Selected Criticism

"To the Leaven'd Soil They Trod" (1865–1866)
Olson, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published as the last poem in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), "To the Leaven'd Soil They Trod" was later added, also as the last poem, to the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Leaves of Grass in 1871. While its title remained consistent, in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass two significant changes were made. What had been the second line was dropped: "Not cities, nor man alone, nor war, nor the dead" (1871 Leaves). The present line 11 was moved from its original position as line 7 and revised from the following: "To the average earth, the wordless earth, witness of war and peace" (1871 Leaves).

As the last poem of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, "Leaven'd Soil" provides a definite conclusion to these poems about the Civil War. The war over, America's soil is "leaven'd": it is rising and growing, not desiccated by the death and destruction of the war. Furthermore, the pun on "leaven'd"—given leaves or once again adorned with leaves—suggests that the land is enlivened. This newly fertile land becomes the "average earth"—average because from a human standpoint it has absorbed the blood of common men from both sides in the war and because from a political standpoint it has proven the strength of democracy and the Union. It is average, too, because the equality implied in the surviving and strengthened Union distributes the worth of the nation equitably (implied by the balanced references to North and South and the key references to the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River, which geographically link the North and South).

The pun on "leaven'd" also associates the war, the resulting "leaven'd soil," and Whitman's poems. The nation's land answers the poet, "but not in words." It answers by its demonstration of unity, by its persistence to exist on its terms rather than on those imposed by human beings. The poem's last two lines provide the most effective reconciling and unifying imagery: the opposites of Northern ice and Southern sun join to nourish the poet's songs, to sustain the leaves of grass. Finally, the reciprocity between the poet's songs and the land indicates that Whitman is "commensurate with [the] people" and that "he incarnates [his country's] geography," essential criteria which he established for the American poet in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass (Comprehensive 711).


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

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.