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what is the grass?

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

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?

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

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
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.

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

This is but a short excerpt from 'Song of Myself', the famous and in some ways central poem in Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. As with the rest of the volume, which Whitman kept revising and expanding throughout his life (there is not really a definitive edition), 'Song of Myself' evolved after the first edition (1855), where it appeared untitled.

With its delightful freeform optimism, the poem exemplifies what has been called American Transcendentalism, a mid-19th century literary and cultural movement glorifying nature and personal spirituality in a kind of marriage of Kantian philosophy, Eastern mysticism (particularly the 'Bhagavad Gita') and American individualism. Besides Whitman, Thoreau ('Walden') and Emerson ('Nature') were prominent transcendalists.

The theme of grass as a symbol for the cycle of life, death and rebirth recurs throughout, structuring the poem's sweeping, lyrical imagery. It also lends extra depth to the volume's title, which I had always taken to be just an understated description of its contents (poems as leaves of grass).

Compare the beginning and ending of the poem, which sum up the poet's changing attitude to life and accordingly provide different answers to the question of what the grass is. It starts:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

And ends some 1300 lines later with:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Read the entire 'Song of Myself' and the rest of 'Leaves of Grass' at Wikisource. See also this web study text of 'Song of Myself'.

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