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Walt Whitman Essay Questions

1.   Walt Whitman is often considered to be a larger-than-life poet, writing expansive lines and embracing the whole of America as his inspiration. In "Song of Myself" (Part 31), however, he writes, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars." How does Whitman call attention to small objects in "Song of Myself"? Why do you think he called his life's work Leaves of Grass? What does "a leaf of grass" mean to Whitman? To you?

2.   Whitman writes in "Song of Myself, "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ I am large, I contain multitudes." Discuss some of the contradictions you discover while reading. How do these contradictions resonate for you?

3.   In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman imagines that each subsequent traveler on the ferry would look into the water and see the same visions that he saw. "Closer yet I approach you...I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born," he writes. In this and many other poems in Leaves of Grass, Whitman seems to be talking directly to you, the future reader of his poems. How does it feel to be directly addressed? Does this change the way you read the book?

4.   Two of Whitman's most famous poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!", are about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Compare the types of speech in each poem. What differences do you hear between the two poems?

5.   In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Whitman begins with a mockingbird, "Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle," and continues to come back to the mockingbird, a native American bird, throughout the poem. What images and associations does the idea of a mockingbird conjure for you? Does Whitman imitate other sounds in this poem? What role does the mockingbird play in the poem?

6.   When Whitman had the opportunity to create an audio recording of one of his poems, he chose the poem "America." Read the poem silently and then aloud. If possible, listen to the recording of Whitman reading it at Does he sound like you expected him to sound? How is sound important to the meaning in the poem? What poems would you want to hear in Whitman's voice?

7.   In "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand" Whitman implores us to "Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;/ For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,/ And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally." He also warns us that "For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,/ Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it." What does the poem suggest about the physical act of reading? And of writing? And of speaking to another? What do these things mean to you?

Walt Whitman and You: Personas of the Reader Developed Through Direct Address in Leaves of Grass

By: Leah Chamberlain 
Knox College Common Room: Volume 3, Number 1
January 10, 1998

                     Thou Reader
Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, 
 Therefore for thee the following chants. 
-- Walt Whitman 

What is a man anyhow?  What am I?  What are you? 
               Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" (line 391) 

In the poetry of Walt Whitman, such rhetorical questions are often asked--what am I?  What are you?  But in analyzing this same poetry, another question arises:  who is this you that Whitman speaks to? 

You is, above all else, the reader.  Certainly many of Whitman's poems utilize the pronoun "you" traditionally, referring to an object or being directly defined within the poem (this is particularly true within the Drum-Taps poems.)  Additionally, Whitman uses "you" in many places to address himself, thereby intensifying his poetic presence.  However, there is a substantial group of Whitman's poems in which the "you" becomes a direct address from the speaker to the reader. 

In addition to simply understanding "you" as the reader, however, it is necessary to define this particular, unique speaker-reader relationship with an effective term.  Perhaps the closest literary term is that of "apostrophe."  However, apostrophe is defined by M.H. Abrams as "a direct and explicit address either to an absent person or to an abstract or nonhuman entity" (182).  With this definition, we see that apostrophe is in fact in opposition to the effect Whitman was trying to achieve-- that of an immediate and personal connection to the reader who is very much present in the poetic experience.  This leaves a variety of vague words:  "you," "reader," "reader-you."  Perhaps the most effective term is that of "addressee."  This term not only accounts for the speaker's tone, it also gives a sense of the interaction between the speaker and the reader.  In order for there to be an addressee, there must be an addressor speaking directly to that addressee.  Further, by using the term addressee, we get a sense that there is a concrete aim for the speaker's words: a human, living reader.  And, just as Whitman's extremely human "I" takes on a myriad of personas, so does the addressee of his poetry. *

There are four main personas given to the addressee by Whitman's directed poetry:  the child/student you, the comrade/intimate you (or, in Whitman's diction, the "camerado"), the future you, and the alien/other you.  Further, as each of these personas has its own unique characteristics, so does the voice of the speaker in addressing such a persona.  Thus we receive poems that are alternately informing, inviting, sharing with, and pushing away the reader. 

Before looking at specific poetic examples, however, it is important to understand Whitman's use of the direct address in a more historical setting.  Whitman's personal you can be directly linked to the journalistic work of his earlier years.  Ezra Greenspan notes, "The journalistic style of intimate address to the reader was extremely common in the midcentury years. . . [using] caressing tones designed to cultivate a bond of familiarity between reader, editor, and journal" (107).  Indeed, directly addressing the "gentle reader" was also common among prose authors of the time.  Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Linda Brent (aka Harriet Jacobs) often spoke directly to their readers, or in the very least made generalized appeals to their moral sensibilities. The device was a way of connecting to the literary audience.  However, as Greenspan points out, "with Whitman. . . the engagement of the reader was more dynamic and lasting than it was with his major contemporaries, and more sincere and serious than with journalistic usage" (109). 

Whitman's poetry exuded more power than the works of his peers, both journalistically and literarily, in major part because of the way he approached his audience.  It is important to understand that Whitman saw his readers as just that:  an active audience.  In fact, many of his poems had their root in public lectures that Whitman gave.  C. Carroll Hollins notes that the unique aspects of Whitman's poetry were made possible "chiefly because he went from plans for oratory to poetry without giving up the immediacy of the speech act:  present tense, first person (as speaker), second person (as audience), the illocutionary force of a message" (96; emphasis added).  By using such direct conversational devices, Whitman was able to connect with his reader as no other poet did. 

Further, Whitman did not desire to reach only a readership which was small or in any way limited to the academic elite.  He strove to reach the everyman, in fact so strenuously that he has been considered obsessive (Greenspan 109).  He saw his audience as perhaps the most important element of the poetry, saying "The reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem . . . the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work" (Mason 41).  Or, as he more bluntly put it, "To have great poets there must be great audiences" (Greenspan 127).  Numerous reworkings and revisions were integral in creating every edition of Leaves of Grass as Whitman attempted to reach every reader most effectively.  Yet at the same time that Whitman intended to address such a wide ranging audience, he also made certain assumptions about that readership.  He had faith in their ability to read and understand the goals of his poems.  He assumed an intelligent audience. 

In assuming intelligence,  Whitman assumed the reader's ability to synthesize unique thoughts and the desire for further knowledge.  He did not, however, always assume a completely knowledgeable reader, particularly when it came to the more universal, spiritual aspects of life.  This allowed Whitman's speaker to take on an all-knowing, omniscient persona, which in turn gave the addressee the role of a child or student. 

This style of "platform poetry" is marked most by its use of rhetorical questions, aimed directly at the reader (Hollins 91).   In particular, "Song of Myself" repeatedly poses such questions to the addressee.  At various times, the speaker asks such things as, "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" (line 32), "Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?" (line 382),  and the aforementioned "What are you?"  Certainly, not all the questions presented in "Song of Myself" are so extremely direct as to use you.  Yet the vast majority of the questions are clearly aimed at the reader, intended to elicit some type of response.  And, not just any response, but a thoughtful one.  These questions are posed with the intention of expanding the addressee's knowledge-- often through the work of the addressee him- or herself.  Indeed, we know that this individual search for knowledge is meant as one of the major ideas behind "Song of Myself" because we are told so by the speaker as the poem nears its conclusion:  "You are also asking me questions and I hear you,/ I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself" (lines 1223-1224). 

Yet, while the speaker claims to be unable to answer, the questions are also clearly not asked solely for the addressee alone to answer.  A major factor in creating the child/student you in "Song of Myself" is the speaker's insistence on answering his own questions (or a least attempting very stridently to answer his own questions).  Whitman has clearly put large amounts of effort into "play[ing] the role of the persuader" (Greenspan 125).  Further, there is a tone to the speaker's words which give the reader the feeling of having inferior knowledge.  Several lines actually refer to the addressee as "son," while others use metaphors of the teacher-student relationship ("Eleves, I salute you! come forward!/ Continue your annotations, continue your questionings" (line 974-975)).   But it is when the speaker begins to talk about the more spiritual aspects that his most omniscient voice comes through.  "I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal fathomless as myself,/ (They do not know how immortal, but I know)" (lines 34-35).  Or, "I know I am solid and sound,/ To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow/ All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means" (lines 404-406).  With lines such as these, the speaker is telling us boldly that the secrets of the universe come to him to be unraveled-- in fact, at several points he goes so far as to tell us that he is the secret of the universe.  At others, he takes the addressee aside (often through the use of parentheses, as in line 35 above), and lets the addressee know just how much important knowledge he is confiding.  All this-- tone, diction, manner of direct address-- work together to give the reader a distinct persona of one in reception of the speaker's knowledge-- the child/student you.

Yet, toward the end of "Song of Myself" we come across the line, "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher" (line 1236).  This causes us to once again consider Whitman's purpose in writing such lines.  Superior though they may feel, they are indeed a way of drawing the addressee to a higher level.  Whitman wanted his readers to move beyond a flat acceptance of what was written; he encouraged the asking of questions and even the disputing of what he had written.  And the procession of "Song of Myself" does bring the addressee through a kind of metamorphosis, culminating by reaching  a point where "the poet and reader merge, not to lose individual identities but to become fellow travelers and conversants" (Mason 46).   Thus we see the emergence of the second major persona of Whitman's addressee:  the comrade/intimate you. 

It is necessary to pause here a moment to discuss more thoroughly the importance of personal connection in Whitman's works.  Greenspan provides a "brief Whitman lexicon" of some thirty-six terms for "expressing union," among them "intercommunication," "banding," "spanned," and, of course, "camerado" (110).  It is clear that establishing connection was a preoccupation among Whitman's poems.  Yet it was more than a desire for connection, it was the desire for an intimate connection, the desire to create a bond with someone on a unique, elevated level of understanding.  As Basil De Selincourt said, "The poem, as Whitman conceives it, is to remain fundamentally a conversation. It is to be the expression by me to you of the feelings which are as much yours as mine, and would undoubtedly have been expressed by you to me but for the accident of my being the more garrulous of the two" (Greenspan 126).  Whitman's longing for such mutuality of feeling has been well discussed both in terms of his actual personality and in terms of the personas he assumes through his poetry.  The fact that he was so driven to establish a human connection while seemingly emotionally inadequate at actually doing so creates an interesting paradox.  Yet from this paradox, Whitman created "Song of Myself," which in turn was designed to develop a reader prepared to maintain this intimate relationship with the speaker.  Knowing that he had nurtured such an audience, Whitman was then able to expose the newly intimate reader to his "frailest leaves":  the Calamus poems, in which the reader becomes the comrade/intimate you.

Among the Calamus poems, there are few which do not speak directly of the idea of camaraderie, or "adhesiveness."  Further, there are a considerable number which speak directly to the reader as if he or she was present in the room with the speaker.  In fact, "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand" embodies the speaker in the book.  In addition to this more concrete connection through a holdable object, however, the poem's title also brings about an image of holding hands.  The speaker never directly says which is his intention, and by assuming the validity of both meanings, we get a very intense feeling of attachment to the speaker.  Not only have we been given a tangible, physically present connection, we have also been given the feeling that we are considered intimate enough to hold hands.  Indeed, it would almost seem that in holding the book and reading the poem, we are in fact taking the speaker's hand. 

Most notable about the method of direct address in Calamus, however, is not its bold and significant presence, but the tone of the address.  It is clear that Whitman has abandoned his former omniscience for familiarity.  The poems of Calamus are more lilting, more teasing, more doubting, and much more confidential.  We feel now as if we are being spoken to by someone who is very much our equal.  Further, we feel the hesitancy in many of the poems, and therefore feel privileged by the exchange, recognizing, as Greenspan puts it, that "these love buds are not for everyone . . . [Whitman] was reserving the choicest tokens for the exclusive few" (204).  These aspects of the section are most clearly seen in "Earth, My Likeness."  While the poem seems at first to be addressed to the earth, it nonetheless holds the confiding tone so integral to the Calamus works.  The most striking thing about "Earth, My Likeness" is that is goes beyond simply conversing intimately and reaches a level of secrecy rarely seen elsewhere.  The use of words such as "impassive," "suspect," "fierce" and "terrible" signal to the reader that this is a topic which frightens the speaker; something of which he is afraid to speak.  In fact, the speaker tells the addressee straightforwardly, "I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs" (line 7).  However, in simply approaching the topic, the speaker has begun to reveal, has shown the desire to reveal.  The tone which this imparts on the poem reinforce the reader's feeling that he or she is being told a secret.  The speaker is putting the utmost confidence in the addressee that the secret, or even the idea that such a terrible secret exists at all, will be kept. 

Perhaps what is most striking about these poems in which the addressee is considered a confidante is their inviting aspect.  We feel as if the speaker has been waiting for us to come along so that he would be able to speak to us.  Take, for example, the poem "Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?"  At first glance, the piece may seem to be rejecting the addressee.  Lines such as, "Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy'd satisfaction?"  and "Do you think I am trusty and faithful?" (lines 5-6), when taken alone, appear very confrontational.  And indeed, there is a tone of challenge to the poem.  However, the challenge is a friendly one.  The poet does not say that the addressee should cease to approach.  He only gives fair warning that he may not be what the addressee assumes.  In not turning the addressee away, the speaker in fact invites him or her closer.   As Howard J. Waskow puts it, "Whitman's warnings are also promises" (65).  Further, while the image the reader has may be "all maya, illusion" (line 9), it seems the sincere desire of the speaker is to be understood in reality.  If the addressee will approach honestly, putting aside preconceived notions, Whitman will fulfill his implied promise-- the chance for the addressee to know him.  For he truly wishes to be known and understood as a true comrade would be-- intimately. 

In Calamus, Whitman made the reader an intimate confidante; now the reader is prepared to go one step further and truly merge with the speaker, becoming an integral part of his existence and vice versa.  This is achieved through the third major addressee persona:  the future you.  Whitman's you of the future is not necessarily directed beyond the time of the individual reader, but it is placed in a time ahead of that of the speaker himself.  On this point the generally strict line between author and speaker can be blurred, for the speaker, in order to address a reader of the future must in some way be anchored in the past.  The most effective way to do this is naturally to place the speaker in the time period of the writer himself.  This is particularly true in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," as the setting described by the speaker is that of Whitman's mid-nineteenth century Brooklyn. 

Whitman's ability to link the past and the future is remarkably effective.  Ezra Pound reacted to this effectiveness, saying, "I honor him for he prophesied me while I can only recognize him as a forbearer of whom I ought to be proud."  Yet for Pound, the link went even further than prophesy.  Whitman's poetry was able to establish a very concrete, affecting connection which prompted Pound to say of the poet nearly a century after the poems were written, "Mentally, I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt"  (191-192).  What is it about Whitman's addressee of the future that creates such a feeling of shared experience? 

By looking closely at the use of direct address in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," we can begin to understand Whitman's future effectiveness.  The reader is first directly addressed in line five, and the speaker marvels at "the similitudes of the past and those of the future" in line 8.  However, it is not until we read lines 21 and 22 that we thoroughly take on the role of the personal audience.  "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence/ Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt." Here we suddenly realize what Whitman is doing.  He is not giving us the all-knowing speaker, nor the speaker who is currently experiencing an intimate moment.  Instead, the speaker has given the reader and his or her experiences the authority of emotion.  "Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd / Just as you are refreshed . . . I was refreshed/  Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried/ Just as you look on. . . I look'd."  (lines 23-26) "Just as you feel. . . so I felt."   The speaker does not tell us how we must feel dependent on  his terms, he tells us how he felt dependent on our terms.  Thus the poem becomes, in the words of Kerry C. Larson, "not so much communication as communion" (Killingsworth 115).  By prefacing the listing of the experiences he knew with such a viewpoint, Whitman indeed makes the poem belong equally to the addressee.  The addressee is able to share the experience with the speaker because the speaker has given him or her the power to do so.  Thus when the poem makes the leap from the concrete experience to the greater human experience, the addressee is able to leap as well.  (In fact, the reader may have already taken this leap while considering concretely his or her link to the past.)  "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" does not so much proclaim the continuity of the human soul as ponder it.  "Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?" (line 91).  We are not told; we are asked to consider what might be.  Again, the experience is shared through the intimacy the reader feels based on Whitman's approach. Line 98 is perhaps the most effective in the poem in reinforcing this effect.  By saying, "We understand then do we not?" Whitman avoids placing higher knowledge on either addressee or speaker, while at the same time intensifying their connectedness.  This intensification "necessarily leads him to a deeper exploration of their common humanity," and once again allows the addressee to move between the concrete and the    abstract (Greenspan 171).  In the final stanza, the speaker represents both himself and the addressee in speaking toward yet a third entity-- "you dumb beautiful ministers," objects of nature and space which survive time to link those living in different time periods (Greenspan 173).  Yet by this time, the future you has already become an integral part in the experience of the (past-linked) speaker, and therefore in many ways is also a part of the final, universally tying speech.  Thus the future you, through inclusion in the essence of the poet, achieves a higher intimacy than the camerado ever could. 

In stark comparison to the three earlier personas of the directly addressed reader, the final major role that Whitman's poetry gives to its addressee is that of the wholly alien reader-- one with whom the speaker can imagine no connecting bond.  This voice is noticeably absent from both "Song of Myself" and the Calamus poems, and is particularly unrelateable to the oneness achieved in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."  Certainly, Whitman has several poems which approach the addressee doubtfully, questioning his or her motives in approaching both text and speaker.  This is particularly true among the Calamus works, with such pieces as "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand" and "Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?".  Yet, as was pointed out earlier,  in reading these poems there is still a feeling of welcome.  The speaker may be questioning our motives, but he does so in a sincere desire to educate us otherwise.   However, the "Drum-Taps" poem "To A Certain Civilian" gives the reader none of this welcome.  It is harsh, biting, and in the end pushes the addressee quite forcefully away. 

Once again, it is important to understand the historical (and biographical) circumstances which influenced this poem.  "Drum-Taps" was written in response to the Civil War, a war during which Whitman volunteered, nursing wounded soldiers.  Naturally, such an experience profoundly affected the poet.  He noted the effect of the war experience on Leaves of Grass, saying, "It is certain . . . that only from the strong flare and provocation of that war's sights and scenes the final reason-for-being of an autochthonic and passionate song definitely came forth" (Schwiebert 53).  Although the entire work was affected, there is a clearly a distinct change in the voice of "Drum-Taps," those poems which directly describe the war experience.  We no longer feel as if we are being talked to by an equal or even a teacher.  In fact, the reader is rarely addressed at all.   Probably in part because he cannot fully come to terms with them himself, the speaker cannot fully express what he has experienced, much less express them to an active audience.

How then to treat the reader who wishes to hear about the war?  How to react to inquiries about its effect?  Based on "To A Certain Civilian," the reaction was one of mistrust and anger.  For the first time, the addressee is not given the assumption of intelligence above all, but instead the assumption of ignorance.  Further, the speaker clearly wants to separate himself from this addressee, in fact he "defiantly differentiates his warlike self . . . from 'a Certain' complacent civilian, who prefers soothing 'piano-tunes' to the unsettling music of war" (Schwiebert 111).  The final lines in particular show the speaker's attitude toward the alien reader:  "What to such as you anyhow such a poet as I?  therefore leave my works,/ And go lull yourself with what you can understand, and with piano-tunes,/ For I lull nobody, and you will never understand me" (lines 8-10).  The speaker has distinctly told the addressee to go away; to abandon the attempt at understanding.  Understanding, for the alien you, will not ever be reached.  The experience of the speaker is too far removed from anything the addressee will ever know.  While this type of distanced viewpoint is common among all the Drum-Taps poems, it is most striking in "Civilian" because of its direct address. 

Certainly, in this solitary instance of Whitman violently and unapologetically pushing away the reader, we understand that the audience has been somewhat limited to those readers who are civilians.  This in turn leads us to question the intended audience of the "Drum-Taps" collection.  It appears that this is one collection in which Whitman perceived no audience, no connectedness, and no hope of ever reaching either. 

This tremendous disparity of addressees in Leaves of Grass--student/child, intimate, future, and alien-- causes us to question: what are the implications of having so many different personas thrust upon the reader?  Perhaps it can best be seen as parallel to the final effect of the multiple I's of Whitman's speaker.  These I's combine, in the end, into an overarching, cosmic figure.  They create through a variety of personas and perspectives a large, cohesive speaker who is consistently present throughout Leaves of Grass.  This figure can be taken to represent the poet Whitman himself, not simply as a poet of one style or narrative form, but as a complex and very real person.  In the same manner, the different roles given to reader can be seen to combine to create a larger persona:  that of a cosmic you.  Thus, as the reader was allowed to assume different personas, he or she was able to experience different parts of him or herself.  In this unique way, Whitman is further able to connect with his readers as real people, people who actually exist beyond the imagination of the speaker, and even the imagination of the poet.  The multiple addressees combine to form one dynamic reader.

In 1884, Richard Maurice Bucke wrote, "Leaves of Grass is curiously a different book to each reader" (143).  No statement could be more true.  Because Whitman's works combine to allow the addressees to be parts of a greater, more cosmic whole, it is only logical that each reader would have a unique response.  Yet within the personal experience of every reader, there is also a shared experience of the many personas that Whitman built into his perceived audience.  The student/child you, the comrade/intimate you, the future you, and the alien/other you are all constructs placed upon the reader through deliberate, delicate poetic work.  In reading Leaves of Grass, we go through a spectrum of emotions and beings, just as Whitman intended, and just as he experienced in writing the poetry.  And in the end, we feel validated as real people who possess a role, however large or small, in the same universe that Whitman himself inhabited. 


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