Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | A Boston Ballad | Summary



Whitman's speaker imagines attending a protest march like a patriotic parade complete with the "stars and stripes" and "Yankee Doodle." But it takes a dark turn as ghosts of the past, "antiques" with "cocked hats of mothy mould" and "chattering bare gums" show up. The speaker tells these "old limpers" to retreat to the hills—they do not belong.

What he suggests does belong is a trip to England and "dig out King George's coffin" to paste King George's bones back together again so Congress can bow down to him.


Whitman gets political in this poem to protest the mishandling of the case of escaped slave Anthony Burns in 1854, wherein a federal judge decreed Burns should be returned to his owner. Because Boston was strongly abolitionist, masses came out to jeer at the marshals who were charged with escorting Burns back to the ship. Whitman has been criticized for supporting the Fugitive Slave Law, but he saw this law as an issue of states' rights. What he objects to in this poem is not the return of Burns but the federal intervention into a matter that should be settled between states.

Whitman uses a sarcastic tone to compare the government's intervention in the Burns case to a surrender to their tyrannical past under King George III (the king of England at the time of the American Revolutionary War)—both unthinkable acts to a real Boston patriot, in his mind. The "you" in this poem is not the reader but the federal government.

Whitman's speaker imagines the patriots who fought in the American Revolution being so upset by the federal government's tyranny that they rise from their graves to witness the travesty. Whitman chides them, again sarcastically, telling them not to bother because they will not find justice, only disappointment.

By using a sarcastic tone in "A Boston Ballad," Whitman distances the reader from the plight of the flesh and blood slave. While in "Song of Myself" Whitman allows his speaker to personally identify with a captured slave like Burns, he keeps "A Boston Ballad" focused on abstract policy and not on concrete human suffering.

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