**I wrote this for a class, and thought I’d share it here.**
“I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing” is a short lyrical poem from Walt Whitman’s poetry collection “Leaves of Grass.” To understand its meaning, it’s important to read all the poems from the section “Calamus,” which are poems that exalt the “the manly love of comrades (Whitman 95).” It is widely believed that these poems are proof of Whitman’s homosexuality, including by scholar and essayist, Rictor Norton, who is recognized as a foremost expert on both LGBTQ history and Walt Whitman. In his essay, “Walt Whitman, Prophet of Gay Liberation,” he wrote that Whitman suffered “at the hands of the American taboo against sex and homosexual love.” This is quite evident throughout “Calamus,” but specifically in “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing.” In Live-Oak, Whitman’s loneliness is surmised in thirteen lines of meter-less poetry. The poem works allusively to deliver its intended message, which is that a man is not like a tree no matter the superficial qualities they may share because a man cannot thrive all alone.
“I Saw in Lousiana a live-oak growing (Whitman 51).”
In this memory, southern readers are given the image of a developing live oak, which is an iconic southeastern tree often with many branches, and leaves which it retains all year round. For those unfamiliar with the south, descriptors of the tree are sprinkled throughout the narrative. As it’s read, the poem builds a lovely visual image of a flourishing live oak with moss hanging from its branches. In the first stanza, the word “growing” leads me to believe the tree is not fully matured.
“All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green” (Whitman 51).
Though these descriptors are few, a powerful image begins to form at these lines. If moss is hanging from the branches, the tree is tall. If it’s “uttering joyous leaves of dark green,” it’s flourishing. Here two things can be gleaned. The first is that the tree is somewhere near or in its adulthood. The second is that the narrator notices that it is alone. Upon an initial read-through, you miss the subtext, but subsequent readings lead to a third, more subversive, meaning. The tree is a description of the narrator himself. He is mature, but not old. He is also alone. He and the tree do differ in one way, which is that the narrator does not thrive without companionship.
“And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,” (Whitman 51)
The narrator sees himself in the tree’s unyielding humanity, which is to say the tree has character. He describes the tree as “unbending,” but of course a tree and its branches bend. The true meaning here is that it doesn’t bend to the will of others; much like a man, who is true to himself, would not change his personality to suit another. The tree is confident with itself, which is how the author feels too. They share a sort of inflexible self-pride in their sexuality and acceptance of their true selves, which at times may be labeled as rude. To put this into modern context, imagine a young gay man who has just come out to a supportive family, and is free to be confident in his sexuality, and embraces his true persona without bending. Or, imagine an older woman who suffered many years in an unhealthy marriage, but when she divorces is met with contempt from a religious family member. She meets this criticism with a devil may care attitude and is proud of herself for standing strong. She stands up for herself, and can laugh about it. “Rude, unbending, and lusty (Whitman 51).” This is confidence despite an alternative lifestyle.
“But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near,
for I knew I could not,” (Whitman 51)
Upon initial reading, it’s easy to miss the very deep and subversive meaning of these lines. I first noted the narrator’s confusion. He has begun a study of the tree; perhaps, he is seeking to learn its secret. How does it thrive when it is alone? “for I knew I could not…(Whitman 51)” The narrator is noting the difference between them. Upon a second and third reading, one word jumps out at the reader: “friend.” Not friends, but rather the singular friend. It is not a large social experience the tree is missing, but rather a single person. It is now abundantly clear that the narrator is projecting his longing onto the tree, and wondering how it thrives despite it. There is a great deal of intimacy that can be attached to this phrasing, as it’s not superficial interaction he is missing, but rather the deeper intimacy of a single friendship. It is akin to longing for one’s best friend who lives in another state, as opposed to needing a night out to shake off the day.
“And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,” (Whitman 51)
Here in the center, the author has begun a deeper study of the tree. This denotes a passage of time, but not a long one. These two lines evoke an image of a man in his room. I imagine it is a small cabin home, and he has placed the twig on a bedside table. Another reader may picture him in a home office. All who read this passage will see the man studying the twig in quiet contemplation and thoughtfulness because he is alone. He keeps it near, so he can be reminded of the joyousness it exudes despite being unaccompanied. He is working to solve an internal dilemma as to why he suffers from loneliness when the tree, which is so like him, does not.
“It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)” (Whitman 51)
The first line is to reinforce what the first-time reader has already begun to grasp. The twig is not a reminder of his friends, but rather an object of study. The second line may go overlooked upon initial reading, but subsequent readings will unlock its magic. When I read the poem out loud, I was struck by the importance of these parenthesis. In general, parenthesis are used to show an aside (Scribendi). It’s a bit of additional information, but without it the sentence would survive. In this case, the parenthetical is the narrator’s inner thoughts, and they shine a light on the profoundness of his loneliness. Isn’t a parenthesis the visual of a constant thought at the back of one’s mind? It is like viewing a visual metaphor, the parenthesis and the words inside. This is a true testament to Whitman’s deeper genius, as it shows how even punctuation was used to illustrate meaning. In this statement, he is also assuring the reader that all the narrator’s dear friends are missing, so it reinforces what we’ve already come to assume. He is isolated from society.
“Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;” (Whitman 51)
To understand the second half of this stanza, you must have some context. The cluster of poems that is “Calamus” contains many frank references to homosexuality (Whitman 95). It should be noted that the entire section is named for the Calamus root, which is phallic-shaped (Cady 5). Whitman himself was a humanist, which is an ethical philosophy “informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion,” per AmericanHumanist.org. The entire cluster of poems is saturated in metaphor for homosexuality, including this reference to manly love. For a man so connected to himself and to the earth, it must have been difficult to deny his natural stirrings because he lived in a far more oppressive time. This line does draw me back to the use of the word “friend” in the fifth stanza, which is to say he is suffering the loss of a specific person. If you ask me, this is a nod to his lover whose company he desires above all others.
“For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,” (Whitman 51)
If you’ve read to here, and weren’t before, you’re now sure to envision a southern motif. You can almost see a plantation home in the distance, the greenest grass shivering in the wind, and the solitary live oak dripping in moss with no other trees around for as far as the eye can see. Whitman is truly a master at creating a sensory experience in just a few words.
“Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend or lover near,
I knew very well I could not.” (Whitman 51)
In the final lines of Whitman’s poem, he has factualized his hypothesis. He hasn’t circled back to the beginning, but rather determined that what he initially surmised was true. Although he and the tree share characteristics, a man is not a tree. The narrator cannot be joyous without a friend or lover near, which is why the poem is profoundly sad. It leaves one imagining the narrator forever alone because the 1860s were a time when a gay person could be disfigured or sentenced to life in prison if found guilty of homosexuality (Safe Zone). Whitman was profusely criticized for simply alluding to human sexuality (Miller 1). “Leaves of Grass” was labeled as obscene. As he added more content to “Calamus” he was asked if it contained homoerotic subtext, but he denied that it did (Cady 6). This was surely an act of self-preservation in a time that demanded homosexuals remain closeted. For that, and many more reasons, Walt Whitman is heroic. He demanded that the publisher include “Calamus” in printings, or be denied publishing a revised version of “Leaves of Grass(Cady 6).”
Whitman changed the game in regards to what is considered poetry. His non-rhyming free-verse poetry was the first of its kind. He remained prolific to his dying day, having revised and republished “Leaves of Grass” an incredible number of times. It was originally a collection of 12 poems, but he expanded it to nearly 400 (Bora). Because he opposed slavery, he was forced from his native south to live in the north. He died in Camden, New Jersey in 1892 (NY Times).
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Small, Maynard & Company, 1904.
Norton, Rictor. “Walt Whitman, Prophet of Gay Liberation.” Gay History and Literature, 18 Nov. 1999, updated 20 Jun. 2008, www.rictornorton.co.uk/whitman.htm
Scribendi Editors. “TIPS FOR USING BRACKETS (PARENTHESIS) EFFECTIVELY.” Advice and Articles, www.scribendi.com/advice/how_to_use_brackets_properly.en.html
Cady, Joseph. “not happy in the capitol: homosexuality and the Calamus poems.” American Studies with American Studies International, vol. 19, no. 2, Fall 1978, pp. 5-22. www.journals.ku.edu/amerstud/article/view/2263
American Humanist. Definition of Humanism. www.americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/
Geneseo Safe Zone. Timeline of Oppression. www.geneseo.edu/safe_zone/timeline_oppression
Miller, James E.,Jr. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
Bora, Dr. (Mrs.) Indu. “A Study of Whitman’s Thematic Drift in ‘Leaves of Grass.’” International Journal of Multidisciplinary Approach and Studies, ISSN NO::2348 – 537X www.academia.edu/15363343/A_study_of_thematic_drift_in_Whitmans_Leaves_of_Grass
NY Times. Death of Walt Whitman. Obituary Mar. 26,