Whitman has chosen to repeat the opening lines of the poem, with a few variations, at its conclusion. This creates a circular motion to the poet’s thoughts and reminds the reader what was important about the oak tree from the very beginning.
Explore I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing
The poem begins with the speaker describing an oak tree that he has come upon. The oak is completely by itself and is covered with drooping moss. This is not a depressing scene though, as the oak is “uttering joyous leaves” that prove it is able to thrive without help from anyone. The speaker understands that he would not be able to live this way.
He takes a small twig from the tree and brings it back to his home. There he can observe it, but he does not need it to remember the friends that he does have. He cannot stop thinking about them. These friends, companions, and male lovers that the speaker has in his life are both a strength and a weakness. They take up space in his consciousness but also provide the support he knows he could not survive without.
Analysis of I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
At the beginning of this poem the speaker, most likely Whitman himself, is describing a scene he came upon in Louisiana. He saw, standing completely on its own, a “live-oak growing.” It is important to the poet to make sure that the reader understands that the oak is doing well, it is not there alone and suffering.
It is, “All alone,” standing as if in dejection, with “moss” hanging from its branches. This scene may appear to be one of a downtrodden being, abandoned to live out the rest of its natural life, but that is not so. At least to the speaker’s eyes.
It has no “companion” to keep it company, but still, it is “uttering joyous leaves.” These leaves are dark green and come forth from the tree as if without effort. It utters the leaves as easily as one might words.
It is clear that the poet is seeing more than just a tree. He is understanding it through humanely emotional terms. He is concerned for its wellbeing and is impressed by its resilience. He sees it standing there and describes it as being, “rude,” unwilling to bend, and “lusty.” These are all traits that make Whitman think of himself. He sees in the tree a stronger version of himself that does not crave friends and lovers.
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
As ‘I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing’ continues the poet speaks with wonder about the strength of the tree and how it could “utter joyous leaves” while standing there completely alone. He does not understand how it could possibly endure this. He is imagining the tree as a human being that is able to work, produce, and make beautiful things without the support of others. At least momentarily, Whitman is understanding the need for company as a weakness that he could never rid himself of.
He makes this fact clear as he finishes this line by saying that he knows he could not live in the same way. He could not produce his written works without others to lean on.
The poet and speaker approach the tree and break off a small “twig.” It has a few leaves growing upon it. It is the tree in miniature. He is hoping to acquire a keepsake. With the hope of making his keepsake even more realistic, he takes some moss from the tree and “twin[s]” it around the little twig.
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
He takes the small keepsake he has created away from the scene. It is an image that has moved him and he hopes to maintain those feelings, and remember what is possible for one who is strong enough.
He places the twig within his sight in his “room.” There he is able to view it whenever he needs strength.
The speaker makes clear that he did not take the keepsake to “remind [him] of [his] own dear friends.” He thinks about them all the time. There is nothing that could increase their presence in his mind, they are all-consuming. Perhaps this is the portion of friendship that Whitman is discussing as a weakness. Due to their continual and all-consuming presence, he is filled with their concerns and their lives, making less space for his works.
This keepsake, or “token” is “curious” to him. It reminds him of “manly love.” It is at this point in the poem that the narrative takes a turn that the reader may not have expected. This twig, which has come to resemble a phallic object, reminds its keeper of love between men.
Walt Whitman is well-known to have had love affairs with men, and although it was not common knowledge at the time, there are a number of his poems that resonate with his true desires. By adding this concern into the poem, and forcing the reader to address the speaker’s sexuality, one can find other reasons that Whitman might be speaking of his own need for companionship.
He desires the company of others, particularly other men, and is unable to maintain a successful relationship. Perhaps this was due primarily to the age in which he lived, or the state of Whitman’s personal life. Either way, he feels a great need for “a friend a lover” and cannot shake it.
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
In the final lines of this poem, the poet reiterates what was said at the beginning with some additional detail.
He once more remembers the tree that was growing there “in a wide flat / space,” in Louisiana. The poet can still see the “joyous leaves” that it uttered all its life “without a friend a lover near,” and is once more struck by his own inability to do the same. He needs and craves love and friendship, two things that are both strengths and weaknesses.
About Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and lived with his parents and eight other siblings in New York City. By the time that Whitman was twelve, he had started to become interested in the written word as he learned the printer’s trade. He would work in this trade until he became a teacher at the age of seventeen in 1836. His teaching career would continue until 1841 when he turned to journalism. Throughout the 40’s Whitman founded, worked at, and edited multiple New York papers. In 1855 Whitman copyrighted the first edition of Leaves of Grass and then released a second edition a year later. Read Whitman’s poetry here.
Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War and traveled throughout the New York area recording what he saw. He struggled for most of his life and only found the acclaim he has today after his death in 1892.