitman’s poems parallel his own journey through life, from youth to old age, as well as the coming of age of America as a country. I see the poems structured into four categories: youth/pre-Civil War; early adult/Civil War; adult/post Civil War; and old age/the future.

The earlier poems reflect a youthful optimism, both for himself and the young America. The poems exude wonder and the promise of infinite possibility. Whitman captures the growth of the new country and is thrilled by everything that it has to offer.

Then came the Civil War and the poems take on a sense of boldness as he struggles to make sense of the chaos around him. Common themes of turbulent waters appear in these poems, as he must have felt himself tossed about by the throes of war. During this period, Whitman served as a medic and witnessed first-hand the graphic horror of warfare.

When the war ended, Whitman was a mature adult, and the poems from this period reflect this maturity as he ponders the change in America. The assassination of President Lincoln at this time also figures prominently, most notably in “O Captain! My Captain!” (see my earlier blog post about this poem).

Finally, in old age, Whitman’s poems become reflective on his past, his earlier writings, and the future. He meditates on what his legacy may be and what lays ahead for the country that meant so much to him. He sums this up beautifully in the poem “L. of G.’s Purport”:

Begun in ripen’d youth and steadily pursued,
Wandering, peering, dallying with all–war, peace, day and night absorbing,
Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task,
I end it here in sickness, poverty, and old age.

I could continue to write about the poems in this book, but poetry should really be experienced on a personal level. I encourage you to buy a nice hardcover or leather-bound version of this book and spend the time reading through it. It may not be the greatest collection of poems ever written, but I would venture to say it is the greatest collection of American poems ever written.

Comments Off on “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

Filed under Literature

“The Sleepers” by Walt Whitman

I read this poem today while sitting outside under a shady tree in my backyard. I think that reading Whitman outdoors adds to the experience.

The general metaphor running through the poem is that of sleep representing death. I found myself drifting back to Shakespeare: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Whitman also equates awakening with rebirth in a way that makes me feel that Whitman believed in the concept of reincarnation. Finally, sleep is portrayed as the great equalizer, to which all must at some point succumb.

There is one particular word that caused me to contemplate this poem more deeply, and that is “infolds” in the following line: “The night pervades them and infolds them.” Now, it’s possible that Whitman meant “enfolds,” but I’m not convinced, and “infolds” changes the meaning completely for me. I see enfolding as enveloping and covering, as opposed to infolding which I interpret as folding in upon oneself, more like internalizing. So if you look at the line like that, death causes one to infold and internalize all of the physical self into the spiritual self, or the internal. This would be similar to the concept of your life flashing before your eyes at the moment of your death.

Click here if you’d like to read this poem online, but you may want to print it and read it while sitting outside under a tree.

Comments Off on “The Sleepers” by Walt Whitman

Filed under Literature

“There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman

Last night, I was reading poems from Leaves of Grass and came across “There Was a Child Went Forth” (click here to read it online). The poem essentially talks about how everything that a person comes in contact with, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has an impact on that person’s development. Essentially, we are the combined imprints of all that we have been exposed to. I truly believe this myself, and as a result have always sought to experience as much of life as possible and to try new things.

There was a particular stanza that resonated with me:

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

Reading this as a parent, I couldn’t help thinking about how much of an influence I have on my children. Thankfully, I seem to have had a positive impact on their lives, since they are doing far better than I was when I was their age. I suppose that is the best I can hope for, to give them a good foundation before they go forth on their own path through life.

Comments Off on “There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman

Filed under Literature

“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

I have been slowly working my way through Leaves of Grass, reading some poems between other books, or when I feel inspired. This morning I read “O Captain! My Captain!” which I was first exposed to in the film “Dead Poets Society.”

In the poem, Whitman expresses his feelings of loss over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is the Captain, who navigated the ship (America) across the turbulent sea (the Civil War). The poem is more structured than most of Whitman’s poems, and the rhyming scheme and rhythm makes it feel like a funeral dirge.

This is a short and very accessible poem, even though it is instilled with strong emotion. If you have not read it, then you should. It’s a must-read.

Click here to read the poem online.


Filed under Literature