Table of Contents
2. Leaves of Grass as a ground-breaking American story
3. The role of grass in Song of myself
3.1 Individuality as a spear of grass
3.2 Knowability of Nature
3.3 Usage of symbols and ecology in the poem
“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” (Leaves of Grass, ix)
That is what Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s greatest Transcendentalists, had to say about his colleague Walt Whitman in a letter he wrote to him about Leaves of Grass which was later added to copies of Whitman’s book.
It supports the fact that Walt Whitman was and is one of America’s most interesting persons and poets. His work survived over the ages, and not just because he was one of the first poets to use free verse and talk about themes that were seen as inappropriate and scandalous at the time (e.g. sexuality and equality), but also because in my opinion everybody can get lost in his words, even people who don’t usually appreciate poetry. I myself encountered his works first while reading John Green’s novel Paper Towns which contains quotes from Leaves of Grass and the American television series Breaking Bad in which Whitman and his work play a key role. One can see in those examples how his work lives through time and still inspires people.
In this paper I would like to concentrate on one of his most important poems: Song of Myself - an exploration of the author himself, nature and his surroundings - especially the symbolism of “grass” in it. This symbol is most commonly found in the sixth paragraph of the poem, in which a child asks the narrator what the grass is and he doesn’t really have an answer himself, but tries to respond anyway (see Whitman 5). The general theme in Song of Myself is the question of being- “What is the meaning of life?” “Why are we all here? “. Whitman tries to abstractly answer those questions for himself, especially considering how frail Americans must’ve felt on the brink of the Civil War and over the controversy of the slave trade (c.f. Reynolds 10).
So my theory is that the grass in the poem symbolizes humanity and life, but also death and decay, which is in a way a stark contrast – but also makes total sense after you’ve read the whole poem, because it all connects in the life span of a human being.
Structure-wise I would like to start with classifying Leaves of Grass in American Literature, and to put the title of the book in context with the usage of grass in the poem.
In the main part of the paper I am of course going to focus on the grass – how it’s used and what it means, spanning themes of individuality, knowability of nature and ecology, also using theoretical approaches by Greg Garrard, W.J.T. Mitchell and Lawrence Buell.
2. Leaves of Grass as a ground-breaking American story
Like I’ve explained above in the Introduction, Walt Whitman was a revolutionary artist and I’m going to state why. Whilst Europe had their Renaissance mainly in the 15th and 16th century and focused on reusing the Roman and Greek culture, the American Renaissance referred to the European Renaissance as well as the Ancient arts. The main themes were self-identity and Spirituality (cf. Lorberer 275). Walt Whitman was one of the artists influenced by the Renaissance and his themes of nature, which were used by a lot of poets and writers, were common these days. You can’t call Walt Whitman a Transcendentalist per se, as he didn’t call himself that and also distanced himself from the great Transcendentalists of his time, like Henry David Thoreau, who found Whitman to be quite odd and rather common because of his middle-class upbringing (see Killingsworth 23). Whitman himself found Thoreau to be rather prudish which was quite contrary to Whitman’s treatment of themes like sexuality (especially homosexuality), which sparked quite the outrage at that time (see Killingsworth 23). The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman says that the transcendentalist influence on Whitman was most visible in the Leaves of Grass preface of 1855 and in Song of Myself and that he later developed his own unique voice and was inspired by the visual arts, especially photography (cf. Killingsworth 23). Not only did he practically invent poetry anew with the topics he wrote about, but also with the way he wrote them: he was the first poet to use free verse, extraordinarily long lines and repetition (cf. Killingsworth 24). In the words of Killingsworth: “Leaves of Grass is a culture-bearing book that thoroughly transforms the forces of nineteenth-century artistic expression and carries them forward into modernity.” (23). That’s why his poems are still relatable today, because he had a very modern worldview and you can feel this in his poem. I think that in a way he carved the way for modern writers by opening the public up to conversation about topics seen as disastrous – that’s why he was such an important American writer and is still an inspiration to people all over the world.
One of the most distinguishable facts of Leaves of Grass is that it was published six times, starting in 1855 when Whitman was thirty-six years old until the rest of his life, each time containing new poems or new content in some way (see Killingsworth 1). Whitman also renamed some of the old poems (although the first edition did not include titles for the poems - see contents page of Leaves of Grass). Nowadays it is rather ordinary for authors or publishers to “renew” their work and publish new editions when they feel the need to, but back then it was revolutionary.
Whitman additionally chose the title of his book deliberately: Leaves of Grass is in my opinion meant as a pun or a word-play. One usually doesn’t label a strand of grass as a leaf, which usually means the leaves on a tree or a bush. He also meant it as the leaves of a book, so the pages of the collection itself, a book that is essentially written about nature and grass. I think he wants the readers to hold it in their hands like they would hold a piece of grass. I conclude that he would want the reader to treat the book like they would treat a plant, but also that the collection of poems is some kind of escape from the outside world. The highest goal for Transcendentalists was to be one with nature, and while Whitman can’t be labelled as a classic Transcendentalist I think he wanted people to notice and cherish nature more – that’s why he offered some sanctuary in his book. He also compares a small thing like a blade of grass with a huge tree, thus he probably wanted to show that in his world – in his works – all the small things are as equally important as the big things, if not even more.
The poem he chose as the first one to follow his preface was Song of Myself, which didn’t have a title in the 1855 published version of Leaves of Grass (see Killingsworth 26). He just wrote the preface and then directly started with the poem, which probably led to a lot of people believing the poem was called Leaves of Grass. It makes sense in a way because grass is the main topic in Song of Myself. I believe that he probably wanted to name the poem like the collection but later decided against it, because it’s not the only poem in the book. Although the title confusion just really shows how important the poem is for the whole collection and for Whitman himself. Furthermore, in the 1856 published version of Leaves of Grass Whitman gave the until then unnamed first poem the name Poem of Walt Whitman, an American (see Greenspan 118). It is not often that a poet gives a poem his name plus it gives the impression that the poem is written entirely from the narrative and perspective of Whitman himself. Through the name change to Song of Myself he distanced himself from the poem in a way, because I think it is important to state that the voice of the poem and Whitman, despite having similar thoughts are not the same “person” or character.
It additionally is the longest poem he ever wrote and has the best spot in the whole collection which highlights the importance once again and shows the reader how much the poem meant to Whitman. Kenneth Cmiel states it like this is his essay Whitman the Democrat: “The book opens with one of the most evocative portraits of a protean self in modern literature. What we now call “Song of Myself” (none of the poems were titled in the original version) is a dramatic paean to a self inventing itself.” (220). He basically means that the first poem is an ode to reinventing oneself and I see it like Whitman wanted the reader to reinvent themselves through reading his book and immersing themselves in his words.
3. The role of grass in Song of myself
To fully grasp Whitman’s understanding of grass would take longer than fifteen pages, but I am going to try to gather the core points, starting with his thoughts on individualism and the role of individuals in society. I am then going to continue with the knowability of nature, referring to the sixth paragraph in particular, where the narrator is guessing his way around a seemingly easy question but quickly thinks about the bigger picture. To finish it off the biggest part of the analysis will be the theme of symbolism and ecology with theoretical background by Garrard, Buell and Mitchell.
3.1 Individuality as a spear of grass
One first comes across the term “spear” in the fifth line of Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.” (Whitman 1). I argue he is observing the grass because it shows the parallels to the actions and thoughts of human beings. He is pondering the meaning of humans and especially his own purpose on earth. This expression is also used at the very beginning of the poem when the author could use a different expression for a single “piece” of grass. In my opinion the word spear is used deliberately – it could also mean the weapon spear. I think it means that the spear is fighting on his own against the “host” of the other spears of grass. This could be the parallel to society and to the individual Whitman is aiming for.
All the single spears of grass together make a meadow– meaning there is always a group of people you can depend on, like your close family and friends. But in the end of the day everybody fights their own fight in life. One can get help from them, but one must live their own life, no one can do it for another person.
If one thinks even more abstract, if a spear of grass gets mown down what happens with the other grass around it? Usually it’s torn down as well because it’s really hard to just cut down one specific piece of grass. In comparison confronted with the death of a best friend or relative a human being gets torn down as well. Usually there’s a grief period (longer or shorter, it usually depends on the relationship between the dead and the mourning person) but most often the person gets over it eventually and in many cases, comes out even stronger. So is the matter with grass, it grows again most times.
The grass also looks the same if you look at it from the distance, but if you look at each strand individually it becomes clear that it’s not! It looks all green and even but if you observe a single strand of grass you can see some brown spots or some cuts.
The same goes for society, we are the same if you look from afar but if you look at everyone individually there are some distinguishable features about everyone individually, starting with skin color and ending with birthmarks.
Supplementary you could look at the life cycle of grass and compare it with the life cycle of a human, which also supports my starting thesis. The grass grows and wakes with the sun every day and one day just wilts away. That is the life cycle of a grass blade. With humans, it is very similar, one is born, then grows and wakes up every day to go to work or spend the day otherwise. After some time of growing up and hopefully finding some purpose, one dies and comes back under the earth. I think it’s also there to remind the reader of his or her own mortality. Referring back to the beginning of this chapter and Whitman’s words, a blade is also a weapon used for killing people. That must not mean that the grass itself is killing people, but the life is still coming back to the earth in the end whether it’s in the form of dead grass or corpses. In a way death is the fertilizer of life.
3.2 Knowability of Nature
How does anyone just begin to describe nature? It’s such a widespread and complex topic it’s hard to do so. That’s the same problem Walt Whitman and his narrator face in the sixth paragraph of Song of myself:
“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?I do not know what it is any more than he.”(5)
The guessing of the narrator becomes the topic of the whole paragraph following the question – and while I will go in depth of his answers in the following chapter I would like to concentrate on his lack of knowledge. Children usually ask rather innocent questions as is the case here, but the respondent can’t answer the question any more than the child can answer it for him- or herself. So, the narrators’ knowledge or opinion of grass and in a wider sense of nature is the same as that of an infant. Whitman also supports his not-knowing of nature with the repetition of the phrase “I guess”:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
Or I guess the grass is itself a child
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, (5)
With the help of that anaphora he really states his lack of knowing and shows that he just assumes what he is about to say and he really has no idea where his guessing is going to take him and what answers he’s going to find both for the child and for himself.
The same can be said about his use of the words “uniform hieroglyphic” (see 5). Something that is uniform is literally the same, something homogenous, so he does know that he is talking about something that is at its core practically the same. But then he puts the hieroglyph into play – a hieroglyph is something hard to decipher without some knowledge of the subject. This illustrates once again his unknowing of the theme.
He not only repeats himself in the above cited lines, he also reiterates the statement “It may be” thrice as well as “I perceive” (see 5). Both again are used to stress his unknowing and lack of explanation for grass and nature.
The things he uses to explain what he thinks that grass is are also rather random in normal circumstances, like “the flag of my disposition” or the “handkerchief of the lord” (Whitman 5). Only through his usage of those expressions I think he realizes what he wants to express by using those images and what he wants to say besides explaining what grass is. Those expressions are also not imaginable, so it is up to the fantasy of the reader to make of them what they want. So he practically can’t answer the child who surely doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Harold Bloom says about his avoiding of a solid answer: “Poetically, he does answer, in a magnificent series of tropes (…)” (2). If we are to trust Bloom’s judgment on this matter, he does answer but in which way? Like I have already stated – in the form of expressions or tropes that don’t answer the child but that the reader really must think about. I think everyone can answer the question “What is grass?” for themselves and whilst not being as abstract and sophisticated as Whitman, in my opinion the guesses he gives are the way or the solution to a real answer. He wants to challenge us to think above and beyond when it comes to such a seemingly simple question and answer.