Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassBy Blue Ontarios Shore Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | By Blue Ontario's Shore | Summary

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Summary

While Whitman's speaker sits "by blue Ontario's shore," thinking about war and peace, a "Phantom" asks him to write a poem of America. The speaker declares he sees the nation, accepts it, and reproduces all. He speaks of equality and progress. He describes America's cities and natural wonders, and the people. He says that while "others adorn the past," he adorns the present and the future.

He gives the requirements of a poet. A poet is "the equalizer of his age and land." A poet "sees eternity in men and women." A poet "walks in advance" for the "great Idea," for the great idea "is the mission of poets." He then asks questions that determine a poet. And in doing so, he answers that he should be America's poet: "Give me to sing the songs of the great Idea." He declares it is not America that is great, but he (and all its individuals). He swears to uphold his part as a poet.

The bards of old visit, but he rebukes them, saying, "Bards for my own land only I invoke."

Analysis

The speaker sits by the shoreline, which to him symbolized a place of emotional stability. And indeed, both he and America needed a respite from roiling emotions after the American Civil War, which he explicitly states in line 2 of Section 1: "As I mused of these warlike days and of peace return'd, and the dead that return no more." His emotional rest is quickly interrupted, however, by a "phantom" who demands from him a poem "that comes from the soul of America."

What follows is rhetoric about what kind of poet America needs to unite it and speak for it. Whitman's goal was to break from past literary tradition and create a new American one. "Rhymes and rhymers pass away," his speaker says in Section 13, but "he or she is greatest who contributes the greatest original practical example." In Section 20, on behalf of America, he rejects "the loftiest bards of past ages" and invokes only "bards for [his] own land." This bard will be the "Bard of the great Idea." The word "great" here recalls Section 15, in which Whitman declares himself as "great." The meaning is clear: Whitman is America's great poet and poet of the great Idea.

But Whitman not only champions his persona here, he also champions an America made up of individuals. In Section 15 he says, "The American compact is altogether with individuals." He also speaks directly to the individual American, addressing him or her as "You" and saying, "The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual—namely to You." This gives the American individual a mighty challenge, which he articulates in Section 3: "Produce great Persons, the rest follows."

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