Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassGreat Are The Myths Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | Great Are the Myths | Summary

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Summary

Whitman's speaker catalogs what he finds great, starting with myths and historical figures and moving on to abstract concepts such as liberty, equality, and democracy. Then he begins to list opposites that are great such as youth and old age, day and night, expression and silence. For several stanzas, he goes on about truth and how vital it is. He then moves on to the greatness of language, law, and justice. Finally he addresses the need for balance between good and evil, and life and death.

Analysis

In "Great Are the Myths," Whitman uses paradoxical statements, which his speaker explicitly acknowledges at the end, to comment on the necessary balance of the universe. One cannot experience the greatness of life without death or the greatness of good without wickedness. He states: "Great is wickedness ... I find I often admire it just as much as I admire goodness. / Do you call that a paradox? It certainly is a paradox."

Democracy is one of Whitman's main themes, but here he does not advocate for his usual poetic utopian democracy like he does in poems such as "Song of the Answerer." Instead, he is more realistic, praising the process of democracy, which is often messy with its "plunges and throes and triumphs and falls." That is not to say he does not also lift poetry up above all other pursuits—he does. He claims language "is the mightiest of the sciences" and "greater than wealth ... religions or paintings or music." For in poetry (specifically his poetry), one finds "the fullness and color and form and diversity of the earth" and its citizens.

It is no accident Whitman placed this poem last in his original publication of Leaves of Grass. It was his way of suggesting that he, too, is great and that America would soon discover his greatness.

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