There Was A Child Went Forth: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird.
And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf.
And the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and the beautiful curious liquid And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all became part of him. The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part, of him,
Winter-grain sprouts and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road,
And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern whence he had lately risen,
And the schoolmistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls, and the barefoot negro boy and girl.
And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.
His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.
The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,
The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious weather and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks what are they?
The streets themselves and the facades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves, the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset, the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown two miles off,
The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud,
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.


      Introduction. There Was A Child Went Forth was first published in the year 1855. In 1860, it became number nine of one of the Leaves of Grass sections. Later in 1881, it came to be included in a branch of poems called Autumn Rivulets. There is an autobiographical touch about the poem. The poet observing nature and life around him and presenting them in his poem, depicts the poet in a gay mood. The poem is at once a picturization of the world around and a deep study of ‘cosmic-consciousness’. Step by step it unravels the mystery of achieving this ‘cosmic-consciousness’. The autobiography assumes deep symbolic significance.

      The poet shows the different steps in reaching that ‘cosmic consciousness’, through the simple medium of a journey. The traveler on the journey is a child. A child is sensible, curious, adventurous and at the same time innocent. The poem narrates the adventure of the child as it steps into the world. The child is thrilled by the inexhaustible treasures which the world offers. It observes the universe finally and becomes the universe itself. The poet shows that the universe is in the child. The child of Whitman becomes one vast cosmic figure, containing everything that’s found in the world. The ‘child’ is identified with the self. The self which assimilates the objects in the world is escalated to a universal plane. This is evident as one delves deep into the poem.

      Summary. Every line of the poem There Was A Child Went Forth, throbs with thoughts. Every word is packed with meaning: To quote Whitman:

...Names are magic,
One word can pour such a flood through the soul ...

      The poem There Was A Child Went Forth, begins with a child’s adventure in the voyage of life. It goes out and mingles with the world around it. This idea is symbolic of the poet’s vision of oneness and harmony with the world. ‘He’ is that ‘child’. That ‘child’ becomes him. The child becomes the ‘self’. The ‘self’ is raised to a higher strata. The self assumes vast proportions with elasticity. It expands with his fancies and thoughts. It engulfs not only the animate and inanimate things of the world but the entire cosmos within itself. The ‘self’ mingles with the ‘cosmos’. He is eulogistic of the ‘self’ which includes the lilacs, the grass, the morning glories, the lambs and the piglets and all other living and non-living objects. This ‘self’ broadens and includes his parents, and their way of living. Everything becomes part of him. The autobiographical touch is seen here in the relationship of his parents. They are true pen pictures of their personalities. The father appears a rude rustic, the mother an image of serenity going about her daily chores.

      The poet suffuses the ‘self’ with the placid life of the village and also with the hustle and bustle of the city life. Whatever he describes has an authenticity. He experiences both the rural and the urban life. He mentions ‘the old drunkard staggering home’, or ‘the schoolmistress’ or ‘the barefoot negro boy and girl’, or ‘men and women crowding fast in the streets’ like ‘flashes and specks’.

      The theme he deals with in his poem, is as wide-ranging as life itself. James E. Miller aptly said of Whitman: “He was a personality created not out of the literary tradition of the past, but out of an original relationship with a living time and place...”

      After describing the existence of ‘Self’, its relationship with people at home and in society, and the harmonious existence between the ‘self’ and the flora and fauna, the poet mentions the link between the ‘self’ and the ‘cosmos’. The child, in other words the ‘self’, becomes a part of the ‘shadows’, the clouds, ‘the fragrance’, ‘the seacrow’ ‘the aureola and mist’, and they in turn become a part of the ‘self’. This supreme feeling of oneness present in all, and all present in one, is well-delineated by the poet of Man and Nature.


      George Saintsbury while talking of “the Grand Style” said: “The greater epic, the novel and especially the drama, have got to face and reproduce life, character, action, circumstance, in all their varieties, foul as well as fair, trivial as well as dignified, commonplace as well as exceptional” The same can also be said of the style of Whitman’s poetry.

      Keen Observation. Whitman while describing the common people uses the language of the common people. His keen
observation of man, animals, plants, the rural and urban life, of the sky and of the universe is seen in the poem.

      The poet introduces the child. The child goes forth everyday, forever. It encounters the flora and fauna. It comes across people from all walks of life. It perceives everything. It sees itself in all things irrespective of age, caste, color or religion. It becomes what it perceives. The perceived objects become the child. This is the gist of the poem, its basic meaning.

      Catalogue Technique. The child observes ‘the early lilacs’, ‘the song of the Phoebe-bird’, ‘the third-month lambs ‘the mare’s foal’, ‘the cow’s calf, the ‘fish’, ‘the commonest weed, ‘the old drunkard and the schoolmistress’, ‘the friendly boys’ - all these become a part of the child. The child becomes one with them. The stanza beginning “The early lilacs...” is a “perfect envelope” with compact and compressive cataloging. Each item with which the child communes stands out sharp and clear. The lines reveal the poet’s interest in minute observation of the animals and plants. All are equal to him, whether it is a pig or a cow’s calf; whether it is a fragrant flower, or roadside weed.

      No Barriers. A child knows no barriers or distinctions between man and man, and between the world of nature and the world of man. As the poet shows, there is perfect harmony between the world of nature and man. A child enjoys beauty in everything. That is the innocence of a child which the poet captures.

      Universe is A Whole. The poet presents the universe as a whole in which the parts are seen to be co-operative. The animate and inanimate objects in this world have a meaning. Everything is equally important, none is superior or inferior. Perhaps that is why Whitman selects a child, for a child is the best medium to infuse this idea of innocence, curiosity, and sensibility.

      ‘Self’ and ‘Child’. The poet projects the self through ‘the child image’. He says this ‘self’ could be any self, anywhere in the world. It comes to saying, that any citizen is not just the citizen of any one nation but a citizen of the world. ‘The self’ filled with curious queries or postulations of the when, why, where and how about the mysteries of life, sets out on a voyage. The ‘self’ with inquisitiveness observes life around it. The ‘self’ cannot live apart from society.

      ‘The Self’ is a whole Being. It has to live with understanding and love with the people in society, and also in harmony with the flora and fauna of the beautiful nature. This harmonious feeling could only be achieved when the ‘self’ finds itself in all the objects it perceives in the world. Then the ‘self’ also gets assimilated in the objects perceived. A feeling of oneness is achieved. The self transcends the materialistic world, and gains a philosophic touch when it finds itself in the ‘cosmos’. The ‘cosmos’ finds simultaneously a place in the ‘self’. When this oneness is realized, the ‘cosmic-consciousness’ is attained. That is the basic theme of this poem.

      Apt Use of Language. Whitman has the accuracy and delicacy of perception; and he also has the felicity of this translation into language of that which he perceives. A child’s immediate relatives at home are the parents. Whitman gives admirable pen-pictures of his parents while trying to describe the parents of the child. The child becomes one with them. He describes the nature of his parents which went to add to his personality in his later life:

The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust.

      Mother is shown as a picture of kindness. Father is depicted as a rough rustic. The poet after depicting scenes in nature and the home front rightly goes on show the self’s relationship to society. His depiction shows that he is fully aware of the society he is living in. He just does not dwell in the realm of fantasy. Through the eyes of a child, he shows how people do live in harmony, whatever walk of life they belong to. It may be ‘a schoolmistress’ or a staggering drunkard or ‘a barefoot negro boy’. The harmony is there in the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom and the Realm of Mankind.

      Penetrating Insight. The poet has a penetrating insight into whatever he sees. The child looks at night and day with amazement. It is awestruck at the busy city life where men and women look like tiny specks, and at the placid village life. All this became one with the child. The child eyed them equally and assimilated them. To quote James E. Miller: “This jumble and mixture of country and city scenes, this vision of nature and man must be near the truth, for the poet’s childhood lived in alternation between the farm on Long Island and the streets of Brookyln. Both the world of nature and the world of man impinged forcefully on the young boy’s imagination and the native poet denied neither but exultingly embraced both”.

      Timeless Continuity. This mature outlook contributes to his awareness of the ‘cosmic-consciousness’. The child observes ‘the shadows’, aureola and mist, the schooner, the tumbling waves, the strata of colour ‘d clouds, the salt marsh, and all this

... became part of that child who went forth everyday, and who now goes and will always go forth everyday.

      The child becomes one with ‘the shadows’, ‘the seacrow’, ‘the purity’. It finds itself everywhere. All that is found elsewhere and everywhere is within the child itself.. The ideas also reflect the poet’s acceptance of the superiority of Life, Living, and of Nature. The last line shows that the child will go on for eons to come. It would go forth into eternity. There is timelessness in the line which brings Tennyson’s lines to the reader’s mind. Tennyson in the poem ‘The Brook’ says:

Men may come and Men may go But I go on forever.

      Whatever happens, there will be this continuity in the ‘going forth’ of the child. There is a link in the past, present and future. One does not exist without the other.

      Comprehensive Approach. As the poem is read step by step, the reader is left stupefied by the poet’s wide approach to life. What merely begins as a child exploring the mysteries of its whereabouts turns out to be a deep thoughtful study of the philosophy of life, nature and the cosmos as a whole.

      Wide Appeal of the ‘Cosmic Consciousness’. The poem has a wide appeal as his ‘child’ is his ‘self’. This ‘self’ can be any ‘self’ anywhere in this world. The ‘self’ becomes elastic. It widens. It engulfs the entire cosmos in itself. It becomes a cosmic figure. ‘Cosmos’ on the other hand is found in the ‘self’. The way the poet enhances the ‘self’ leaves the reader rich with the knowledge that ‘self’ and ‘cosmos’ are the one and the same entity. The poem shows that the ‘self’ and ‘cosmos’ are inseparable. The poet has the ability to experience that ‘cosmic-consciousness’ and he leaves the reader richer with that awareness.


1. There was a child went forth everyday,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

      These lines form the epitome of the poem, There was a Child Went Forth. The child is presented as a voyager. It perceives the animate and inanimate objects in life with curiosity. It assimilates whatever it sees. It becomes the objects it sees as immaterial of time and place. It goes forth everyday for ages to come, perceives objects and becomes part of them. On a philosophical level, the poet projects his ‘self’ through the ‘child image’. The ‘self’ sees the objects in the world and it becomes these objects. The cosmos becomes the ‘self’; the ‘self’ is one with life and nature. Finally, the ‘self’ achieves the ‘cosmic consciousness’.

      The child symbolizes innocence, curiosity and sensibility. Like the child, the ‘self’ is a curious voyager in the voyage of life. It is mystified by what life has to give. The child finds himself in the object it perceives. The object became a part of the child. ‘The child’ or in other words the ‘self’ manifests itself in the entire world. It becomes one with the ‘cosmos’.

2. His own parents, he that hadfathered him and
she that had conceiv'd him in her womb and birth'd him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him

      The autobiographical touch of the parents of the poet is depicted here. A child’s immediate relatives are its parents. The child is a mixture of its parents. The parents are blissful in the company of their child. The child is a part of them. They become a part of the child. This bondage develops from day to day. The ‘self’ of the poet is represented through the ‘child’.

3. The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow,
The fragrance of saltmarsh and shore mud,
These became part of that child who went forth everyday,
Who now goes, and will always go forth everyday.

      The poem There Was A Child Went Forth, is a study of gradual ‘cosmic consciousness’. The momentum of reaching ‘cosmic consciousness’ slowly gets constructed from the beginning to the end of the poem. In order to reach the goal, the poet takes a simple theme, that of a journey. For the subject, he takes a child. A child is sensible, intelligent, curious and at the same time innocent. The child observes life in the house, in and around the house, and then in the wide world. It establishes relationship with its immediate relatives, its parents, with people around either in cities or villages. It associates itself with the flora and fauna found in plenty in the world of nature. It becomes whatever it sees. It fuses with the animate and inanimate things of the worlds, It perceives the universe finally. It becomes the universe. The universe or cosmos becomes the child, the poet project self through the child image. The self becomes the cosmos. Cosmos integrates in this self. The poem appears to be simple at the outset, but gains in rich meaning as the poet establishes the fact of ‘cosmic consciousness’.

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