Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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

Leaves of Grass | Symbols



In Leaves of Grass shorelines represent a place of emotional stability for Whitman. He goes back to his beloved Paumanok in his most confessional poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life." In "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life," Whitman's speaker "wended the shores" he knew to ponder if he is at most "a little wash'd up drift." Finally he concludes that to the ocean of life, all are but drifts.

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is his mythical origin poem. In it, the grown-man speaker throws himself "on the sand, confronting the waves" as he remembers the experience that made him a poet as a child. The grown man comes here, to the shoreline, to reassure himself that he is, indeed, a poet. It was here, too, on this shoreline where he first encountered the birds that taught him the language of empathy. Once the female of the pair disappeared, Whitman's speaker listened intently to the male's lament, a lament that awoke his poetic spirit. And "in the moonlight on Paumanok's gray beach" the sea whispered to him the sweet song of the secret of death.

In "On Blue Ontario's Shore" Whitman sits by the shoreline to commune with the Phantom and deliver a poem "that comes from the soul of America."


Vegetation in Whitman's poems symbolize the cycle of growth and change. The lilacs in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" are especially emblematic of this cycle, a cycle that inevitably ends in death. In the poem, the "ever-returning spring" brings lilacs every year. In the prime of its life, the lilac is "tall-growing" with "every leaf a miracle." Later, Whitman breaks off a "sprig of lilac" to lay on Lincoln's coffin, a symbol of its diminishing purpose. When Whitman finally comes to understand death, the lilac is absorbed into Whitman's own soul.

Of course, it is not surprising to find plants turn up in a poetry collection named Leaves of Grass. In "Song of Myself," the first poem of the 12 that make up the original edition of Leaves of Grass, a child asks Whitman's speaker, "What is the grass?" The speaker answers him, "I guess the grass is itself a child ... the produced babe of the vegetation." In this way, Whitman cleverly points out to the reader directly that plants are symbols of the cycle of life in his work. He goes yet further with his grass metaphor, pointing out that grass seems to be like "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." In an endless cycle of life and death, grass and other plants decompose to form fertilizer for new plants to grow. And finally, Whitman's speaker gives himself over to "the dirt" so that he might "grow from the grass" he loves. In this way, he makes himself immortal by surrendering to the cycle, imploring his reader: "If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles." Even after he is gone, Whitman will live on in his leaves of grass.

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