How calm, how solemn it grows to ascend the atmosphere of lovers: On "Scented Herbage of My Breast" by Walt Whitman


"How calm, how solemn it grows to ascend the atmosphere of lovers"
Art by Margaret C. Cook, inspired by Walt Whitman's poem, "Scented Herbage of My Breast"

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In this poem, Whitman evokes the image of leaves to signify strong, innermost desires. The herbage of his breast are leaves waiting to burgeon out of his chest. His works on Leaves of Grass, the book from which this poem is derived, are often described as representative of Whitman's repressed sexuality after all. And in this poem, it shows.

 The leaves blossoming out of his breast are symbols of his burgeoning feelings. Interestingly, he exclaims about death and love to the beloved — two ideas which are, for him, pure and unyielding.

O I do not know what you mean there underneath yourselves, you
are not happiness,
You are often more bitter than I can bear, you burn and sting me,
Yet you are beautiful to me you faint tinged roots, you make me
think of death,
Death is beautiful from you, (what indeed is finally beautiful except
death and love?)

Imagine being described as being as beautiful as death - the ultimate path to which all things shall go. He is describing the beloved as inevitable, as inescapable. Nothing is more powerful than death. To be so united with the lover, similar to all living creatures' eventual marriage with death — with such finality and peace — is the highest aspiration.

Eventually as the poem progresses, the persona finally acknowledges that there is no use hiding his emotions. He encourages the leaves to grow, to blossom.
Grow up taller sweet leaves that I may see! grow up out of my
breast! Spring away from the conceal'd heart there!
Do not fold yourself so in your pink-tinged roots timid leaves!
Do not remain down there so ashamed, herbage of my breast!
Come I am determin'd to unbare this broad breast of mine, I
have long enough stifled and choked;


By describing this symbol as a part of the natural world and a part of his own physical being — the “scented herbage of his breast” — he was able to emphasize the way in which leaves symbolize the cyclic quality of nature and the persona’s similarly cyclic quality. Life yields to death, which contributes to new life.

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This painting jumped out to me the moment I saw it on Brainpickings. The two people ascending to the skies, with their bodies seemingly blending into one. How freeing, and also, incredibly compelling. To be exalted like leaves seeking for sun, to aspire for the heavens like death finally giving sense to life.

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