`Whitman was always asking questions. He believed that life's goal or cause was a mystery. He was surrounded by people who were drawing distinct lines between right and wrong, rejecting the things in the universe that were not a direct ticket to holiness. Whitman, unlike his contemporaries, embraced the beauty of everything. His mystical perception of the world ushered in the idea that God was to be found in every thing, and that He could never be fully understood. I think that section six of "Song of Myself" captures Whitman's quest for knowing, and his idea that our perceptions of what is, only scratch the surface.
How appropriate that he starts this section with a question posed by a child, "What is the grass?" Whitman wants to answer, but realizes that he can't. Nature provides so many opportunities for interpretation. It is, on one hand, the abstract "flag of [his] disposition", but in the next stanza, the more tangible "handkerchief of the Lord." Notice that he "guesses" each time what the grass might be. Whitman would never be so strict as to impose his ideas or beliefs on anyone, or to assume that he was any more right than the next person. In line 110, he says, "O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!" I love his tolerance, his ability to admit that everything is what we "perceive" it to be, in a world where everyone was bound by rules and laws.
Who and where is God in this poem? His first direct reference to God is in the fourth stanza when he suggests that the grass may be a handkerchief of the Lord. He says that it is "A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, / Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that...
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...of the first self-professed homosexuals in America). The grass then becomes this nurturing thing, as it could be growing from the grave of a baby. He mentions that the grass is too dark to be from the heads or beards of the elderly, which says to me that they are living somewhere as a youth. He later says of the old men and women, "They are alive and well somewhere; / the smallest sprout shows there really is no death...And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier."
Whitman then sees the "uttering tongues...[who]...do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing." This grass, again, is purposed. It is trying to tell us something. It is telling us something. Whitman has painted, for me, a picture of opportunity. Life is whatever you make of it. It is there, purposed, forever new, forever fresh, and it is up to us to learn from it.
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