Reconciling Disparate Objects in “Leaves of Grass”

May 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Walt Whitman’s begins this excerpt from Leaves of Grass by describing an elusive ‘this’: “This is the meal pleasantly set . . . . this is the meat and drink for natural hunger.” These two clauses that are set next to each other describe ‘this’ as very different things. “A meal pleasantly set,” evokes a quiet table in a genteel household. In contrast, “the meat and drink for natural hunger,” recalls a more rugged table at which the food will be consumed after strenuous activity. How can one thing–‘this’–have such opposing properties? The entire excerpt is defined by the outward contradictions such as this one. Whitman’s poetic rhetoric, however, attempts to create an internal unity from the contradictions. By unifying things that seem diametrically opposed Whitman emphasizes the possibility for reconciliation between disparate objects.Whitman places two contrasting ideas next to each other at all levels of the excerpt. The most prominent level at which he does this is in the images, as in the first line. He continues setting contrasting images on either side of ellipses when he again describes the ‘this’: “This is the touch of my lips to yours . . . . this is the murmur of yearning.” The contrast here is between the corporeal sensation referenced in the first clause, and the more internal emotive sensation expressed in the second clause. Two contrasting ideas again appear in the larger theme of the excerpt. In the beginning he makes a list of people with very different characteristics, and says that he will “make appointments for all.” The inclusivity of the early moments is in sharp contrast to the exclusivity of the last line of the excerpt where he says, “I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.” On the largest scale, Whitman creates a contrast in the structural elements of the poem. The poem begins with a disorganized array of clauses‹some set around ellipses, some standing alone. There is no consistency in the meter, which makes it feel more like one of the catalogues Whitman frequently uses. On the other end of the poem, the last two lines are structured as a neat couplet.He explicitly seeks to unify all of these contrasts when, after the cataloguing first stanza in which he has mentioned so many objects, he explains, “There shall be no difference between them and the rest.” Whitman perpetuates this idea in a much more fundamental and convincing way‹through his poetic rhetoric. Whitman’s famous catalogues are the first step in creating this unity. By placing seemingly disparate things next to each other and by recognizing no difference other than that inherent in the description‹as he does with the two dining tables‹Whitman places the objects in an equality, even if it only is on the page. While the reader may be taken aback by the initial equation, through repetition‹the essence of the catalogue‹Whitman dulls the readers reaction to the contrast between objects. He thereby covertly lulls the reader into accepting a fundamental unity. In this particular excerpt Whitman reinforces this idea by his ubiquitous use of “this.” By making everything a description of some un-named “this,” Whitman emphasizes the fact that all of these seemingly disparate objects can come together in one unified form. As with the catalogues, through describing “this,” as so many things, Whitman dulls the reader’s guard against the improbability of the descriptions.Rather than telling the reader how to view these contrasts, then, Whitman demonstrates how to view them, and forces the reader into believing that “There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”

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