Walt Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892 and is often called
the Great American Poet. He is one of the most influential
and controversial poets in American culture. His poetry
collection Leaves of Grass is famous for it's overt sexuality,
causing quite an uproar at the the time of it's release in
1855. He was a believer in the Temp-
-erance movement, the Abolitionist
movement, and was highly rumored
to be bisexual amongst his peers.
Aboard, at a ship's helmABOARD, at a ship’s helm,
A young steersman, steering with care.
A bell through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing, sadness, melancholy tone
An ocean-bell—O a warning bell, rock’d by the waves.
O you give good notice indeed
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.
For, as on the alert, O steersman, you mind the bell’s admonition,
The bows turn,—the freighted ship, tacking, speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship, with all her precious wealth, speeds away gaily and safe.
But O the ship, the immortal ship! Indicate he admires the ship
O ship aboard the ship! O ship of the body—ship of the soul—voyaging, voyaging,
his body is the ship
The poem is about a young man at the helm of a ship while it is
going through a storm. “O a warning bell, rock'd by waves”
shows it is going through rocky waters and the crew is being
warned. The ship is an allegory for the narrator's life. It tells how
the steersman of the boat acknowledges the dangers ahead and
leads it to safety. While the beginning of the poem contains a
rather sad and cautionary tone, the poem ends on a rather happy
note, with the ship making it out of the waters and the narrator
praising it. And at the end, the boat keeps on voyaging.
Earth! My Likeness
Earth! my likeness!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there, grand in tone
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible to burst forth;
For an athlete is enamour'd of me--and I of him; mutual attraction, sexuality?
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst
forth, compares himself to the earth afraid of this feeling
I dare not tell it in words--not even in these songs. Afraid to be sharing this
“Earth! My Likeness! Is about the narrator being afraid of his
own sexuality. He comments on how the earth is not all it
seems to be “I suspect that is not all”. He tells how an
“athlete” is attracted to him and the narrator to him. He
describes the feeling as “fierce and terrible”, showing that
he truly fears feeling this way. This poem most likely is
referring to Whitman's bisexuality and how he fears to
confirm it to the rest of the world.
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again,
this soil'd world; death will always come just as night will always come
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, man he fought against in the war
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin. - has great
respect for the man
“Reconciliation” is about a man who is attending his enemy's funeral.
He mentions that words will manage to erase all the misdeeds of the
past, wars included (Beautiful that war....utterly lost). By this, we can
infer that he had recently talked to the man and that they had
reconciled and got over their differences. What they did to each other
exactly is not directly stated, but Whitman refers to him as an “enemy'
so there must have been some hostility there. When he kisses his
former enemy's dead face, it is beyond doubt that the narrator has
forgiven the man and has moved on.
Had I the Choice
Had I the choice to tally greatest bards,
To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will, admires the
Homer with all his wars and warriors--Hector, Achilles, Ajax,
Or Shakespeare's woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello-- mentions 3 items for
Tennyson's fair ladies, Meter or wit the best, or choice conceit to weild in
perfect rhyme, delight of singers;
These, these, O sea, all these I'd gladly barter, trade
Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse, invent your own poetry
And leave its odor there. Let it stay there forever
In “Had I the Choice” the narrator contemplates the idea of originality.
He says that if he had the choice to be able to emulate the greatest
poets of history (Shakespeare, Tennyson, Homer) and write exactly
how they do, he would “gladly barter” all these in order to write his
own poetry and “breathe your own breath” on his work. It is not a
message that is meant solely for poetry, but for life. Whitman is
saying that while it is good to admire and learn from history, you
should always strive to be original in what you do.
How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals;)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth; paradox, tone is very questioning
How they inure to themselves as much as to any--What a paradox appears their
How people respond to them, yet know them not;
How there is something relentless in their fate, all times; they always have a
sense of where they're going
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward, they make
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great
“Beginners” is about how young people behave towards the world and
how the world behaves towards them. The narrator calls their
existence a “paradox”, as the young people of the world can be it's
greatest asset and it's potential downfall. He also mentions how they
are often judged by people who do not know them. He then says how
they always have a clear idea of where they're going but then, on a
more negative note, says how when they make a mistake in their
direction in life, they must pay the same price as anyone else. What
that price is is not directly stated, but my guess is that it refers to
At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress'd house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks--with a whisper,
Set open the doors O soul.
Tenderly--be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh,
Strong is your hold O love.)
“Invocation” is about the experience of the narrator learning to open
himself up and how he fully accepts it and is ready for it. His whole
life has been spent in safety (“powerful fortress'd house”) and he is
ready to let go of it (Let me be wafted). He is taking his time with it,
though, as he tells his soul to not be impatient. The poem is most
likely referring to love but could be about a number of things. It could
be about letting go of fear of social anxiety or to let him try and
accomplish his dreams. The last line “Strong is your hold, O love”
does seem to indicate the poem is about love.
I Saw In Louisiana a Live Oak
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew
I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
“I Saw In Louisiana A Live Oak Growing” is about the need for
companionship in life. The narrator comes across this beautiful tree
(uttering joyous leaves of dark green) that stands alone, with no other
trees. The narrator feels sad for the tree, saying how he could never
live like that. The tree is quite a fine tree, but without any companions,
it's almost like it's beauty is being wasted. The narrator takes a leaf
off the tree to remind himself of how lucky he is to not be the tree who
lives all alone in the “wide, flat space”.
Hush'd be the Camps Today
Hush'd be the camps today,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander's death.
No more for him life's stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat--no more time's dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.
But sing poet in our name,
Sing of the love we bore him--because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.
As they invault the coffin there,
Sing--as they close the doors of earth upon him--one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.
“Hush'd be the Camps” tells how a camp of soldiers is in mourning
after losing their leader. The narrator is sad, but he seems to be trying
to be positive about his leader's death. He says how he won't have to
suffer through life's troubles anymore (No more for him life's stormy
conflicts). Still, the soldiers will all miss him. The poem is possibly
about the death of President Lincoln. This poem, lesser known than O
Captain! My Captain!, is a more literal interpretation of the death of
Lincoln. It does not use metaphors, it just tells of the grief soldiers feel
for having lost their leader.
Behavior--fresh, native, copious, each one for himself or herself,
Nature and the Soul expressed--America and freedom expressed--In it
the finest art,
In it pride, cleanliness, sympathy, to have their chance,
In it physique, intellect, faith--in it just as much as to manage an
army or a city, or to write a book--perhaps more,
The youth, the laboring person, the poor person, rivalling all the
rest--perhaps outdoing the rest,
The effects of the universe no greater than its;
For there is nothing in the whole universe that can be more effective
than a man's or woman's daily behavior can be,
In any position, in any one of These States.
“Behavior” is about how, in America, one's attitude is important to how
they will succeed in life ( For there is no....behavior can be). He says
that no matter what class you are born into, what gender you are,
your behavior is the most effective part of you. He mentions that
specifically in America is this true. This poem serves also to show
Whitman's great love for America. He fancies it a place where
something as simple as your behavior can make all the difference in
O Me! O Life!
O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
In “O Me! O Life!” the narrator is pondering the meaning of life. He
wonders why there are so many fools and why there is such vanity
around him (of cities fill'd with foolish....the struggle ever renew'd).
He seems almost tormented by this question as it keeps coming to
him over and over again (of these of the questions reoccurring).The
answer behind life is then shown to him. The meaning of life is to
“contribute a verse” or share your particular gift or talent with the
world, and impact it in some way. Life is all a play, and you are meant
to take part in it somehow.