Structure of The Poem “Leaves of Grass”

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      The publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 evoked a mixed reaction: virulent denunciation from one group and extravagant praise from another. One literary review called the work “the expression of a beast” and another compared its author to a pig rooting “among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts”. But Emerson found in the same poetry “the wonderful gift... the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed”. He felt that it possessed “courage of treatment”, which delights and is inspired by “large perception”. He called Walt Whitman’s poetry “fortifying and encouraging”. The worth of Whitman’s poetry lies somewhere between the two extremes of reactions it evoked. While his poetry has always had and will continue to have a restricted audience, it is undeniable that it is (i) the climax of the romantic movement in the United States; (ii) the precursor of modern American literature; and (iii) at least in part dateless and universal.

      Whitman was an unconventional poet in many ways. He was a rebel against the traditional emphasis on a definite form and structure in poetry. As a result, one looks in vain for a fixed structure in his work of poetry, Leaves of Grass. What we find instead is a steady growth or organic evolution through the literary career of Whitman who thought of the work as one book. Certainly, the title aptly points to one of its essential themes - “the eternal cycle of life”. The various editions of Leaves of Grass, each slightly different from the other in context, order or grouping of poems, show a poetic development.

      Leaves of Grass has five important sections contributing to its structure. It begins in the Epic tradition, only Whitman is going to sing of the “greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion”. The basic unifying theme is the “self” and ways of identifying one “self” with many, and individual with nature.

      Song of Myself celebrates the individuality. Children of Adam is concerned with physical love uniting man and woman, Calamus poems deal with love between man and man. Sea Drift deals with the individual who has understood the true nature of death through suffering, and this suffering is generalized in the form of suffering in war in the section Drum-Taps. The poet is now concerned with the metaphysical union of the Self with God or the Universe.

      The unity of Leaves of Grass is not of traditional nature. The sense of unity is provided through visual images, alliteration, assonance and consonance. Whitman does not conform to any particular principle of organization. But lines of unequal length convey a flow of images. This, in turn, conveys the sense of endless continuity, the eternal cycle of birth and death, that is the basic thought in Whitman’s poetry.

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