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Leaves of Grass

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English Literature

Leaves of Grass (1855) is a poetry collection written by famous American poet and writer Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass as a poetry collection changed the course of American history politically, artistically, and perceptually. It's famous today as one of the most influential texts on perception of the American wild.

The text is also seen as Whitman's greatest contribution to free verse poetry, and many have dubbed Whitman "the father of free verse". Sensual, delightful, vulnerable, and controversial, Leaves of Grass is, and shall remain, one of the most influential books in American history.

Pro tip: Before reading this Leaves of Grass article, become familiar with Walt Whitman! Leaves of Grass was Whitman's life's work and is fairly autobiographical. It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with an author before exploring their work.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman: at a Glance

PublishedLeaves of Grass was a book that Walt Whitman worked on and updated until his death in 1892. It has several publication dates from its first edition in 1855 to what is known as the Deathbed Edition in 1891-92 (though Whitman did not publish the Deathbed Edition himself).
AuthorWalt Whitman (1819-1892)
Key ThemesTranscendentalism: the self, oneness, spirituality, the body, cosmic awareness or consciousness. Mysticism. Romanticism in Nature: The American wild, the body as nature, the rugged mountain man persona. Politics: Democracy, the Civil War, race. Sensuality, sexuality.
Notable Poems'Song of Myself', published untitled in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, 1855.
'I Hear America Singing', published in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, 1860.
'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', published initially in 1865 and then included in Leaves of Grass in the fourth edition.
'O Captain! My Captain!', published initially in the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass, 1867.
'I Sing the Body Electric', published in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, 1855.

Check out StudySmarter's Walt Whitman for more notable poems and their descriptions!

Leaves of Grass Historical Context

Walt Whitman wrapped up all formal education at age 11 and began writing in his early teens. When Whitman was a

Leaves of Grass, Image of Walt Whitman  , StudySmarterImage of Walt Whitman, 1887. Wikimedia Commons.boy, he worked for various print shops, publications, and editors to try to help his family financially. Through these jobs, he was exposed to high-quality writing and began writing poetry and editorials.

Walt Whitman began writing Leaves of Grass as early as 1850, and claimed that he was going to write a new American epic similar to those made famous in Greek mythology.

Whitman certainly set out desiring Leaves of Grass become a popular work, with heavy influences from the Transcendentalist, Realist, and Romantic movements of the time.

By 1855, Whitman had made his first bound copy of Leaves of Grass, which he later self-published. Though the first edition of Leaves of Grass was not vastly well-known, it gained the interest of a select few writers that really boosted its popularity upon its second edition, including famous Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Transcendentalism was a movement that originated in New England in the nineteenth century. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were two well-known voices that aided in founding the movement. Transcendentalists are bound by the belief in the oneness and innate goodness of humanity and living things.

Walt Whitman cites the theatre and the opera as being incredibly influential on his work, and has been quoted as saying that without the opera, Leaves of Grass would not have existed. Leaves of Grass was published (and republished, and published again) during one of the most influential eras of American history.

There are so many historical events that influenced the content of Leaves of Grass, that it would be difficult to name them all, but listed below are some key events mentioned and written about in the collection.

Influential Events and Movements

The American Civil War (1861-1865)

The American Civil War took place during Whitman's early- to mid-40s. Whitman's brother, George Whitman, was injured in Virginia early on in the war, and Whitman traveled to Virginia to help with the war efforts there. Whitman was a supporter of the Union army and an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln, but he believed that absolutes and extremes of opinion should be avoided on both sides of the conflict.

After helping his brother in Virginia, he moved to Washington D.C., where he became a volunteer army nurse. Whitman was able to settle in Washington for 10 years, making his living as a government clerk after the war. He treated soldiers on both sides of the conflict, forming a very intimate relationship with a man named Peter Doyle, who was revealed to be one of his lovers after his death. The Civil War dramatically impacted Whitman's poems and is further explored later in the article.

Presidency and Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Walt Whitman was an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln and wrote about him frequently in Leaves of Grass. Lincoln's assassination and presidency was the inspiration for famous poems 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1867) and 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' (1865). Whitman was greatly affected when Lincoln was assassinated and, later in his life, wrote a lecture series about Lincoln that he delivered to various audiences from the years of 1879-1890.

Transcendentalist Movement

The Transcendentalist movement came into existence in the 1830s, when Walt Whitman was a teenager. Much of his poetry is influenced by the Transcendentalist movement and, in particular, poems about the self, nature, and oneness draw a lot of their belief structures from Transcendentalism.

Both Emerson and Thoreau met Whitman during their lifetime and encouraged his work. Emerson was instrumental in Leaves of Grass gaining popularity and interest during Whitman's lifetime, and became well acquainted with America's most famous poet.

Community of Famous Writers

During Walt Whitman's lifetime, he met famous writers from all over the globe, Thoreau, Emerson, Oscar Wilde, and Amos Bronson Alcott. These writers were in communication frequently and constantly praised and critiqued each others' work.

The community that Whitman built around his writing certainly made his writing what we know today as much of his work is focused on the philosophical and theoretical belief structures associated with Emerson and Thoreau.

Book Banning

Leaves of Grass was controversial at the time of its publication. Walt Whitman's sensual and erotic work scandalized many readers of the time, and publishers, writers, and critics alike advised Whitman to remove some of his more erotic poems from the collection. Emerson was one such individual who suggested that Leaves of Grass might not do too well with its explicit content. In 1882, the Boston District attorney Oliver Stevens banned Whitman's 1881 edition because its contents (specifically, 'A Woman Waits for Me' (1856), 'To a Common Prostitute' (1861), and 'I Sing the Body Electric' (1855) violated "the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature."1 Whitman found a way around this book banning, and refused to alter his content. But Leaves of Grass is still seen as one of the most erotic free-verse works in American history, as Whitman invented the genre.

Leaves of Grass Summary

Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetry by American poet Walt Whitman. The first edition contained only 12 poems, while the final edition of the work contained over 400 poems. Throughout Whitman's lifetime, many editions of Leaves of Grass came into existence, both published and unpublished, finished and unfinished.

In summarizing Leaves of Grass, one aims to summarize Walt Whitman's life's work, a nearly impossible task. Here, several main themes and collections within Leaves of Grass have been broken down get a better understanding of the work. The complete works and poems contained in Leaves of Grass at the end of Whitman's life are used to summarize the work below.

Important Literary Contexts

Prose Introduction

Most of Walt Whitman's published editions of Leaves of Grass contain a prose introduction in which the poet discusses his work and experience. Whitman's most famous prose introduction (from the 1855 edition) contains an exploration of Whitman's love of the United States and what they stand for.

Whitman goes on to state that poets are needed in the United States more than any other country of the time and that poets more than anyone would influence the politics of America. He also discusses the use and importance of beauty in poetry and the ways in which he desired Leaves of Grass to be read.

Whitman discusses himself and his transcendent nature and mentions how this nature is present throughout the collection. The quotation below is a fairly good summary of Whitman's prose introduction in this edition.

An individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which make a superb nation. The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets. The signs are effectual. There is no fear of mistake. If the one is true the other is true. The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."2

Transcendentalism

Some of Walt Whitman's most famous poems that incorporate Transcendentalism are 'Song of Myself' (1855), 'I Saw in

 Leaves of Grass, Book cover , StudySmarterLeaves of Grass, 1855 Edition. Wikimedia Commons.Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing' (1861), and 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer' (1867). These poems all explore the interconnectedness between the individual and the "other".

'I saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing' is about the need for companionship between the speaker and their world, and focuses on the interconnectedness between one's interior world and the exterior world.

In 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer', the speaker hears people talking about math and science and perceives it all as superficial, instead turning to the stars themselves to mull over the human experience, believing in both the vastness of the universe and the vastness of the self.

'Song of Myself' is a poem about embodiment and living in the human body, embracing both the individual and the connection that the individual has to the world around him. Below is a quotation of the first three stanzas of 'Song of Myself' from the 1891 publication of Leaves of Grass.

There is Transcendentalist messaging in these stanzas indicated in the lines where the speaker indicates his connection to nature. Line three is a good example of this. It is well-known that Whitman's speaker in 'Song of Myself' is Whitman himself, and this is certainly his most famous poem.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death."

Romanticism

Walt Whitman was also one of America's most famous Romantic poets. Some qualities of Romanticism include glorification of nature, Romantic Nationalism, the supernatural, and elevating the self as a holy thing. Nearly all of Whitman's poems incorporate Romanticism, as he aided in the creation of the genre.

It is difficult to select specific poems from Leaves of Grass that embodied Romanticism more than others, but the poem entitled 'A Child Said, What is the Grass?', appearing in section 6 of 'Song of Myself', is a poem that explores the elevation of nature and the self as holy and able to contemplate beauty. Whitman's influence on Romanticism was vast and greatly influenced the movement through poems such as 'Song of Myself'.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be 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."

In this quotation from section 6 of the 1891 version of 'Song of Myself', Whitman elevates nature (the grass) as something that is beyond plant or animal. This quotation embodies Romanticism by indicating that nature is something that is interconnected with the bodies of young men, particularly those who have died and been buried. The poem then goes on to explore more and more thoroughly how nature is something that is a part of humanity and the spirit as opposed to something separate.

Romantic Nationalism is different from modern understandings of Nationalism, in that it refers to a form of Nationalism where the power of the state arises organically due to the unity of the people that it governs. Whitman utilizes Romantic Nationalism to exemplify the power of the unifying forces that come from a people that share similar beliefs.

The American Wilderness

Walt Whitman wrote about American wilderness when wilderness was still seen as something to be tamed. Whitman's engagement with wilderness was one of the things that influenced American perceptions of wilderness as something untouched by man into the 21st century (this is not the case, of course, as man is a natural creature and there were people living in the American wilderness long before settlers arrived).

Whitman explored the distance between the human body and the wild. Whitman's speaker in Leaves of Grass is one of the classic mountain man and American pioneer, and yet breaks down the distinctions between the natural and unnatural.

Whitman was known to be a poet of the Southern Landscape, writing about animals, plants, and mountains as features of nature that enlighten the soul. Whitman explores this connection between wilderness and humanity in 'Song of Myself', Section 31:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars

In this quotation from 'Song of Myself', Whitman explains the enlightenment that he has received from exploring the interconnectedness between man and nature throughout the poem. The speaker goes from not knowing how to explain a leaf of grass to a child in Section 6 of the poem, to firmly believing that this aspect of nature comes directly from the stars themselves. This is a very spiritual line, connecting cosmic work and intention with the perception of the speaker.

Politics

Walt Whitman's collections Drum-Taps, Sequel to Drum-taps, and Memories of President Lincoln were all about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the general political atmosphere of America during Whitman's lifetime. Whitman was a Nationalist who believed the United States was the best country to live in, and supported its ideals such as democracy, though he believed strongly in the two-party system.

Whitman invested himself and his poetry heavily in his political beliefs and voted consistently. Some famous poems from his collection Drum-Taps include 'Beat! Beat! Drums!' (1861) and 'Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun' (1865).

One of the more political poems in Leaves of Grass was the poem 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', written about the assassination of President Lincoln. This quotation is taken from the 1865 publication of the poem, and demonstrates Whitman's love of writing about politics.

With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac."

These lines indicate the speaker's grief over the loss of president Lincoln and demonstrate the respect that the speaker has for the late president in the sprig of lilac.

Eroticism and Sensuality

Leaves of Grass' most controversial theme is its sensuality. Walt Whitman's affection for the beauty of the male body got him in trouble with publishers and critics during his lifetime, and Leaves of Grass is without a doubt deeply interested in pleasures of embodiment.

Whitman references nudity, sex, and sensuality of the self in Leaves of Grass, incorporating these experiences into both politics and nature. Poems such as 'I Sing the Body Electric' and 'A Woman Waits for Me' are examples of poems that Emerson himself suggested Whitman remove in order to appeal to the American population.

Whitman's sensuality and eroticism are experiences that are spiritual and intimate for the speaker in many of his poems, and aren't just about sex between people. Commonly, Whitman's experience of nature itself and being a (particularly male) human in nature expresses itself in poems that are somewhat erotic.

Below, some lines are listed from the 1865 edition of the poem 'I Sing the Body Electric'. These lines are sensual and explicit in their connection to the body and the sexual nature of Whitman's Speaker.

I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching

Leaves of Grass Brief Poetic Analysis

Leaves of Grass was written as a collection of poetry that was genre-bending. Some of the notable stylistic elements (though certainly not all) included in Leaves of Grass are Free Verse, prose rhythm, and symbolism.

Devices Used in Leaves of Grass

Free Verse

Walt Whitman is sometimes dubbed "the Father of Free Verse" as a result of his contributions to the genre of free-verse poetry. Free Verse is a catch-all style of poetry that doesn't rhyme or have a specific meter. It incorporates the freedom of the poet's choice in terms of sonics, meter, rhyme scheme, and other poetic devices.

Whitman's contributions to the genre can be seen throughout Leaves of Grass, as much of his poetry reads as prosaic, not bound by rules. Leaves of Grass incorporates the themes of freedom and exploration of individuality while allowing Whitman to demonstrate those same things through form.

Prose Rhythm

As there are no prescribed structures to most of Whitman's poems, he uses a prose rhythm in most of his poetry to explore the narrative aspects of his individual poems.

Whitman's language is certainly musical and has a sonic quality to it that makes it easy to follow and listen to, but it is not stereotypically "poetic", as it relies heavily on grammar structures commonly associated with prose such as end stops, long lines, and narrative storytelling. The use of prose rhythm in his work allows him to explore the long poem form as well. As his lines tend to be longer, the poems themselves are generally longer.

Symbolism

Leaves of Grass was written immediately before the Symbolist movement in France in the late 1800s. Walt Whitman and the Symbolists had much in common, both using sensory perceptions to engage with the universe, and moving away from traditional poetic norms. Whitman uses plenty of symbols throughout his work, including grass, drums, the lilacs, the sky, etc. Many of Whitman's use of symbolism was integrated into the fabric of his poetry with expansive claims about the nature of the universe and humanity.

Leaves of Grass Famous Quotes

Walt Whitman has a lot of famous quotations in Leaves of Grass. Mentioned below are some of the more memorable quotations from 'Song of Myself':

I am large, I contain multitudes.

This quotation is from 'Song of Myself', Section 51 and is a good example of Whitman's transcendentalist beliefs. One of Whitman's most famous quotations, it explores the ways in which the individual (Whitman, in this case) is a thing that is spiritually vast, containing multitudes in the way that the universe does, as there is a microcosm of a universe within the self. In this quotation, there is a communication between the self and the spiritual exploration of the universe as well as an understanding of the self as something holy.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

This quotation, revitalized in the film The Dead Poet Society in 1989, is from Walt Whitman's poem 'O Me! O Life!', published in 1891. It explores the theme of death and the legacy that we leave behind as people who exist in the play of life.

This is, of course, a layered quotation, as Whitman was referring to the art that we all contribute to as a larger symbol and metaphor for life. This was published in the year before he died and was clearly a commentary on mortality.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

From the opening lines of Leaves of Grass, this quotation taken from 'Song of Myself' notes how Whitman celebrates his body and individuality while simultaneously celebrating the connection that he feels all humans share. This is another quotation exemplifying Whitman's Transcendentalist influences.

Leaves of Grass - Key takeaways

  • Leaves of Grass was written by Walt Whitman in 1855, and was published and republished in about nine editions over the course of Whitman's lifetime (1819-1892).
  • Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass to be a new American epic, and intended for it to become popular.
  • Leaves of Grass concentrates on many different themes, including Transcendentalism, Romanticism, sensuality, nature, and politics.
  • Whitman changed norms for poetry and poetic writing through his use of free verse, prose rhythm, and symbolism.
  • Whitman's most famous poem is 'Song of Myself' (1855). This poem incorporates his Transcendentalist influences as well as his interest in the individual and nature.

1 Geoffrey Saunders Schramm. "Whitman's Lifelong Endeavor: Leaves of Grass at 150". Humanities. 2005.

2 Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. 1855.

Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass was a book written by Walt Whitman that is primarily focused on the connection between the individual and nature, as well as politics, Romanticism, and sensuality. 

Leaves of Grass was banned as a result of its sensuality and eroticism. It was banned by the District Attorney of Boston in 1882 for violating t"public statutes concerning obscene literature". 

Leaves of Grass is unique because it changed the genre of poetry in America. Through Whitman's political, Transcendentalist, and Romantic engagements in the text, it became one of the United States' most renowned works. Whitman also used free verse, prose rhythm, and symbolism to make Leaves of Grass stand out as no work of American poetry had before. 

Some of the main themes of Leaves of Grass include Transcendentalism, Mysticism, Romanticism in nature, the American wild, politics, and sensuality.

Leaves of Grass changed the ways in which poetry about the American wilderness and individual was written. It influenced policy decisions, publishing decisions, and perceptions of the American pioneer. Leaves of Grass helped transition the Transcendentalist movement to the Realist movement. 

Final Leaves of Grass Quiz

Question

When was Leaves of Grass first published? 

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Answer

1855.

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Who wrote Leaves of Grass?

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Answer

Walt Whitman

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Question

What genre did Walt Whitman initially want Leaves of Grass to be?

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Answer

An epic poem.

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What are some themes that Leaves of Grass explores? 

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Answer

Sensuality, politics, nature, Romanticism, Transcendentalism. 

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Question

What war dramatically influenced Whitman's life and work?

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Answer

The American Civil War

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Question

What are the opening lines of poetry in Leaves of Grass?

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Answer

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." 'Song of Myself', 1855.

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Question

What was Leaves of Grass banned for?

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Answer

Eroticism and sexuality 

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Question

Walt Whitman was known as, "The father of ________". 

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Answer

Free verse

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What are some famous poems from Leaves of Grass?

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Answer

'Song of Myself', 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', 'I Hear America Singing' 

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Question

What famous Transcendentalist supported Whitman's writing and told him to cut obscene poems from Leaves of Grass? 

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Answer

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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