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Literature Discussion: Emerson's "Boys" and Whitman's "Child"

Updated on April 2, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Walter Whitman’s Leaves of Grass each have several things which are treated commonly between them. The idea of boyhood, in Self-Reliance, and the idea of childhood in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass each describe in their own terms a common idea. What is it to be a child? Is childhood to be desired over adulthood? Is childhood just a label for something we, as a society, simply cannot put our collective finger on? Emerson and Whitman speak to each of these questions in their own unique way, and it is most interesting to understand that though their respective conclusions are compatible, that is, not mutually exclusive, they are nonetheless different enough to treat in a formal essay of this type.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson begins his discourse on ‘boys’ by saying that “The nonchalance of boys who … would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one is the healthy attitude of human nature.” Immediately Emerson contrasts boys from men. Boys, as noted above, are they which embody the healthy attitude of human nature, whereas men are “clapped into jail by [their] consciousness.” That is to say that boys, in their state of ignorance, are freer than their older counterparts as a function of said ignorance. Regarding the man, “[a]s soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat,” or, that is to say, acclamation or an elaborate display, “he is a committed person…”.  He is committed to the ideas which have been pushed upon him.

Boys are described to act in ways that are “Good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome … [and that boys give] an independent, valid verdict.” It is interesting that there are within the list contradicting terms and, without the list, terms which seem against traditional thinking; good and bad, and eloquent, respectively. Another interesting view is that, referring to the boy, “[y]ou must court him: he does not court you.” That is to say that the boy does not go out of his way to seek out meddlesome actions in the lives of others, which is in direct opposition to Emerson’s view of the lives of men.

When discussing the man’s jailed life, Emerson notes that there is no Lethe for this. Emerson uses Lethe in this passage, which is a reference to the classical, mythical Greek river Lethe which was thought to be one of the five rivers of Hades. In ancient myth, those that drank from the river Lethe experienced total forgetfulness. It is also sometimes called the river of oblivion (  Emerson states, rather correctly, in fact, that once one reaches a state of understanding, one cannot go back and forget that which he has come to understand. A man can no more return to his innocence and un-know things than he can return to his mother’s womb and be un-born. “Ah that he could pass again into neutrality.” Emerson alludes to the idea, much in kind with his idea of the river Lethe, that a child goes through an irreversible transformation when moving from childhood to manhood. Boys, Emerson notes, see the world from an “unaffected, unbiassed, unbribable, [and] unaffrighted innocence….” He is unaffected, because he has not had time to be inundated with the cares of the world. He is unbiased because he has not yet had time to be fed the opinions of those around him. He is unbribable because there is nothing that interests him outside of his own endeavors. Hes innocence is unaffrighted because he knows no need for fear.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Whitman these very same qualities, but does not do so directly. Instead, Whitman treats the idea of a child in terms of the grass and our understanding thereof. “A child said, ‘what is the grass?’… How could I answer the child. I do not know what it is any more than he.” The child is depicted to seek knowledge from the adult, but Whitman concedes that he is no more knowledgeable than the child in this regard. Whitman guesses the grass itself to be a child: “The produced babe of vegetation”. He likens the child under the grass itself. “Tenderly I will use your curling grass, it may transpire from the breasts of young men… it may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps. And here you are the mother’s laps.” Whitman’s word choices seem to occlude what it means to be a child, or, rather, that the idea of childhood itself is occluded from the adult mind. What is a child if he transpires from the hearts of young men, from old people and women, from those taken from their mother’s laps? Whitman seems to be saying that children are the proof of the immortality of humanity, both in the above quotations and the one to follow. Whitman writes “What do you think has become of the young and old men … Of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout shows there is really no death[.]” Whitman seems to be saying that the children are the proof and essence of immortality or, in another form, the prolonging of life in a broad, if not personal, sense.

To conclude, Emerson, through prose, and Whitman, through poetry, speak to the same idea of boyhood/childhood in that it is something intangible, occluded, innocent, implacable, and still a mystery to us, as older folk. Emerson chose to focus, however, on what boys are in terms that we know. We know they are good, bad, innocent, eloquent and so forth, so he uses those terms to show us that even what we know is a contradiction that we do not fully understand. Alternately, Whitman’s child is a mystery both to the child himself and to the adult in the poem. Whitman, then, chooses to elaborate in what the child might be made of, using colorful and unusual metaphors to bring about an air of immortality that rests only in childhood, never to be retrieved once the threshold is crossed.


"LETHE : Greek Goddess of the Underworld River of Oblivion ; Mythology." THEOI GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Exploring Mythology & the Greek Gods in Classical Literature & Art. Web. 30 Mar. 2010. <>.

The Longman Anthology of British Literature The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Longman Pub Group, 2009. Print.


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