Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the main characters in Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass | Character Analysis



The Walt Whitman persona is not the same as the historical Walt Whitman. Whitman introduces the persona in the first poem of Leaves of Grass, "Song of Myself," saying, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." He asserts himself as an omniscient speaker, a poet able to insert himself into any narrative and understand every person's life. "I am large," he says (in "Song of Myself"), "I contain multitudes." This persona is pure fiction, a mythical creation. Whitman also creates a counterpoint persona who questions this mythic, omniscient persona. This counterpoint persona is, for example, the one who mocks the main persona's measly accomplishments in "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life." These personas form a complex narrative identity, wholly different from the author Whitman.

Abraham Lincoln

Whitman's speaker eulogizes Abraham Lincoln in several poems, describing him as both his captain (in "O Captain! My Captain!") and his star (in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"). Whitman rarely singles out individual people, choosing instead to speak to a collective, but he does make an exception for Lincoln whom Whitman felt was an outstanding example of a man who lived for liberty.


Whitman wanted to be able to interact with his audience face to face, which is why his speaker often addresses readers directly as if he expects them to respond, frequently using rhetorical questions. In "A Song for Occupations" Whitman's speaker laments the limitations of print—"the cold types and cylinder and wet paper"—as a medium. He wrote his poems to be read aloud and discussed so that America could absorb them as Whitman's narrative persona has absorbed America.

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