Archive for the ‘Walt Whitman’ category

A child said, What is the grass?

13 January 2010

In Indian schoolbooks, one often comes across poems by the British masters such as Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins. The American poets such as Robert Frost and Walt Whitman are rarely to be found. This is due to our colonial legacy.

The very first nature poem that was featured on this blog was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening“.

Here now is one by Walt Whitman, who writes about a very common motif of nature, often overlooked,  over-trod and discounted – Grass.

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank.

A child said, 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 dropped,
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
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.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

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

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?
What do you think has become of the women and

A US Postage Stamp of 1948 commemorating Walt Whitman.

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show 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 ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

Walt Whitman

A nature poem?  Not quite!

One could say that Whitman used grass to expound about the human condition much as Sylvia Plath used Mushrooms for her purpose. However Whitman goes much further. He uses motifs from nature and man’s experience of it through the senses to exalt the human body and materialism. This was in stark contrast to the allegory and spiritualism that had been the tone of poetry before him.

Whitman’s magnum opus, is of course “Leaves of Grass“,  an anthology of poems he first published in 1855 and kept revising right till his death. Incidentally, though this poem is from this anthology and is about the common plant we know about, the name of the book ‘Leaves of grass’ is not about that vegetation but, instead, is a play on words.

In the forgotten lingo of nineteenth century book-publishers, ‘grass’ is used to denote works of minor value. ‘Leaves’ referes to pages. The whole name is a mocking apellation for his principal thesis.

Read Whitman’s poem on grass, look for connections with nature, with experiencing nature and for allegories with the human condition. It was a bit strange to me as I am still not used to prose-like poems very much.

It may seem of little value to read about grass. But grass is one of the bases of the food chain.

Algae, grasses and other leaves and branches of other plants are the broad base of autotrophs who support all life in the world. Grasses such as wheat and rice feed mankind directly. Bamboo, a most useful plant, too is a grass of sorts.

All the same, thinking about grass in any way gives us greater insight to this common-place and under-rated vegtation than not thinking about it at all.

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Image credits – Click on the image to reach the source page on Wikimedia Commons.