Had I the Choice Poem by Walt Whitman Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Had I the Choice is a poem by the famous American poet Walt Whitman. The poem first appeared in Whitman’s celebrated work Leaves of Grass. The poem comes under the section Fancies at Navesink published in the 1885 volume. In this poem, Whitman talks about the creative process of writing and speaks of his inclination towards nature and the contribution it can bring to poetry. Whitman says that rather than emulating famous and pioneer writers who have written about novel ideas or characters, he would rather encapsulate the spirit of the sea in his work. 

About the Author 

Born on May 31, 1819, in New Jersey, Walter Whitman Jr. was an American poet, journalist and essayist. He is considered one of the most influential poets in American literature and is often referred to as the “Father of Free Verse”. Whitman’s poetry is characterised by free verse, expansive lines, and a celebration of the human body and spirit; the same can be seen in his most famous literary piece Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman is a key figure in American Transcendentalism and has incorporated the genre of realism in his work. Interestingly, during the American Civil War, Whitman worked in hospitals and treated the wounded. Some of his famous works include The Half-Breed, A Tale of the Western Frontier (1846), Drum-Taps (1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), etc. 


The poem comprises nine lines. Whitman masterfully composed the poem in such a way that one line is short and the succeeding line is longer, in order to represent the waves of the sea. The poem also has Enjambment. 

Lines 1- 2

Had I the choice to tally greatest bards,

To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will,


The poem begins with the speaker presenting us with a hypothetical scenario. The speaker goes on to tell what would happen if he had the choice to “tally” or match the creative genius of all the great bards. The speaker further presents us with an imaginary case where he could write in the likeness of those poets, and emulate their writings at will. 


The poem presents us with a hypothetical question and a choice that the speaker might have. Whitman uses three different words- “tally”, “limn”, and “emulate”- in order to signify his hypothetical ability to write just like the great poets. The use of “tally” suggests an enumeration or assessment, and “limn their portraits” implies creating visual representations of these poets.

Lines 3-5

Homer with all his wars and warriors—Hector, Achilles, Ajax,

Or Shakespeare's woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello—Tennyson's fair ladies,

Meter or wit the best, or choice conceit to wield in perfect rhyme, delight of singers;


Whitman specifies examples of the greatest bards, mentioning Homer with his epic tales of wars and renowned warriors, like Hector, Achilles and Ajax. The speaker next mentions  Shakespeare with his tragic characters like Hamlet, Lear, and Othello and lastly talks about Tennyson and his ability to portray the romantic and lyrical. Here, the speaker is considering the vast range of themes and characters these bards have explored. The speaker goes on to consider inheriting various poetical elements such as meter, wit, and the skill of expressing a clever idea (conceit) in perfect rhyme from the great poets. 


Here, the speaker alludes to pioneer writers and their famous works in order to emphasise the creative strength that he might hypothetically inherit. 

Lines 6-9

These, these, O sea, all these I'd gladly barter,

Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,

Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,

And leave its odor there.


Here, the speaker makes a dramatic shift. The speaker is willing to trade all the previously mentioned poetic attributes for something seemingly simple yet profound—the undulation (movement) of a single wave and its trick or unique characteristic. Whitman further extends the metaphor by expressing a desire for the sea to breathe upon his verse, leaving behind its essence or “odour”. Thus, the speaker is inclined more towards the seascape and its natural prowess rather than the poetic bards and their creative strength. 


Whitman, who was famously known to be a Transcendentalist, has incorporated his beliefs in this poem as well. As a transcendentalist, Whitman has a high regard for the natural world and dedicates his poems to the same. Thus, rather than having the skill to emulate great poets, the poet wishes to encapsulate the essence of the sea in his poems.