'Debris' by Walt Whitman

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HE is wisest who has the most caution,
He only wins who goes far enough.

Any thing is as good as established, when that is established that
will produce it and continue it.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Debris: An Interpretation and Critique

Walt Whitman's poetry is celebrated for its grandeur, its celebration of the natural world, and its exploration of the self. In his poem "Debris," Whitman takes on the theme of decay and ruin. In this essay, we will explore the poem's meaning, its symbolism, and its significance in the broader context of Whitman's work.


"Debris" is a poem from Whitman's collection "Leaves of Grass," which was first published in 1855. This collection is considered a seminal work in American literature and is known for its celebration of democracy, individualism, and nature. "Debris" was later included in the 1871-72 edition of "Leaves of Grass," known as the "Deathbed Edition."

Whitman wrote "Debris" during a period of great change in the United States. The country was in the midst of the Civil War, and Whitman was deeply affected by the conflict. He volunteered as a nurse in Washington, D.C., where he witnessed the suffering and death of soldiers. This experience is reflected in his later work, including "Debris."


The poem begins with the speaker observing the ruins of a city:

Debris of all the past—we cruise with thee,
Unraveling old ties with thee,
As the stars fade away to eternal dawn,
Allowing a glimpse of thee,   
Impassive stones and slate,
(Written of late years with pens or pencil,)
as if some immortal hand,
In haste, had written them.

The city is described as a collection of "debris," which the speaker is "unraveling" as if to understand its past. The imagery is vivid and powerful, with the "impassive stones and slate" suggesting a sense of decay and lifelessness.

The second stanza introduces a sense of timelessness, with the speaker suggesting that these ruins are eternal and will endure beyond our own time:

Come, envelop'd in thy dusky wings, (O soul,
The point of vision of the world,)
And in my own soul's vision,
With the apparitions of thy days gone by,
Dearest, those times, of rapid rates and bashful
As we stand or sit, passing upon our journey,
Two, or together, or one apart.

Here, the speaker invites the reader to join him in contemplating the ruins and the past. The use of the word "envelop'd" suggests a sense of being wrapped up or enclosed, as if the ruins are a cocoon that can be entered and explored. The last line, "Two, or together, or one apart," is particularly powerful, suggesting that the ruins can be experienced by individuals or groups, and that they can be a source of both solitude and companionship.

In the third stanza, the speaker reflects on the impermanence of life:

Thou know'st the old formula well;
The journey done, and we departed,
(Ah, never more that comradeship—O
That we might meet again,
Thou know'st that we have met,
And that we meet each other evermore;
Be it not too certain.

The "old formula" refers to the idea that life is a journey with a beginning and an end. The speaker reflects on the idea that we will all eventually depart from this world, and that our relationships with others will be lost. The reference to "comradeship" suggests a sense of loss and longing for connection.

The fourth stanza introduces a new theme: that of the written word:

Thou hast not only written down yourself,
The dates, events, that have import in the
    history of the world,
But thee thyself, as outlined unto thee,
(Resume that outline,) of the great Idea,
That, true, and good, and universal, is con-
That thou art not contingent,
But that, with absolute significance, hast
Over the nearest, dearest ones—thou hast
    sway over the nearest, dearest ones

Here, the speaker suggests that the ruins are not just a physical manifestation of the past, but that they also contain a "great Idea" that is "true, and good, and universal." This idea is said to be "containing," suggesting that it is all-encompassing and that it has a significant impact on the world. The reference to having "sway over the nearest, dearest ones" suggests that this idea has a personal and emotional resonance.

The final stanza brings the poem to a close:

Thou also, thou journeying atom!
By all routes, heroism of growth, or of
Think not the journey done;
The long, long, endless journey still re-
Thou art the same—and more expanding,
Immortal, limitless, and free.

Here, the speaker addresses the reader directly, referring to them as a "journeying atom." The reference to "heroism of growth, or of dying" suggests that life is a journey that involves both growth and decline, and that both are equally important. The final lines suggest that the journey is endless and that the self is constantly expanding and becoming more than it was before.


"Debris" is a poem that explores the theme of decay and ruin, but it is also a meditation on the human condition. The ruins are a metaphor for the past, but they also represent the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. The poem invites the reader to explore these themes and to contemplate their own mortality.

At the same time, the poem is also a celebration of life and of the self. The reference to the "great Idea" suggests that there is something universal and important about the individual self. The final lines suggest that the self is not limited by time or space, but is "immortal, limitless, and free."

Whitman's use of language is particularly powerful in this poem. The imagery of the "impassive stones and slate" is haunting, and the use of the word "envelop'd" suggests a sense of mystery and wonder. The repetition of the phrase "Thou know'st" creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity, as if the speaker is addressing a friend.


While "Debris" is a powerful and evocative poem, it is not without its faults. The language can be overly flowery at times, and the poem can be difficult to follow. The use of archaic language, such as "thou" and "thee," may also be off-putting to some readers.

At the same time, however, these elements are also part of the poem's charm. The archaic language creates a sense of timelessness, and the flowery language adds to the sense of wonder and mystery.


"Debris" is a poem that invites the reader to explore themes of decay, mortality, and the human condition. While it is not without its flaws, it is a powerful and evocative work that showcases Whitman's talents as a poet. Through its vivid imagery and rich language, "Debris" creates a sense of wonder and awe that will linger long after the poem is finished.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Debris: A Masterpiece by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, the father of free verse poetry, is known for his unconventional style of writing. His works are characterized by their unique structure, free-flowing lines, and unconventional themes. One of his most celebrated works is Poetry Debris, a poem that captures the essence of his style and philosophy.

Poetry Debris is a poem that is both complex and simple at the same time. It is a poem that speaks to the heart and soul of the reader, and it is a poem that is full of meaning and depth. The poem is divided into three parts, each of which explores a different aspect of poetry.

The first part of the poem is an ode to the beauty of poetry. Whitman describes poetry as a "divine air" that fills the soul with joy and wonder. He speaks of the power of poetry to transport the reader to new worlds and to inspire them to greatness. He also speaks of the beauty of nature and how poetry can capture the essence of the natural world.

The second part of the poem is a critique of the traditional forms of poetry. Whitman argues that traditional poetry is too restrictive and that it stifles the creativity of the poet. He believes that poetry should be free-flowing and that it should reflect the natural rhythms of life. He also argues that poetry should be accessible to everyone and that it should not be reserved for the elite.

The third part of the poem is a call to action. Whitman urges poets to break free from the constraints of traditional poetry and to embrace the freedom of free verse. He believes that free verse is the future of poetry and that it is the only way to capture the true essence of life. He also urges poets to write for the people and to use their poetry to inspire and uplift.

One of the most striking aspects of Poetry Debris is its use of language. Whitman's language is both simple and complex, and it is full of rich imagery and symbolism. He uses metaphors and similes to create vivid pictures in the reader's mind, and he uses repetition to emphasize his points.

Another notable aspect of the poem is its structure. The poem is divided into three parts, each of which explores a different aspect of poetry. The first part is an ode to the beauty of poetry, the second part is a critique of traditional poetry, and the third part is a call to action. This structure allows Whitman to explore his ideas in a clear and concise manner, and it allows the reader to follow his arguments easily.

Overall, Poetry Debris is a masterpiece of free verse poetry. It captures the essence of Whitman's style and philosophy, and it speaks to the heart and soul of the reader. The poem is both complex and simple, and it is full of rich imagery and symbolism. It is a poem that celebrates the beauty of poetry, critiques the traditional forms of poetry, and calls for a new era of free verse poetry. It is a poem that is as relevant today as it was when it was first written, and it is a testament to the power of poetry to inspire and uplift.

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