Walt Whitman is today recognized as one of the most seminal American poets of the 19th century. His poetry explored concepts of transcendentalism in a realist style that has endeared him to readers over a century after his death. In addition to transcendentalism, Whitman is recognized for his thematic exploration of American ideals. In works such as Leave of Grass, these tropes are articulated in masterful ways. This essay examines Whitman’s implementation of American themes and ideals in his extended poem ‘Song of Myself’.
One of the major American themes Whitman explores in his work is the articulation of natural imagery. While contemporary American society has increasingly drifted away from its perception as a land of untapped wilderness, during the 19th century period Whitman was writing in vast amounts of territory were still unsettled. Whitman articulates this natural imagery when he writes, “The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and/ dark-colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn” (Whitman). Here Whitman is speaking of the nature of his life and his surroundings. Through referencing the nature of ‘green leaves’ and ‘dark-color’d sea-rocks’, Whitman is referencing this traditional American theme of untapped wilderness.
Another prominent American theme in the poem surfaces in Whitman’s symbolic implementation of grass. In section six of the poem, Whitman begins his meditation on the nature of the grass after a child inquires about it. Whitman then explores a number of symbolic connotations regarding the grass. One of the notable stanzas occurs when Whitman writes, “Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,/And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,/ Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I/ receive them the same” (Whitman). The phrase uniform hieroglyph indicates that the grass is a universal symbol that grows throughout the region. The grass is also indicated to not discriminate among the individuals it grows amongst. In these regards, Whitman’s implementation of grass in this context has taken on the American notion of democracy. Just as the grass grows throughout the nation amongst various groups of people, so does democracy represent the collection of a diverse array of ideas. Later Whitman implements the grass to represent the remnants of individuals who died during the Civil War. Consider Whitman when he writes, “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” (Whitman). In these regards, the ground on which the individuals died and decomposed is now covered by the overgrowth of grass and vegetation. This is a powerful image of American history.
In conclusion, this essay has considered Walt Whitman’s use of American themes. The essay has demonstrated that Whitman uses nature to represent the traditional American theme of untapped wilderness. Similarly, Whitman implements grass as a symbol of both American democracy and the deceased souls of individuals that died during the Civil War. Ultimately, Whitman’s poetic articulations represent powerful examples of the 19th-century American spirit.
Baym, N. (2008). The Norton Anthology: American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton