Course Hero. "Leaves of Grass Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 Dec. 2017. Web. 23 Oct. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/>.
Course Hero. (2017, December 7). Leaves of Grass Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "Leaves of Grass Study Guide." December 7, 2017. Accessed October 23, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/.
Course Hero, "Leaves of Grass Study Guide," December 7, 2017, accessed October 23, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Leaves-of-Grass/.
Whitman's speaker sees a tree growing in Louisiana that reminds him of himself: "rude, unbending, lusty." But whereas the tree seems to "utter joyous leaves" even by itself, the speaker asserts that he could not do the same. As a souvenir, he breaks off a twig and places it in his room. The twig reminds him "of manly love." Again he reflects that although the tree seems happy "without a friend or lover near," the speaker could not be so happy.
This is a poem from Whitman's "Calamus" cluster, a group of poems said to express homoeroticism. Although many Whitman scholars contend he was not openly homosexual, he never married and is rumored to have had several male lovers over his life. Through this lens, the twig and the tree itself can be interpreted as a phallic symbol. The tree "glistens" while it utters "joyous leaves," words perhaps meant to bring to mind a man's orgasm. That the speaker chose a natural object to compare himself to speaks to his belief that homosexuality is a natural desire.
The poem is short and has two "scenes": one in the past tense, in which Whitman's speaker views the tree, and one in the present tense, in which Whitman's speaker views his souvenir twig and remembers viewing the tree. He ends each "scene" the same way: with a statement on how surprised he is that the tree is coping so well alone. The first time he admits, "for I knew I could not." And the second time he adds the word "very" to adamantly emphasize his inability to do so: "I know very well I could not." And yet "utter joyous leaves" is precisely what the individual voice does. This is an interesting moment in which the voice seems to deny the very thing that, in poetic terms, it enacts.