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Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" Section 6

Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" Section 6

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Published by: Matthew Webb on Jan 01, 2011
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Whitman: Song of Myself, Section 6
In his poem, ³6. A child said,
What is the grass
?´ Walt Whitman describes aconversation with a curious child. This sixth section of ³Song of Myself´ seems tosuggest that Whitman is trying to explain what grass is but becoming increasingly buriedin his thoughts, while trying to answer the child¶s question, ³
What is the grass?
´ Adeeper reading suggests that the child is a part of the speaker, trying to understand lifeand death. At several points in the work ³Song of Myself´ it appears Whitman tries toconvince the reader that life and death are equally important to the health of the world.In the first lines of the poem, the speaker is talking to a child who asks "What isthe grass?´ at first, the speaker is taken aback by the child's question because he doesn't"know what it is anymore than" the child. As the speaker tries to explain the grass, heuses a series of metaphors in order to arrive at a meaning. He begins by saying the grassmust be a ³flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven,´ (101-102) he seemsto think that the grass is an extension of his inherent qualities expressed as a flag thatgives him hope.The speaker moves onto musing that perhaps the grass is ³the handkerchief of theLord,´ as a ³remembrancer designedly dropt,´ with the Lord¶s name monogrammed atthe corner so we ³may see and remark, and say Whose,´ (103-106) here, Whitmanappears to compare the Lord to a lady dropping her handkerchief to get a suitor¶sattention, in an attempt to persuade people into looking for him. This type of comparisonharks back to some of Ralph Waldo Emerson¶s ideas about finding the divine in Nature,forever looking for the clues God leaves in nature. According to Whitman, the clues arein nature, its up to us to follow them. In the next line, he considers that maybe the grass is
³itself a child,´ the ³babe of the vegetation.´ (107), a common theme in much of Whitman¶s ³Song of Myself´ is procreation; he didn¶t just see people or living things participating, rather, the entire world. The speaker then goes on to say, ³I guess it is auniform hieroglyphic´, during Whitman¶s time, Egyptian hieroglyphics we¶re mysteriousin nature since nobody could decipher what they meant. Many people considered Egypt amysterious place full of ancient secrets, such is the grass to the speaker, it¶s always beenthere in his mind, however he doesn¶t know what exactly it means, it¶s a mysterious partof life that has a different meaning for different people. The speaker goes on to explainthe nature of the grass, ³sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones´, the grass doesnot judge people, and it is simply there. The grass knows no race or class; everyone is of equal standing with the grass.Whitman connects the grass to humans even more, ³it seems to me the beautifuluncut hair of graves,´ this line uses the ³ashes to ashes´ Christian philosophy that peoplecame from ashes and shall return to ashes when they die. Whitman plays on this bycomparing the grass to hair, as though the ³hair of graves´ is the hair of the dead stillgrowing. He continues,³Tenderly will I use your curling grass,It may be that you transpire from the breasts of young men,It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers¶ laps,And here you are the mothers¶ laps´ (111-115)
Whitman personifies the grass by explaining the grass is connected to everyone, the grassis everyone. According to his perception of death, everybody who has died isreincorporated into nature. The mothers who died before they were able to raise their child are once again able to help their children. When their children are on the grass, theyare able to sit in their mother¶s ³laps´ he goes on to say the grass is ³very dark to be fromthe white heads of old mothers / Darker than the colorless beards of old men,´ althoughthe grass is young, it is made from the deceased who came before us. Whitman then says,³O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues, / And I perceive they do not come fromthe roofs of mouths for nothing´ in these lines the speaker has gone from guessing andsupposing to perceiving, he is a little bit more certain of these statements since he has perceived them himself. As he sees all these different people talking, he decides therewas a reason they came about, not just on a whim, but a calculated effort to bring forwardlife.The speaker wishes he could, ³translate the hints about the dead,´ he pretends to be unable to decipher the hints, except he does so later in the poem. These lines seem to be an attempt by the speaker to feel meek as though he isn¶t able to quantify the qualitiesof the grass. Although the ³Leaves of Grass´ was originally published in 1855, Whitmancontinued to amend and edit his work up until 1891, in the lines, ³What do you think has become of the young and old men? / And what do you think has become of the womenand children?´ he seems to be referring to his participation in the American Civil War asan army nurse. While in the army, Whitman saw several wounded soldiers who oftendied from surgical complications after amputations.

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