Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Who Learns My Lesson Complete?" (1855)
Author:
Chandran, K. Narayana
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published without a title in Leaves of Grass (1855), "Who Learns My Lesson Complete?" was called "Lesson Poem" in the second (1856) edition of Leaves. Whitman gave it the present title in Passage to India (1871). The latest and the most commonly available text of this poem is in the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In the opening stanza Whitman asks himself whom he should consider the best of his clientele. Among his "students" he counts manual and intellectual labor; the high and the low; the more and the less gifted; the young and the old—in fact the whole gamut of humanity, so long as they "draw nigh and commence" learning. And learning, for the poet, means breaking self's barriers, being able to converse and exchange views freely.

The three stanzas that follow describe the poet himself: one who is withdrawn and passive, and yet not overawed by the phenomenal world. What he comprehends but cannot articulate is the sheer wonder of this world. This forms the subject of stanzas 4, 5, and 6. The wonders include the rotation and revolution of our planet, the vastness of time and our consciousness of it, the immortality of one's soul, the levels and orders of ocular perception, and one's very birth and growth.

The last two stanzas state the "lesson" of the poem rather obliquely. In a way the "lesson" here is the wonder of its rhetoric—"that I can think such thoughts . . . And that I can remind you, and you think them and know them to be true." The wonder of it all, in other words, is the realization one's self commands and communicates.

Bibliography

Bogen, Don. "'I' and 'You' in 'Who Learns My Lesson Complete?': Some Aspects of Whitman's Poetic Evolution." Walt Whitman Review 25 (1979): 87–98.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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