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.

First published in Leaves of Grass, 1855

To begin, Whitman is asked by a child what grass is. Whitman is not sure how to respond, but he begins simply, suggesting that grass is like the “flag of [his] disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” Thus, he connects grass to one of his own positive qualities: his optimistic nature. This appreciative view carries to the second stanza, when Whitman suggests grass is a “scented gift…designedly dropped” from God, or even a “produced babe of the vegetation.” Through each of these lines, Whitman’s view of grass grows (no pun intended), leading him to provide social commentary on race relations by saying it grows “among black folks as among white,” and ends by describing it as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Thus, grass in Whitman’s poetic eye is connected to birth, to disposition, to religion, to society, and finally to death. It’s no wonder this all-encompassing object of nature serves as part of the title of this incredible piece of work.

Walter “Walt” Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. Leaves of Grass served as a radical change from the poetic norms of the time. Its open, controversial subject matter caused a ripple in American society, causing many to dismiss the work. However, Whitman’s poetry caught the eye of many greats, such as Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892. 


–Virginia Kettles