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

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 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.

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 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.

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

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 luckier.

I love this poem by Whitman. I love that way the poet meditates on a single, simple image — of grass — and manages to create the wealth of wisdom and beauty that is presented here. This poem is a meditation of the meaning of life — and death — and presents a beautiful image of continual renewal and rebirth.

The entire poem is provoked by the simple, innocent question of a child asking “What is the grass?” and the speaker realises that he is as clueless as the child. Of course, the broader significance here is in reference to the wonderful creation (or equally wonderful random phenomenon) of the world. And the poet presents us with a series of explanations.

The first explanation given by Whitman is that the grass is “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful, green stuff woven”. Here the poet is delivering the notion that we see in the world as a reflection of our own dispositions, our own hopes.

Or perhaps, suggests Whitman, the grass is the “handkerchief” of God, “designedly dropped” so that we might infer a creator for our world. Has our Maker created the grass so green and beautiful in order to draw our attention to His might and glory?

Perhaps the grass is “a child itself” — the “babe of vegetation”. For me, this image conjures the idea of world being a product of itself, and part of an endless cycle of nature — of birth and death.

The next suggestion that the poet makes is that the grass is a “hieroglyphic” — a symbolic entity from which we may derive wisdom. Perhaps it has metaphorical significance: the grass grows alike in the zones of rich and poor people, among “black folks as among white”, and we as human beings ought to live the same way. We should take lessons from the democracy of the grass, and treat all people equally (“I give them the same, I receive them the same”.) These were vital  notions for Whitman, who had lived through the Civil War, and seen so much violence, death and suffering over the question of slavery.

The grass also becomes, through the voice of Whitman, the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The poet talks about the dead who were old, as well as the dead who were young — “offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps”. I like this about Whitman — he does not shy away from reality, or from mentioning that there are horrors in this world, as some poets do. I think that the descriptions here of tragedy and the death of the young reflects the atrocities of the American Civil War, during which Whitman spent time working in a hospital caring for wounded and dying soldiers. Whitman allows us to see death in this poem, but he also shows us his compassion: “It may be if I had known them I would have loved them”. The fact that Whitman allows death into his vision here creates, for me at least, the notion of an eternal cycle of life and death — of death breeding life and life breeding death, and so on. Tragedy and pain are not ignored in this poem, but rather acknowledged as part of an endless renewal and cycle of life. It reminds me of how we are all constantly dying and being reborn, in a spiritual and psychological sense.

“The smallest sprouts show there is really no death”. I love this line. And if there “ever was” death, says Whitman, then it “led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,/ and ceased the moment life appeared.” Even where there is death, and suffering, it is always leading to life, and healing — it is not waiting to damn us “at the end”. There is always new life after death — always the cycle continues — and death ceases to be, the moment life reappears.

“And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” I really love this final line; it is mysterious, and beautiful, and full of hope.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh