Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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

Leaves of Grass | Themes



Reading poems aloud was Whitman's preferred method for a reason: reading aloud makes poems inclusive and communal, creating a democratic, shared experience. The free-verse form of Whitman's poetry also underscores his democratic message: boundless lines stuffed with randomly arranged lists of the diverse people of America, all equal and good in his eyes. In "Song of the Open Road," his speaker persona asks the American public to join him on the open road. "Will you come travel with me?" he asks. The road itself stands for true democracy since it is "open" to anyone to travel on, regardless of social standing.

"A Song for Occupations" is one of the poems preaching Whitman's message of equality for all, no matter one's station in life. In it, Whitman claims to value the soul of a person over any outward label one might have. "Do you give in that you are any less immortal?" his speaker persona asks. As the poet of the American people, Whitman sees himself (or his persona) as a benevolent equalizer: "None shall escape me," he says, "and none shall wish to escape me." This speaks to Whitman's democratic ideal. He wishes for all people to realize and appreciate their inherent value and everyone else's, saying, "the wonder one sees in every one else he sees."

In "Great Are the Myths" Whitman acknowledges that the processes of democracy are often messy, with "plunges and throes and triumphs and falls." But democracy is worth going to battle for, as his speaker states in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" He says, "Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united." Here he envisions an enterprising people, ready to follow the great American poet and his idealized vision of democracy.

Unity versus Individualism

As much as he believed in an egalitarian, collective, and democratic society, Whitman was a champion of the diversity of individual contributions to the whole. As such, he proposed that for an individual to have a fulfilling life in a collective society, each must express his or her own uniqueness. The varied viewpoint each individual brings is an essential component of what makes America great. "Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else," he says in his poem "I Hear America Singing."

In "By Blue Ontario's Shore" he expands on this idea, saying a nation must "produce great Persons, the rest follows." He declares, "it is not America who is so great," but "You" (his individual audience members). He goes on to say that individuals are formed though poems, and "The American contract is altogether with individuals." In other words, only by each person pursuing his or her own greatness can a nation become great.

One of Whitman's favorite ways to catalog the remarkable diversity of America is to create long lists in his poems. He believed no one person's contribution was greater than another's, so his lists are not hierarchical but seemingly random. He uses this technique in poems such as "Song of the Open Road" and "I Sing the Body Electric."

In many ways, the tension between unity and individualism in Leaves of Grass is almost paradoxical. Whitman's speaker claims to promote unity and yet also has a tendency to withdraw and set himself apart. In "Song of Myself" the speaker asserts unity but later he also confesses: "To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand." In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman alternates in distance between feeling a shared closeness to his fellow man ("I am with you ...") and feeling alienated from them ("how curious you are to me!"). This deep thematic conflict can even be found in his mythical origin story, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Even as he claims to be a poet for all ("A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die."), he focuses on the "lone singer," saying: "O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, / O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you."


Even though each human is unique, shaped by a variety of characteristics including race, social status, and geographical living situation, all humans are united in their experience of the natural world. Nature was a democratic and unifying force for Whitman. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," for example, Whitman's speaker views the sunset and realizes all people share this experience, no matter their station or time period.

Whitman often uses natural elements as extended metaphors in his work to show how nature is a shared experience. For example, in "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life," the ocean is a great mother who treats all her children equally. They are "brought hither, we know not whence," and they finally "lie in drifts" at her feet, regardless of who they are.

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