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Leaves of Grass: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Connected, yet individual, the poems of Walt Whitman stand together in his work, 'Leaves of Grass.' In this lesson, we'll take a look at the various sections of this book that served as a lifetime project ffor the author.

Leaves of Grass

When you here the term ''leaves of grass,'' what do you think of? I bet your first choice isn't a poetry collection, is it? Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, may seem an odd name until you realize that the word ''grass'' was frequently used in Whitman's day for literature, and Whitman himself used the word ''leaves'' to describe his pages. Leaves of Grass was born, and what a collection it is!

The first edition was self-published in 1855, spanning a lifetime and multiple editions before Whitman's death. What started as a single volume of roughly a dozen poems concluded with the ''deathbed compilation'' of more than 400 works.

Looking at the Sections

All of the poems of Leaves of Grass celebrate philosophy and humanity and are broken into various sections or standalone entries. Whitman's method of classifying poems, whether singularly or in a section, is a bit unorthodox, so we're breaking things down with grouping by theme.

''Inscriptions''

The poems in ''Inscriptions'' are sort of an introduction, offering an overview resembling a prologue, or introduction, to the book.

''Inscriptions'' touches on themes you encounter throughout, including self, life, nature and politics. The first entry, ''One's Self I Sing,'' offers an overview for the remainder of Whitman's writing. The ''self'' here is not only Whitman, but all of us. The poet writes,

''Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
The Modern Man I sing.''

In this we can see that Whitman plans to cover the topics of man from head to toe, of life and of modern society.

''Starting from Paumanok''

The best place to begin is always at the ''start,'' such as ''Starting from Paumanok.'' Whitman details his own life in this poem, giving readers a peek at his own biography.

''Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother;''

Whitman starts his poem with this line, twisting and turning through his life, at last encouraging readers to spread his ''leaves'' to all generations everywhere.

The picture Whitman paints in this piece is not only his personal journey, but a road map through the remainder of his book.

Celebrating the Individual

One of the book's most well-known works, Whitman advocates for self in ''Song of Myself.'' It's not just the physical presence, but the emotional and mental being. It's the way a person recognizes him or herself individually, as well as in relation to others and to nature.

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

Whitman is telling us not only to celebrate self, but that each of us are interconnected. He supports that idea by talking about people he has met along his journey, reinforcing the idea that though individuals, we are also part of a collective and the natural environment.

Children of Adam

Whitman uses references to the Bible and the Garden of Eden, which details the relations and relationships between man and woman. The section is full of sexual overtones about the human body. To Whitman, sexual intimacy is sacred physically, but also spiritually.

From ''I Sing the Body Electric,'' we see Whitman showing reverence to the male and female form:

''The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,''

''Calamus''

In this section, Whitman touches on the theme of homosexuality. The works here specifically deal with not only friendly or familial love between men, but sexual feelings.

''We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going - North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying - elbows stretching - fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless - eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,''

The name ''Calamus'' is a fitting choice because it is taken from Greek mythology, the story of a man, Kalamos, grieving over the death of his male lover.

Joined Together

From ''Crossing Brooklyn Ferry'' to just before ''Drum-Taps,'' Whitman spends some time talking about individuals as a collective unit. In ''Song of the Broad-Axe,'' the poet speaks on people and places who, together, make up a single idea:

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