Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry


Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Symbolism in Walt Whitman's Poetry

Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

‘Symbol’, in the broadest sense of the term, is anything that signifies something else. In other words, it is an object or event which is used to suggest a range of references beyond itself. To say again in other words, a symbol is a thing or object the significance or meaning or nature of which is attributed to another thing. In literature, symbols are of two kinds as—first, conventional symbols and second is private or invented symbols. Conventional symbols are those things or events the significance of which are universally recognized and have been used by poets or writers through the ages. The private or invented symbols refer to those objects or things taken after the choice of the poet or writer to signify individual purpose. There is an abundant use of symbols in the poetry of Walt Whitman. His symbols are both conventional and private. In many of his symbols, he has attributed mystic meaning. As symbols he has taken: stars, plants, birds, flowers, clouds, night etc.

In the long poem, ‘Song of Myself’ he frequently used ‘I’ which refers not only to Walt Whitman himself but has a symbolic significance of everyman. His use of ‘I’ thus gets a universal meaning and it refers to every individual person. He says in section 1 of the poem:

‘I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume, you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Again in  section-3, he says:

”Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear 

and sweet is all that is not my soul.”

In section-6, he introduces a piece of grass and has attributed five symbolic meanings such as:

”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


Or I guess the grass is itself a child,

the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic… .”

In the poem ‘When Lilac Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed’, Whitman employs several symbols as lilacs, Venus, thrush, star, black-clouds etc, to symbolize President Abraham Lincoln. All these symbols symbolize birth, death, and resurrection. The ‘star’ and ‘Venus’ symbolize the bright career of Lincoln and the ‘dark-cloud’ which covers the star symbolizes the death of Abraham Lincoln. The ‘lilac’ symbolizes ‘life and love’. The ‘thrush’ symbolizes the song of rebirth.

The poem ‘Out of the Cradle Endless Rocking’, contains some symbolic objects of nature. Amongst them, the ‘bird’ symbolizes the sufferance and death in Nature and the ‘sea’ symbolizes ‘motherhood’ which in turn symbolizes birth and life.

‘The Sleeper’ is a poem that abounds in symbols. In it, he uses ‘night’ as a symbol of death, ‘sleep’ as the symbol of the grave. In the poem ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ he attributes symbolic meaning to ‘ferry’ and wants to suggest that ‘ferry’ is a symbol of universal brotherhood where many people come and meet. ‘The Crossing Brooklyn’ signifies the crossing of time on the earth to heaven. Thus the ‘ferry’ becomes a medium of death and re-birth.

‘The Passage to India’ is another poem where the poet attributes symbolic meaning to ‘Passage’. By it, he wants to suggest that the ‘passage’ from west to east does not only mean the physical passage to India but the spiritual passage from western thoughts to eastern thoughts. Hence, the passage is a journey-work from earthliness to heavenliness. 

Thus the poet Walt Whitman uses symbols in his poems to interpret his outlook on life and things. By employing symbols he attributes wider meanings to his poems. He suggests more, to say in other words, by introducing symbolic meaning to the objects of nature. He admits:

”I myself but write one or two indicative words for future

I but advance a moment only to wheel and 

hurry back in the darkness


Leaving it to you to prove and define it

Expecting the main things from you.” 0 0 0

Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

N.B. The article ‘Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry’ originally belongs to the book ‘Walt Whitman’s Poetry A Thematic Study‘ by Menonim Mennimus.

Symbolism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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I am Menonim Menonimus, a Philosopher & Writer.


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