Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassSong Of The Answerer Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | Song of the Answerer | Summary

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Summary

A young man comes to visit Whitman's speaker; he has a message, but he's also seeking answers. Whitman's speaker answers "for the poet." The speaker makes a list of all the different people who accept him as he accepts them. These people run the gamut from beautiful women, to the president, to workers in the field. They see themselves in him: "the mechanics take him for a mechanic" and "the authors take him for an author." He finds their inner beauty and transforms them so that "they hardly know themselves, they are so grown."

Analysis

In "Song of the Answerer," the "answerer" in question is the poet, and more specifically an additional and separate Whitman persona that is part of his complex narrative identity. In the previous poem in the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, "Faces," Whitman asserts that poetry is the "finish beyond which philosophy cannot go," and this poem continues that idea. Whitman's speaker states here, "Books friendships philosophers priests action pleasure pride beat up and down seeking to give satisfaction." By jumbling the philosophers in with the rest, he puts them on equal footing but below the poet, the only one to offer ultimate satisfaction. The poet offers ultimate satisfaction because he can see into individual souls, reveal them, and transform them.

At the end of the poem, Whitman's speaker seems to contradict his previous assertions about the poet "answerer" offering the ultimate satisfaction. "It would be good to be a writer of melodious verses," he says, but then asks, "But what are verses beyond the flowing character you could have?" He is admitting to a limit in his power because though his poetry can encourage change, ultimately it is up to the individual to act and perform "affectionate deeds." Whitman's speaker cannot do the actual "growing" for anyone but himself. This is another assertion of withdrawal, in this case from his previous assertion of transcendent unity. It ties into the larger tension in the poem between unity and withdrawal.

As in many of his other poems, Whitman uses repetition, lists with no particular hierarchy, and anaphora to create a form that supports his democratic message.

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