I understand the large hearts of heroes Poem by Walt Whitman Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “I understand the large hearts of heroes” was written by Whitman. It appeared in the great “American epic,” “Song of Myself,” Section thirty-three. This poem was published in Leaves of Grass in 1855 which is one of the most important works in American literature. The work “Song of Myself” was divided into fifty-two sections. The fourth edition of the work was published in 1867. The last few lines refer to the First Italian War of Independence (1848–1849).

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 the father of free verse. During his time his poems seem 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 “I understand the large hearts of heroes” by Whitman is a free verse poem. It consists of a total of forty-nine lines. As it is a free verse poem it doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme or metre. 

Point of View:

The poem’s first eleven lines describe the narrative of the skipper who saved the shipwrecked individuals. The overall poem is written from the first-person point of view.

Poem Analysis:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,

The courage of present times and all times,

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,

How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,

And chalk'd in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you;

How he follow'd with them and tack'd with them three days and would not give it up,

How he saved the drifting company at last,

How the lank loose-gown'd women look'd when boated from the side of their prepared graves,

How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp'd unshaved men;

All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,

I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there.

The speaker begins the poem by declaring  that he can understand the large heart of heroes. He is not only talking about the present time men but also about the past time people who had the courage to save the lives of others. The speaker for a instance is talking about a skipper who saved the lives of people. He saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steamship and predicted that Death is chasing them through storm. But the skipper did not give up, he knuckled tight for day and nights. He could see the scared faces of people in the ship, so he encouraged them by writing on a board saying, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you;. He protected them for three days and loyal to his job. Later the speaker describes the faces of people who suffered for three days. The speaker says that he is one of the men who suffered in the ship and saw the courage heart of the skipper.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,

The mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on,

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover'd with sweat,

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Now  the speaker talks about other heroes who did not fight on a battlefield but fought bravely in their day to day lives. The speaker presents a few examples in the following lines. First he says that the martyr of a lost cause was a hero. Next he says that a mother who was condemned for witchcraft and burned alive with dry wood with her children gazing at this tragedy was also a hero. In the next few lines, the speaker describes the condition of a slave. The speaker says that a slave’s body is covered with sweat. The speaker declares that he could  feel the suffering of the slave. The speaker then declares he is that “hounded slave,” wincing at the bite of the dogs. Hell and despair are upon him. The speaker says that he could feel how he clutches the rails of the fence with his body brutally bruised and falls on the weedy, stone-covered ground. In the next few lines, the speaker talks about the riders who come riding in their unwilling horses. The speaker says that the horses are also unwilling to participate in their sadist act. The riders beat the horse violently with their whip stocks. 

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,

My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

The speaker declares that agonies are one of his garments. He mentions that he is unwilling to ask how the wounded person feels. Instead he wants to become himself a wounded person  to describe the same suffering that the wounded person is going through.

I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken,

Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,

Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,

I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,

They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.

I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my sake,

Painless after all I lie exhausted but not so unhappy,

White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared of their fire-caps,

The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

Distant and dead resuscitate,

They show as the dial or move as the hands of me, I am the clock myself.

In these lines the speaker talks about a fireman who was mortally wounded while saving lives from fire. The speaker in the next few lines describes how the body of the fireman  is mashed and his breastbone is broken as the walls have tumbled over him. The speaker takes the position of that fireman. He says how he inhales the smoke and listens to the yelling shouts of his comrades down from the debris. They recover his dead body by clearing the beams away. As the fireman lies in the night air in his red uniform, he can listen to their sighs. The fireman could see the faces of the crowd around him. So he does not feel any pain now. In the next lines, the speaker describes how the crowd fades after the last rites. In the next lines the speaker says that he is the clock himself.

I am an old artillerist, I tell of my fort's bombardment,

I am there again.

Again the long roll of the drummers,

Again the attacking cannon, mortars,

Again to my listening ears the cannon responsive.

I take part, I see and hear the whole,

The cries, cursesroar, the plaudits for well-aim'd shots,

The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip,

Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs,

The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explosion,

The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.

Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,

He gasps through the clot Mind not me—mind—the entrenchments.

The speaker now places himself in the shoes of an old artillerist. He can feel the old man’s emotions while he reports about his fort’s bombardment. In the next stanza, the speaker tries to show a war scene. The speaker says that he can listen to the “long roll of drummers,” the “attacking cannon, mortars,” and the cannon shots fired in response. The speaker can clearly hear the sound of “cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aimed shots.” Further, he describes how the ambulance passes trailing its red light. He can see the workmen working relentlessly “making indispensable repairs. In the last two lines, the speaker describes the image of a dying general. The speaker says that the general  is furiously waving his hand to his fellow soldiers and ordering them not to mind him, but to protect the entrenchments.