Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassA Song For Occupations Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | A Song for Occupations | Summary



Whitman's speaker calls to his readers like he would call to a lover, pleading for meaningful exchange: "Push close my lovers and take the best I possess / Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess." He speaks to his audience as an equal, saying, "Neither servant nor a master am I." He encourages everyone to see their own worth and value, no matter their station in life or their past deeds. He sees people for who they are inside, and not just their labels, be it race, gender, age, religion, or occupation.

The speaker questions why people tend to respect established institutions above all else. He does not say "they are not grand and good—for they are," but he expresses his love for the contributions of his "fellows upon the earth."

He then catalogs all the various items used in a wide variety of occupations, and says it is the people who work through the tools to create the end result and give them their value. He will only "make as much of them" as he does "of men and women" when, for example, "the psalm sings instead of the singer."


The speaker acknowledges that the medium of print is not exactly the most intimate. He would prefer not to have "the cold types and cylinder and wet paper" between him and the reader. Whitman likes reading poetry aloud, so his words could fall over the listener and create "a contact of bodies and souls."

"A Song for Occupations" preaches Whitman's message of equality for all, no matter one's station in life. Whitman's speaker claims to value the soul of a person over any outward label one might have. He is explicit in terms of gender equality, stating: "The wife ... is not one jot less than the husband, / The daughter ... is just as good as the son."

In fact, Whitman's speaker sees himself as the great benevolent equalizer, with a power akin to a god. "None shall escape me," he says, "and none shall wish to escape me." This is Whitman's democratic ideal: all people working together to realize and appreciate their inherent value, "the wonder every one sees in every one else he sees."

Whitman's speaker argues that man is as divine as nature and creation, as "bibles and religions." Men and women may have been given life, but it is men and women who give the life, meaning they have the power to create. He mentions leaves here to recall the title Leaves of Grass, his idea that every person makes his or her own important individual contribution to the whole. Just as trees produce leaves, men and women produce ideas and objects via their occupations.

Whitman implores the reader to find "happiness not in another place, but this place ... not for another hour, but this hour." In doing so, he extolls the virtue of people valuing what they do while they do it. In the last stanza, Whitman uses anaphora, a literary device of repeating the first word of a line—in this case "when," to give his ending more weight. An excerpt of the last stanza follows: "When the psalm sings instead of the singer, / When the script preaches instead of the preacher, / When the pulpit descends and goes instead of the carver that carved the supporting desk ...".

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