Whitman’s Poetry

Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols

Plants

Throughout Whitman’s poetry, plant life symbolizes both growth and multiplicity. Rapid, regular plant growth also stands in for the rapid, regular expansion of the population of the United States. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman uses flowers, bushes, wheat, trees, and other plant life to signify the possibilities of regeneration and re-growth after death. As the speaker mourns the loss of Lincoln, he drops a lilac spray onto the coffin; the act of laying a flower on the coffin not only honors the person who has died but lends death a measure of dignity and respect. The title Leaves of Grass highlights another of Whitman’s themes: the beauty of the individual. Each leaf or blade of grass possesses its own distinct beauty, and together the blades form a beautiful unified whole, an idea Whitman explores in the sixth section of “Song of Myself.” Multiple leaves of grass thus symbolize democracy, another instance of a beautiful whole composed of individual parts. In 1860, Whitman published an edition of Leaves of Grass that included a number of poems celebrating love between men. He titled this section “The Calamus Poems,” after the phallic calamus plant.

The Self

Whitman’s interest in the self ties into his praise of the individual. Whitman links the self to the conception of poetry throughout his work, envisioning the self as the birthplace of poetry. Most of his poems are spoken from the first person, using the pronoun I. The speaker of Whitman’s most famous poem, “Song of Myself,” even assumes the name Walt Whitman, but nevertheless the speaker remains a fictional creation employed by the poet Whitman. Although Whitman borrows from his own autobiography for some of the speaker’s experiences, he also borrows many experiences from popular works of art, music, and literature. Repeatedly the speaker of this poem exclaims that he contains everything and everyone, which is a way for Whitman to reimagine the boundary between the self and the world. By imaging a person capable of carrying the entire world within him, Whitman can create an elaborate analogy about the ideal democracy, which would, like the self, be capable of containing the whole world.