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A child said, What is the grass? by Walt Whitman

“A child said, What is the grass?” appears in the sixth section of Walt Whitman’s best-known poem “Song of Myself”. It is included in his collection of poetry Leaves of Grass. Through the title of this piece, it becomes clear that this poem is featuring the main idea of the overall poetry collection “Grass”. The poetic speculation regarding the nature and form of the grass starts from this section and encapsulates the work. In this piece, a child comes asking for what the grass is. In reply, what Whitman told the child is the essence of this beautiful and innocent free-verse poem.

A child said, What is the grass? by Walt Whitman


Summary

“A child said, What is the grass?” Can readers answer the question in simple terms without using botanical jargon? Those who really want to know how Whitman’s poetic eyes decoded the meaning of the simple grass, have to go through the entire text. To summarize, how the poet thinks about it, he sees it as a symbol of both life and death. It is the precursor of life and at the same time a sign of death.

At the beginning of this piece, an innocent child asks a rather confusing question. To quench the kid’s thirst, Whitman, without being confused, goes on guessing what the grass really stands for. According to him, the grass bears the sign of his disposition, woven with “hopeful green stuff”. It is the handkerchief of the Lord that he knowingly dropped in the nooks and corners of his creation to remind all the creatures of his existence.

The grass, the “babe of the vegetation”, is a uniform hieroglyphic, growing everywhere. It does not differentiate between whose land it is, be it white or black men. When Whitman looks closely at it, it seems to him as the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”. Those who were buried there, have nourished the grass. So, it bears the signs of their existence. However, in the end, the poet thinks, it cannot grow from the dead persons, as it had a far darker hue.

It makes him think of another deeper idea that the child naturally cannot decode. According to him, the grass is the precursor of life. If death ever existed, it also ceases to live. Therefore, on this beautiful earth, there is no death. What is death to us, is the mere beginning of a new life, in the form of a tender, little grass!

Meaning

The title of this piece “A child said, What is the grass?” is philosophical. It hints at the nature of children. Usually, children are prone to ask some questions that are hard to answer for even an experienced person. In Whitman’s case, he is also in a similar situation where a child has come to him to know what the grass stands for. Is it just a creature that has grown out of the ground without any purpose? Or is it just a mere sign of life like others that are living?

To answer the child’s thoughtful query, Whitman does not give him a clear-cut answer. He transforms into a child and goes on asking what the grass really means. Each query of the poet is a step to reach the ultimate meaning. As if a child is decoding mother nature with the help of an experienced naturalist. The interesting thing is both entities exist within Whitman.

Structure & Form

This poem is written in the style Whitman is famous for. It is a free-verse poem that does not conform to the conventional schema of poetry. The lines are beautifully arranged with the help of internal rhyming. Some short lines are packed with the long lines that give this piece an outlook of a prose poem. There are a total of 32 lines separated into nine stanzas. Whitman uses a one-line coda at the end of the second and third stanzas. Each section digresses from the idea of the previous section and introduces a new idea regarding the grass. Whitman makes use of several repetitions to create a resonance of similar sounds or phrase patterns.

What is more interesting to note about the structure of this poem, is its childlike and innocent sentence construction. Like a child does not conform to any set standards. It always chooses the free-flowing style that fits its childish needs. Likewise, Whitman uses such a simplistic and heart-to-heart poetic structure to express his thoughts.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Let’s explore the important literary devices used in Walt Whitman’s poem “A child said, What is the grass?”

Metaphor

Whitman uses a handful of metaphors to describe the meaning of the grass. He enthralls readers by using this literary device at the very beginning. For example:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Here, Whitman uses two metaphors. The first one is “the flag of my disposition”. In this phrase, he compares his nature to that of grass and refers to it as a sign or symbol of himself.

While in the second phrase, he uses the “green” color as a symbol of hope. The grass is portrayed as a manifestation of hope. In this way, Whitman implicitly shows what kind of a person he is.

In the following lines, there are some other metaphorical references:

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Here, the grass is compared to the handkerchief of God. God is portrayed as a lady who drops her handkerchief for her beloved as a sign of gift and remembrance. The grass keeps the humans reminding of God’s very existence.

In the following lines, readers can find the use of this device in:

  • “babe of the vegetation”
  • “a uniform hieroglyphic”
  • “beautiful uncut hair of graves”
  • “the mothers’ laps”


Repetition

Whitman uses several repetitions in the text. For example, in the first lines, he uses the phrase “Or I guess” thrice at the beginning of the stanzas. While, in the fourth stanza, the phrase “It may be” is repeated before beginning three consecutive lines. Through this repetition, Whitman interconnects his guesses regarding the nature of the grass.

Rhetorical Question

The poem begins with a rhetorical question in “What is the grass?” This device used at the very beginning grabs the reader’s attention. Though the question seems simple, it has a magnetic force that attracts readers and makes them thoughtful.

He uses another interrogation in the sixth line:

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

In the seventh stanza, Whitman asks two consecutive rhetorical questions to the child:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?


Anaphora

Anaphora occurs in the lines that begin with a similar word. It is a kind of repetition that is used for the sake of emphasis. Readers can find the use of this device in lines 7 and 8. Both of these lines begin with “Or I guess”.

They can also find the use of anaphora in the following lines:

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them, soon out of their mothers’ laps,

(…)

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

In the last two lines, beginning with the conjunction “and”, Whitman uses another device called polysyndeton.

Enjambment

Whitman enjambs the lines by using the conjunction “and”. For example, it occurs in the following lines:

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

As readers can see, here the poet connects both the lines and contrasts the ideas present there.

Epigram

In “A child said What is the grass?”, Whitman uses several epigrammatic ideas that wittily depict the nature of the grass. For example, he uses this device in the following lines, to talk about the egalitarian nature of the grass.

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

In the last part, Whitman compares the grass to his humanitarian nature. Here he tries to convey, he shares love through his poetry without discriminating his readers of different casts or colors, just like the grass grows everywhere without discriminating whose land it is.

There is another important epigram present in the last two lines:

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

In these lines, Whitman talks about how life never ends or collapses. Death is just a phase in the circle of life and oblivion. It is a precursor of a new and luckier life. That’s why death is different than what we supposed it to be.

If there’s something more to add in this section, do share your valuable inputs in the comments section below. We’ll be more than happy to add your inputs here.

Line-by-Line Analysis

Line 1

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

The title of the poem is taken from the very first line of this poem. It appears in section 6 of Whitman’s best-loved poem “Song of Myself” that is part of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. From the title itself, Whitman implies what is the main idea of the poem is going to be. It is about a child who is asking Whitman about what the grass is. Usually, children ask questions that cannot be answered easily. This child in the poem asked a simple question to the speaker. The kid is trying to explore the meaning of a thing that can be seen growing everywhere.

How can one decode the meaning of grass? For Whitman, it is easy as he has experienced a lot. But, he cannot share his experiences directly with the child as it may confuse the innocent mind. Therefore, he adopts a style that fits suitable for this purpose. What he does is guess possible meanings concerning the grass.

Line 2-3

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

The child fetched a handful of grass and asked him what it stands for. In reply, he poses another question to the child. He reveals his inability to answer his question. Only “he” who has created this can tell what the grass really is. In this way, Whitman accepts his shortcoming to make the kid realize it is standing at the same place as him. It is just a matter of years that has separated them. Otherwise, they are on the same page, brooding over the intricacies of nature, God’s marvelous creation.

Like a child, he guesses the grass must be a symbol of his own disposition that consists of hopeful green color. In this way, he shows a connection he shares with the grass and all the living things existing in nature. The elements that made up the grass also constitute Whitman’s body. So, there is no such difference between them. It is nothing but a reflection of the poet.

Lines 4-6

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Whitman continues his guessing game just like an innocent child does after coming across an object, both interesting and unknown to it. He connects the previous line with the help of the conjunction “Or”. It is a use of enjambment.

As the poet has referred to the creator in the previous section, he alludes directly to Him here to establish a connection between his ideas. According to him, the grass is the handkerchief of God. It is a scented gift and remembrancer from Him that he dropped for a specific purpose. Here, readers can find alliteration in “designedly dropt”.

The handkerchief or the grass bears the name someway in the corners just like a handkerchief of a lady. Seeing it, we may guess whose handkerchief it is. Here, Whitman uses an interesting idea. He compares God to a lady who drops her handkerchief for her wooer. It is meant for hinting at the fact that she loves the person for whom it was knowingly left behind. Likewise, God has created the grass to make humans think about him. It acts as a symbol of God’s love for his creation as well as proves his very existence.

Lines 7-8

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

In this poem, Whitman beautifully connects all ideas he mentions in the poem. As the child has come to him asking about the grass. He knows the child is still there eagerly listening to him. To welcome it into his thought process, he remarks that the grass itself is a child like it. It is the baby of vegetation. Here, Whitman personifies the grass and nature as well. The former is the baby of the latter. Hence, nature or vegetation is compared to a mother.

According to him, the grass is a “uniform” symbol or an enigmatic sign. He uses the term “hieroglyphics”, used by the Egyptians, to metaphorically compare the grass to a type of sign that cannot be decoded easily. In the following line, the poet’s conviction is saying, “And it means …” highlights the fact that Whitman is well-versed in deciding natural signs.

It might have amazed the child in the poem. A person who can decode critical puzzles within seconds is always liked by innocent children. Likewise, our poet tries to astonish the kid by saying that the grass is a sign and he knows what it means.

Lines 9-11

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

According to him, the grass conveys the message of egalitarianism. It grows everywhere, from broad to narrow zones. For the grass, black and white folks are all alike. They are the creations of God like it.

In the last two lines, Whitman becomes subjective and remarks about how he shares his love for humanity through his poetry. He sees everyone as human beings, not as people belonging to different casts, tribes, or political groups.

He says, “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” As readers can see, Whitman does not use a conjunction in this line. It is a use of asyndeton that is used for achieving an artistic effect. Besides, he uses alliteration in “Kanuck, Tuckahoe” and “Congressman, Cuff”.

Lines 12-13

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

With a coda, Whitman digresses from what he has remarked about the grass. The child’s question, “What is the grass?” is now answered from a different angle. The term “graves” changes the tone of the poem to a bit more serious and solemn.

Whitman says the grass is the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”. The “grave” is personified here. The grass growing around the graves appears to him as untidy hair. Nature has given it the freedom to grow just like a child (who is definitely close to nature) grows on its own.

In the following stanza, Whitman uses tactile imagery to convey the feelings associated with touching the tender grass-blades. As the child has given a handful of grass to him while asking him about it, he is holding it in his hands now. He touches it and feels its cold leaves. It arouses speculation regarding its origin.

Lines 14-17

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them, soon out of their mothers’ laps,

And here you are the mothers’ laps.

It appears to him as if it has raised its head from the graves of young men who have died before their prime. Possibly, it has grown out of the graves of old men or prematurely dead babies. In these lines, the mood becomes sad and depressing.

Whatsoever, the poet says, if he had known those who have died before him, he would have loved them with all his heart. Death did not spare the little ones and snatched them out of their mothers’ laps. But, Whitman thinks nothing can detach the infants from the cozy laps of mother nature. The grass has become the laps of mother nature. Those poor infants are now sleeping there. So, it is clear that here Whitman is metaphorically comparing the grass to “mothers’ laps”.

Lines 18-22

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing. 

In these lines, the poet corrects his approach of looking at the grass by looking at its hue. The grass has a dark green color. It infers to the fact that it has not originated from something pale and dying. The hue shows its close proximity with vibrant colors of life.

According to him, the grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers or the pale beards of old men. The grass’s color is in stark contrast with the pale-white colors of old age. It is too dark to come from under the faint-red roof of an infant’s mouth. In this section, Whitman beautifully uses colors to portray the theme of life vs death. The pallid colors of death are contrasted with the vibrancy of life’s colors.

In the following section, readers can find another digression. Now, he starts talking about the voices audible from the grass that has something important to tell him. Its utterance is not meaningless. As the poet had already mentioned the grass as a hieroglyphic of nature, its vocal signs hint at an important idea.

The phrase “uttering tongues” contains a metonym. It is a reference to the human voice. As the grass originates from the graves, it expresses the unsaid words of those buried beneath him. It becomes the voice of those who are no more and converses with the poet. In this section, the poet uses auditory imagery to refer to the sound of the human voice.

Lines 23-26

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

The sound that the grass makes tells something more than it actually appears to the poet. Whitman is able to decode the sign language of the grass but he cannot decipher what the sound stands for. He wishes he could translate the hints about the dead young men, women, old men, old mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps.

In these lines, the poet repeats the word “and” for the sake of emphasis and intertwining the ideas. The repetition of recurring ideas emphasizes that all those who have died somehow tries to communicate with someone like Whitman, versed in deciding natural signs, be it visual or auditory.

In the last two lines, he poses two rhetorical questions to the child as well as to the readers. Each interrogation contains references to those who have died (already mentioned above). He asks what has become of them. Have they ceased to exist?

Lines 27-32

They are alive and well somewhere,

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

The answer is, “No! nothing ever ceases to exist.” Everything has its own physical time to continue a cycle. When the time comes to an end, it takes a new form. Like Einstein’s theory of relativity, the interchangeable nature of life and death is mentioned here.

According to Whitman, they are not dead. As we cannot see them, it does not mean that they are not there. The “smallest sprout” raising its tiny head from the ground proves the fact that they exist. One cannot see the little heads of a sprout until it becomes a shoot. Likewise, we cannot say the soul does not exist as we cannot see them. Here, the poet uses the idea of transcendentalism.

According to him, if there is death, the grass does not lead forward the chain reaction of life and does not wait till the end to be arrested by it. It would cease the moment life appeared. Here, the poet is trying to say that death is nothing but a part of the life cycle. Death means a new beginning. It is just a point when it seems the motion of life is still. In reality, it is eternal and never stops for a moment.

Nothing collapses. Life grows inwardly and outwardly. It goes on. Hence, death is different from our supposition. According to Whitman, it is a luckier event as it makes way for a new life.

Themes

Whitman explores the themes of life, death, nature, spirituality, and innocence in his poem “A child said, What is the grass?” The main theme of this poem is the cycle of life and death. In the first few sections, Whitmans solely portrays the theme of creation and childish innocence. As the poem moves to the middle, he introduces the main theme. He starts talking about how death arrests life. Apparently, there seems to be a point when everything ceases to exist. But, on a deeper level, it is a new beginning. The grass that grows from the graves, bears the signs of life. Those who are buried beneath supplied it sustenance to grow. Hence, even a dead thing contains the spark of life, helping other living entities to grow.

Tone

The tone of this piece is thoughtful, inspirational, innocent, and inquisitive. Whitman writes this piece implementing a tone that best suits his need to unravel the mysteries of nature. It can only be accomplished from a childish, innocent, and simple point of view. For this reason, the poet introduces a character of a child who is the precursor of the overall poetic thinking process. As the speaker talks with a child, he cannot talk with him in a serious and philosophical tone. For this reason, he writes in a tone that can make his philosophical thoughts more pellucid to readers.

Historical Context

The poem “A child said, What is the grass?” appears in the sixth section of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, previously not separated into sections. It was included in his collection of poetry Leaves of Grass that Whitman continued to expand and revise until his death. According to Ezra Greenspan, “Song of Myself” represents “the core of Whitman’s poetic vision.” It was published as a collection of 12 untitled poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Whitman published the first at his own expense. Public acceptance was slow for this work. Later, it has become one of the best-loved poetry collections of all time.

FAQs

How does Whitman answer the question “What is the grass?”?

To answer the question, Whitman plays a guessing game. He compares the grass to a variety of ideas such as a hieroglyphic, a sign of the poet’s disposition, nature’s lap, and untidy hair of graves. In the end, he portrays it as a symbol of life that highlights the fact that nothing really dies.

What is Walt Whitman’s main message in “A child said, What is the grass?”?

The main message of the poem concerns the interchangeability of life and death. According to Whitman, nothing really dies. Those who have died are still alive in the larger body of the universe. They are just transmuted into other forms such as particles, energy, or entities.

When was “A child said, What is the grass?” written?

The poem “A child said, What is the grass?” appears in section 6 of “Song of Myself”. It was first published in 1855.

What does “grass” symbolize in, “A child said, What is the grass?”?

In this poem, the “grass” symbolizes the poet firsthand. Its green color is a symbol of hope. Thus it is a sign of life. Besides, Whitman portrays the grass as hieroglyphics of nature that only a well-versed interpreter can understand. Furthermore, he symbolizes it as nature’s babe.

How does grass show “there is really no death”?

The grass growing on the graves of young men, women, old men and mothers, and infants does not resemble the pallid hue of dead bodies. Though it grows from the graves, its color portrays the vibrancy of life. Therefore, it can be inferred that there is no death at all. What has died has just paused for a moment to begin a new journey. It is the cycle of life that eternally revolving.

What metaphor is used to connect grass to life and death?

Whitman uses a metaphor in the phrase “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” to connect the grass to both life and death. The grass grows on the graves, thus a part of death. At the same time, it has the ability to grow which is an important feature of life.

How does the image of grass represent the cycle of life and death?

By the image of untidy grass growing near the graves like the “uncut hair” of a person, Whitman represents the cycle of life. The grass leads forward life. It does not wait till the end to be arrested by death.

What does the green color of grass symbolize in the poem?

The green color of the grass symbolizes hope. Whitman describes the grass as women with “hopeful green stuff”.

What does “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” mean?

In the quoted line, Whitman uses a metaphor of “beautiful uncut hair of graves” to compare it with the grass that grows in the graveyard in an untidy fashion. Here, the “grass” stands for both life and death. It does not contrast them but establishes a connection between them.

What does “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death” mean?

This line refers to fact that there is no death at all. Each living being transforms into a different entity, thus nothing ever dies. So, death is just a stage of the life cycle. It is not an ending point.

What does “the handkerchief of the Lord” mean?

The “handkerchief” stands for a remembrance or gift from a loved one who knowingly leaves it behind. Likewise, the grass is the handkerchief of God that he left on earth to remind humans of his love and very existence.

What does “Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation” mean?

In this line, Whitman speculates the grass being the child of mother nature or vegetation. For its tiny height, it occurs to him as an infant whom mother nature gave birth to.

What do the words “Kanuck,” “Tuckahoe,” and “Cuff” mean?

The term “Kanuck” or “Canuck” refers to Dutch or French Canadians. Canadians use it as an affectionate term for their nationality. A “Tuckahoe” is a person from the Virginian coast. The “Cuff” means an African American.

What does he wish he could translate or understand? What are the hints he is talking about?

Whitman wishes to translate the signs the dead are trying to convey with the help of the grass. He is talking about the contrast between the grass’s color and that of the dead bodies as a hint to know the real meaning of death.

What does “the flag of my disposition” mean?

“Disposition” means a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character. The “flag” stands for a symbol of a nation or just a sign that reflects how a person is. Through this phrase, Whitman is comparing the “grass” as a token of his disposition.


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