The Picture of the Poet

We began the last discussion with a discussion of sound. This one begins with an image—that of the unusual appearance of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The book has a green cover and gold-embossed, organic-looking lettering. It looked like a book of domestic fiction more than a serious effort. Most surprisingly, no author's name appeared anywhere on the cover or first pages.

Inside, the first image of Whitman is that of a provocative and confident working man looking up from the frontispiece. Second, there were the titles of the poems—or the lack of titles. The first six poems were titled "Leaves of Grass " while the other six were untitled.

What is the significance of the title itself? Grass has connotations of an Edenic setting with the book itself, its pages, seen as leaves. "Leaves of Grass " was also an obvious metaphor for the unregulated, "organically grown" lines of the poems in the "leaves" of the book. But Whitman was also using "grass" as a symbol of American democracy. Simple and universal, grass represents common ground. Each leaf (Whitman thought the proper word "blade" was literally too sharp) has a singular identity, yet is a necessary contributor to the whole. Likewise, each reader will find that he or she is part of Leaves of Grass—a book about all Americans that could have been written by any American (hence, the removal of the author's name).

A first edition copy of Leaves of Grass
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