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Common Questions on Walt Whitman

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

2. What are some characteristics of Whitman's use of free verse?

  1. Lack of metrical regularity and conventional rhyme
  2. Use of repeated images, symbols, phrases, and grammatical units as substitutes for regular rhythm and rhyme
  3. Use of enumerations and catalogs.
  4. Use of anaphora (initial repetition) in lines
  5. 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.
  6. Idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation.

3. What kinds of vocabulary does Whitman use?

Whitman's vocabulary borrows from these disciplines:

  1. anatomy
  2. astronomy
  3. carpentry and construction (kelson)
  4. military and war terms
  5. nautical terms and terms related to the sea
  6. businesses and professions
  7. flora and fauna of America

4. What is the structure of "Song of Myself"?

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. 1-4 . Hero introduced to the audience, leaning and loafing at ease. He lives outdoors and worships his naked body.
  2. 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.
  3. 6-19. The grass. What is the grass? It symbolizes the miracle of common things and divinity of ordinary persons. Keynote: I observe.
  4. 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 of speech.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 (50).
  9. 51-52 Poet's farewell.