What is the grass?

“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands”

Whitman makes an interesting decision in section 6 of “Song of Myself”, he has a child pose the question that determines the meaning behind his book title, Leaves of Grass. After the question is asked, the speaker begins to makes suggestions: perhaps it is “the flag of my disposition”, “the handkerchief of the Lord”, “a uniform hieroglyphic”, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”, or maybe “the grass is itself a child”.

In Wordsworth’s poem, “We Are Seven”, a dialogue between an ultra-precise adult and an imaginative child leads to a little girl explaining a mystical concept to an adult. Though the child insists there are seven children in her family, she admits that two have been buried. The adult cannot see beyond the physical and insists that “If two are in the church-yard laid,/Then ye are only five” (35-6). The stubborn girl tells the adult that her siblings “graves are green, they may be seen” (37).

In having children ask such important questions, Whitman and Wordsworth beg unadorned answers. I think Whitman wanted his title to be seen as vulnerable, just as Wordsworth wanted to see simplicity in death. While Whitman gleans meaning from the innocent question of a child, Wordsworth allows a child to deal with a larger issue: the perception of death and the cycle of nature. Whitman attempts to take on the innocent persona of a child in saying that the dead are really “alive and well somewhere,/The smallest sprout shows there is really no death”.

Ultimately, Whitman looses no esteem or value in this transaction. Later he is able to authoritatively say, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars”, thus giving his work some sort of adult significance (31). In fact, I would argue that by including the scene with the child, he successfully defends the status of his meaningful title, Leaves of Grass. From the voice of a child, Whitman is able to introduce the work with less egotism (“Let him who is without my poems be assassinated”, Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness) and more gentleness (“Tenderly will I use you curling grass”).

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One Response to What is the grass?

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    I like how you tie this in with the Romantics, who idealized childhood innocence, and tried to recapture that innocence in their own poems. You might also look at a threshold / childhood poem, “There Was a Child Went Forth.”

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