Scented Herbage of My Breast: Summary & Analysis

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      Summary. The fragrant herbage of my breast suggests the poet’s poems, which are called Leaves. The poet’s death will not destroy his thoughts; the Leaves will continue to grow from his grave for the Leaves are “blossoms of my blood “and unfold the poet s heart. Some few passers by will notice the Leaves and “inhale their faint odor”. The Leaves make the poet “think of death.” Death and love are both beautiful: the poet does not know whether he prefers death or life. He thinks “these Leaves" (his poetry) carry the same message as does death. “Yet you are beautiful to me, you faint tinged roots, you make me think of death”. Death is beautiful from you (what indeed is finally beautiful except death and love?)

      The poet declares that he stifled his inmost being far too long and far too much. He now is “determin’d to unbare this broad breast.” His doctrine of love and comradeship will find “immortal reverberations through the States” and be “an example to lovers. “I will raise with it immortal reverberations through the States, I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape and will through the States.” Love and death are “folded inseparably together.” Death is the “real reality” which waits for all and which will “dissipate this entire show of appearance.”

      The title “Scented Herbage of My Breast” evokes, for one thing; a concrete image of a strong, robust chest. The theme of love and death is concretized by this image. The herbage is fragrant; it suggests the spiritual emanation of love. The breast contains the heart, poetically the source of love. The image of herbage is later transformed into “Leaves” (poems), which future generations will read. Tomb-Leaves, symbolize the idea of the immortality of man: Leaves continue to flourish on tombs and assert the supremacy of the principle of life in death. “Perennial roots” signify the heart, of which the leaf is the artistic expression.

      The Calamus plant suggests many qualities of spiritual love. The poet introduces many variations on the significance of Leaves: they represent the Calamus plant, the hair on the breast, the grass on the grave, the pages of a book of poems, and the growth of spiritual love. At last, death brings men to the “real reality” - spiritual love. Thus manly, or athletic, love is another aspect of spiritual love.

      Critical Analysis. Love Extends to Man and Man: Touch of Homosexuality: Scented Herbage of My Breast is the second lyric in the section of Leaves of Grass entitled ‘Calamus’, first published in 1860. Calamus poems deal with love between man and man. The imagery of his poems testify to homosexual tendencies which must have shocked the prudish reader. In the Calamus, he speaks of ‘manly attachment’, ‘types of athletic love’ and ‘need of comrades’. Phallic symbolism is used here even in speaking of spirituality or democracy.

      Calamus is the traditional name of the sweet flag, which is an aromatic plant. It grows not every where, like common grass, but in ‘paths untrodden’. In paths untrodden, in the growth by margins of ponch water, Escaped from the life that exhibit itself. As James Miller puts it “Anyone familiar with the long tapering leaves and the cylindrical flower of the Calamus plant will recognize the phallic symbol immediately. Whitman used the name of Calamus grass as a symbol of “adhesiveness” or comradeship. Adhesiveness, “the pulse of his life, is indicated by the calamus plant. This faith in adhesiveness is an intensive expression of the Christian concept of brotherly love. Calamus feeling is deeply rooted in religious sentiment which recognizes spiritual identity with one’s fellow creatures.

      As the poet elaborates the images of in the poem Scented Herbage of My Breast, he exploits all the possibilities for symbolism that the strongly individualistic plant offers.

Indeed O death, I think now these leaves mean precisely the same as you mean
(Scented Herbage of My Breast)

      Whitman wrote a series of ‘Calamus’ poems, named after the Calamus plant. James Miller interprets this as blatantly phallic and suggests that the amity from which Leaves stems was with another man. It suggests Whitman’s central inspirational experience was not a romance but a close male comradeship. The Calamus plant has a long, tapering leaves with a cylindrical flower which also serves as a phallic symbol. Whitman points the ambiguity of the image when he says:

Emblematic and capricious blades I leaves you, now you serve me not I will say what I have to say by itself

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