Ecocritical Analysis of Whitman’s “This Compost”

Walt Whitman’s poem This Compost is glorifying nature for its
ability to take diseased and sickly materials, specifically human corpses, and
transform them into regeneration, beauty, and cleanliness. Though this poem was
written before the phrase was coined, Whitman is writing from the perspective
of deep ecology: he is recognizing the intrinsic value of nature rather than
its utility. Whitman is juxtaposing nature and humanity as he characterizes
nature as a place of growth and renewal, worthy of awe and respect, while
characterizing humans as “drunkards and gluttons of so many generations (460).”
He is depicting humanity as little more than a parasite, whose corpses poison
the earth with “foul liquid and meat (460).”  Whitman is using the concept of death in a
profound way. By showing humankind as this short-term process in which people
live, then die and are buried, while nature is continual and self-renewing,
Whitman is asserting that nature is more significant and more valuable that
humanity. Nature is forever, human life is corrupt and fleeting.  His last line personifies nature as a
forgiving deity saying, “It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts
such leavings from them at last (462).”

To express all of this, Whitman is using a speaker who is revering how nature can produce
life from corpses and diseased materials.  In the section titled 1, the speaker is
inquiring how nature could turn death and disease into life. His diction
implies that he is comparing nature to a human body,

“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?

How can you be alive you growths of spring?

How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain (459).”

His tone of adoration reveals his respect and reverence for nature, while his use of questions shows that nature’s
renewal is too complex for man to understand. In section 2 the speaker is
glorifying specific processes that show nature’s renewal. For example, the
speaker witnesses “the resurrection of the wheat [appearing] with pale visage
out of its graves (460).” He continues in section 2 by appealing to the sense
of taste, “That all is clean forever and forever, that the cool drink from the
well tastes so good, that blackberries are so flavorous and juicy (461).” His
use of taste is providing evidence for his statement that the Earth “grows such
sweet things out of such corruptions (461).” The title of the poem is very
fitting as Whitman personifies nature as a compost, breaking down all things
diseased and building back up new life, sweet things, and cleanliness.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.
“Compost”CH./Art: Excerpts p . 459-462. Pub. Random House 2001


5 responses to this post.

  1. I found this poem very interesting and I agree with many of the aspects you analyzed it from. Interestingly, when I was reading the poem, I looked at the speakers thoughts about nature as more of a working relationship. Even though the speaker describes humans as almost parasitic, it seemed like a symbiotic working relationship in the way that future generations continue to get what they need from the earth such as “melons, grapes, peaches, [and] plums” and they will be healthy and delicious despite the fact that the earth is filled with human waste and death (461). I also saw some sublime aspects in the way the speaker spoke about the earth with such awe, almost as if he was shocked that anything could withstand such a poisonous force.

  2. Posted by yribaf on October 19, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I found the use of the word “compost” in the title of the poem to suit the symbiotic relationship between human corpses and the renewal of the earth. Whitman’s use of this word describes humans as decaying, organic material from the moment we are born till we die and return to the earth. He likens humans to fertilizer for the regeneration of the earth, not nearly as holy as the earth in all its glory. He seems to be reveling in how the earth creates life and uses this life once it dies to continue the cycle. It seems like he is likening the earth to a god or goddess and humans are merely filthy mortals, and yet we cannot taint the earth even with our diseased corpses because of the pure immortality of the earth. Whitman is in awe that the earth is forever pure, untainted by the disease of humanity. He searches for any sign of impurity upon the earth and can never find a single problem with it. Whitman sees a constant balance between all life and the earth, that we cannot survive without the earth and the earth cannot regenerate without decaying, organic life.

  3. I appreciate what the person said in the above comment in that last sentence. Although Whitman discusses the disgusting nature of human waste in terms of “carcasses,” “foul meat,” and “corruptions,” it is interesting that that same waste is in a symbiotic relationship with the earth – the earth *requires* such “waste” to regenerate! Without that compost of corruptions, how could the grass grow on the prairies, the onion pierce out of the soil, and that “The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead” (461). I think Whitman does not see this symbiotic disconnection quite as clearly though, that the earth needs waste. Consider the way he uses the word “disdainful,” as if the summer growth is growing in spite of the waste, and not because of it.

  4. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I agree with the OP, as well as the two comments. Nature is indeed glorified for being able to take what is essentially corrupt and harmful and is able to absorb it, without harm to its soils, and transform these sick bodies into nourishing fruits and grains.

    What stuck out to me was that Whitman was focused primarily on human disease and how we are taken and reused in a nourishing way, but left animals out of the equation.
    He does mentions animals benefiting from the “sour soil.” I can see parallels with animals and plants having diseases as humans do. Also everything that lives will one day rot. As a result of the breakdown harmful bacterias can grow on the material. Perhaps the reason he focuses on humans is because not only can we be sickly, as in a disease, but also humans have vices. “Those drunkards and gluttons..” (Whitman 460) have bad habits, and Whitman equates these vices to diseases.

    So nature can both take physical disease AND human vices (or sin) and transform both into life sustaining materials.

  5. Posted by etrotta on October 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I agree with your analysis of Whitman’s poem. He makes a strong statement by calling humans compost. It shows how Whitman thinksthat humans are the same worth to the world as a bannana peel in the grand scheme of the universe.

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