This Compost: Poem by Walt Whitman - Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction. This Compost is a highly thought provoking wonderful poem of two sections of sixteen and thirty-two lines. There is a sort of religious fervor and devotional outburst latent in this poem although it appears to be a matter-of-fact narration of the chemical process of one matter putrefying and disintegrating in order to get converted into another matter. Walt Whitman feels dismayed at the capacity of Nature to produce the beautiful out of the foul. The poet is terrified at the Earth because -

It grows such sweet things out of such corruption,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused etor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men and accepts
such leavings from them at last.

      Summary. The opening lines of the poem, This Compost by Walt Whitman introduce some shuddering thoughts:

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

      The reason for this hesitation on the part of the poet is that people are continuously throwing dead bodies and putrefying carcasses over the Earth or burying them under the ground. The sea water is also polluted similarly when gutters and sewers deposit dirty water into it. But the poet then ponders over the wonderful capacity of Nature to transform these rubbish and filth back again into beautiful, tasteful, useful flowers, fruits and edible grains. The poet lists a number of such things in his own inimitable way:

The grass of spring covers the Prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple buds cluster together on the apple branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves
The tinge awakes over the willow tree and the mulberry tree...
This is something wonderful, the poet feels
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

      The poet is convinced of the powerful chemical process that goes on in Nature. It is safe to take bath in the sea, to drink the cool water from the well, to chew and taste the flavorous and juicy blackberries, apples and oranges, melons, peaches, grapes etc. They will not poison him:

That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

      Critical Analysis. Decay and renewal, putrefaction and rejuvenation, death and resurrection - all these take place in Nature continuously. Much filth and garbage is scattered all over the earth, dead bodies are buried, filthy water flows into the rivers and oceans. Still, the healthy refreshing processes of Nature do not fail to produce vegetables, grains, fruits, flowers, etc. in such abundance as to stun us. Here the poet gives a detailed list of such natural wonders. A critic remarks - “Whitman’s famous catalogs are in reality brief or extended imagist poems. Image follows image in such pell-mell rush that the reader, glutted with the concrete, pants for a generalization.”

      The poet is awe-struck by the wonderful chemistry that transforms foulness and filth into sweetness and beauty. All dirt and poison cannot pollute the atmosphere beyond recovery. The winds that blow are not infectious. The waters of the sea cannot endanger our health. We can drink the cool water from the wells without any fear.

      The poet does not mention anything about God, the supreme Power-behind this miraculous, mysterious metamorphosis in the whole Universe: but we feel that we should be grateful to the Almighty Creator for all that we enjoy. The poet stops after evoking in us a sense of wonder. It is for us to bow down before that Omnipotent Being, with a sense of humility, thankfulness and devotional fervor. Many things that we have taken for granted require our re-thinking with a keen awareness of their intrinsic beauty and freshness.

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