Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassThere Was A Child Went Forth Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | There Was a Child Went Forth | Summary

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Summary

A child inspects the objects (and people) he encounters in the world and as he does, he becomes them. Some objects stay with him "for many years or stretching cycles of years" and others fade after a day or a moment. Whitman's speaker catalogs these objects, as varied as "early lilacs" and "the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse." After cataloging them, the child feels they are a part of him. These objects are also now a part of the reader.

Analysis

Whitman does not refer to his speaker persona as the first person "I" in this poem, but as a child in the third person, a departure from most of the poems in Leaves of Grass. To argue the poem might possibly contain some autobiographical content, scholars point specifically to the image Whitman paints of the father: "The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure." The similarly fraught relationship Whitman had with his father is well documented, and he may have expressed his feelings about it via his speaker persona.

As he gets older, the objects the child catalogs go from the concrete, such as plants and animals and people in his immediate environment, to the more abstract, such as motherly love and existential doubts ("Whether that which appears so is so ... Or is it all flashes and specks?").

As he ponders all of that which is "flashes and specks" in the world, he concretely describes these objects, giving the reader vivid imagery such as the "schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide," the "hurrying tumbling waves," and "the long bar of maroon tint away solitary by itself." These three images benefit from personification to make them more immediate to the reader: the schooner is sleepy, the waves hurry, and the clouds purposely isolate themselves. Whitman specifically draws from the wonders of the natural world because every reader, no matter their station, has experienced nature. Humans' experience of nature unifies them with all humankind, making it a democratic force in Whitman's eyes.

By observing and describing these objects, Whitman's speaker has done his job as a poet—to immerse himself in them, making them concrete to himself despite his earlier doubts. He says, "And these become of him or her that peruses them now," meaning he has also made them concrete to the reader. These objects become images that are now immortal because they live on in his poetry.

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