When you read the poem “A Child said, What is the grass?” you may not realise this, but it’s a reflection about a changing world. A world that was more than green fields of grass. Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) wrote the poem as if he was describing the thoughts of a child.
About the poem
When you compare the cities of the nineteenth century to those of centuries before, you can see a lot of differences. Cities grew larger large rand were filled with industry. Those places that were once green now turned into stone. But those locations where there was room for grass were pretty much ignored. That is what it’s all about. It’s like Whitman is meditating on why people seem to have forgotten fields of grass.
Ignorance is one thing, but Whitman continues. There is something more to grass. He beliefs it’s dropped by God to think about hope. Isn’t the grass always green and this signifies hope. It’s more than that: grass is new life and yet it connects life and death.
Throughout history, grass has always been important for expressing certain feelings. Not just basic emotions. It was the big metaphor, the connecting dot.
Whitman went further than all of this. He recognised that we humans give lives for God and country. In a way, this is also a reflection of his thoughts about the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). He witnessed this war from closeby, because of his work in a New York hospital during this war. He saw what war could do to people.
To have a child ask such a basic question about what grass is, with such a complex answer leaves us with a powerful poem.
A Child said, What is the Grass?
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
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
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
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
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
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
— Walt Whitman