A child said, What is the grass? Poem by Walt Whitman Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “A child said, What is the grass?” was written by Walt Whitman. The poem appears in the sixth section of his“Song of Myself”. Earlier this work was not separated into sections. “Songs of Myself” was included in his collection of poetry “Leaves of Grass”. In 1855 this poetry collection was published with a collection of 12 untitled poems. This collection was revised until his death.

About the Poet:

Walter Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. He is considered one of the most influential poets in American history. Whitman is called as the father of free verse. During his time his poems seems to be  controversial, particularly his  poetry collection Leaves of Grass which was published in 1855. Whitman greatly admired Abraham Lincoln’s, on the assassination of Lincoln he composed two poems, O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d“.


The poem “A child said, What is the grass?” was written by Walt Whitman.It is written in free verse form. The poem has 32 lines in total.

Poem Analysis:

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.

The poem begins with a child asking a  question to the speaker. The child asks “What is the grass?” The speaker feels it hard for him to answer the child. He feels that he hardly knows any better than the child does. He goes on to describe certain assumptions to answer the childs question.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

So, the speakert, first describes the grass as  "the flag of my disposition," woven from his own hopes.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Then the speaker describes the grass as the “handkerchief the Lord,” intended to remind us of His power. Here the speaker portrays God as a lady who drops her handkerchief for her beloved as a sign of gift. 

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

After some time the speaker calls the grass as a child 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.

Then the speaker calls the grass as a “uniform hieroglyphic,”. He says that  the grass grows around all people regardless of race or identity. It don’t discriminate people by their colour or place of living. Unlike human who discriminate people grass just grows on all the places.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

In this line, the speaker says that the grass looks like the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Here he is making a comparision.

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, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,

And here you are the mothers’ laps.

The speaker continues by saying  that he will “tenderly use” the grass, considering the possibilities of its origin. The speaker describes that the grass  may have come from the breasts of young men whom he might have loved. On the otherhand the grass may have grown out of the remains of old people, women, or children who died in their young age.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

The speaker thinks that the grass is very dark. So it might  have come from the white hairs of old mothers. He also says grass looks darker than the colorless beards of old men.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

The speaker says that wishes he could translate the hints about the young men or women who are death and liying under the grass. He wishes to even hint about old men and mothers and the children who lost their life at a very young age. So, the speaker is actualky wishing to translate  the grass’ hints about the individuals who lie beneath it. 

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

Here, the poet has used a poetuc technique called rhetorucal question. So, the speaker is asking for the reader‘s opinion on what happened to these men, women, and children. In the next few lines he answers his own question.. 

They are alive and well somewhere,

The smallest sprout shows 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 ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

The speaker answers his own question by saying that the people are alive beneath the grass. He says that the sprouts of the grass indicate that death is temporary. He feels like there is really no death for lives. He says even the sprouts of the grass leads to new life.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

The speaker concludes the poem by saying that  death is different in nature and much “luckier”  to people.