Original poem reprinted online here: "A child said, What is the grass?" by Walt Whitman
Originally read: June 11, 2013
More information about the Poet: Walt Whitman
Rhetorical questions at the beginning of poems make me wonder some times technique wise. After the question, does the speaker try to answer it, or does the speaker try to further explain the question with the following lines?
The poem does both. There's an expansion of the scope of the question and the answer which is interplayed with each stanza in which .
The first stanza sets up the question from the perspective from a child, "A child said, What is grass" to the speaker who "I do not know what it it is anymore than he."
But then there's the expansion of what it could be, "I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven." Note that the repeating of this phrase "Or I guess" continues on for the next three stanzas. To me, the repetition shifts the defintions and builds the character of the speaker to be more confident.
"Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord," the analogy here -- grass to Lord's handkerchiefs expands the realistic to the metaphor. And in doing so foreshadows the extent the "answers" and probably the "detailing of the questions" will go. Also note that the stanza continues by using smell imagery, "A scented gift and remebrancer, designedly dropped, / Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we / may see and remark and say whose." And by using the smell imagery, the speaker adds a sense of mysterious and, furthermore, places the people who try to find out what the mystery of the image (smell, and handkerchief)
"Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe / of the vegetation," not so much a deeper context, but a different perspective to show another way of defining grass.
"Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphics," the analogy then turning to language adds a sense of deciphering which is a thread throughout the poem. So through the repetition, the speaker answers the question realistically, metaphorically divine, metaphorically in tune with nature, and metaphorically through linguistics. By doing this, the speaker sort of sets boundaries of the answer to limitless. Now why though?
Within the same stanza the speaker tries to apply this universality of the metaphor to actual people, "growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the /same, I receive them the same." By placing the "grass" (which has been thoroughly symbolized) with people, the speaker is showing no preference in application -- race, or job.
Now this is what the speaker does with the "answers" per se. But past me states for the next stanza, "[the speaker] repurposes the image [grass] to also mean more." This is slightly off. The first line states, "Tenderly will I use you." Instead of repurposing, the line is more of a dissemination of the answer: men, women, old people, mothers.
Then the grass is fully metaphor when it comes to the core of grass, "The grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old / mothers / Darker than the colorless bears of old men, / Dark to come from under the fain red roofs of the mouths." So why the color change? Notice how the dark comes from people -- it's like a false "grass" -- what the speaker is providing is less "dark grass" -- something more pure as defined in the earlier stanzas, grass that is child-like, sought after, the handkerchief of the Lord.
The speaker, who wasn't so confident before, shows confidence with lines like, "O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues! And I perceive they do not come from the roots of mouths / for nothing" To make a proclamation like this shows direction -- I'm just not as sure what he proclaims. The sentence has a tone of chastising through the use of the negative. Yet the statement is in double negative form "do not come" and "nothing" -- so it's positive, right? The grass comes from something.
Anyway. the speaker continues with, "I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women." The line can reference the, "O I guess it is a uniform hieroglyph" line. But the important action here is the "wish" -- this is more of wishing to tell the stories of these people.
And that's the usefulness of "grass" -- lot of metaphor which, ultimately, has this limitation -- metaphors can't tell stories.
So when the speaker turns to rhetorical questions, "What do you think has become of the young and old men? / What do you think has become of the women and children," he's not specifically asking about the status of these people, but their of their lives -- the real and the metaphorical stories behind each character.
The speaker reassures himself, "They are live and well somewhere ; / The smallest sprouts show there is really no death" -- a "darker" image of actual death, but a story untold as well is a form of death. But with every blade of grass, there's a change the metaphor can be used to blossom into something more.
So, "All goes onward and outward" as the speaker states, and, through the prophetic voice, makes this strong claim, "And to dies is different from what any one supported, / and luckier." Death, not so much the ascension to a higher place to be alive (although this is probably the point of the poem to show grass and people analogously linked in a cycle). How about Death as an unknown story beyond the metaphors and meaning -- just an onward and outward chapter.