As the poet meditated on his poetry, a phantom, beautiful but terrible, the muse of ancient poets, appeared before him. The spirit asked him about the themes of his poetry and asserted that it is "the theme of War, the fortune of battles,/The making of perfect soldiers," which are the proper themes for poets. Whitman proudly answered that he, too, dealt with war and victory. But in Whitman's universe, war is waged for "life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul." And so he, too, promotes the cause of "brave soldiers."
Whitman here attempts to establish a correlation between his poetry and traditional poetry. The subjects of Whitman's poetry are not the established themes of traditional poetry, specifically the epic. An epic is a long narrative poem about the deeds of a historical, traditional, or legendary hero, with a background of warfare or the supernatural, written in a highly dignified style and following other formal conventions of structure. Whitman's answer to the muse's query makes clear his position. He feels that his poems do satisfy the criteria of the epic, for they deal with the basic and universal problems of man. An epic reflects the main quality of an age, and in this sense Whitman's
Leaves of Grass is an epic poem. Traditional epics deal with war and heroism; Whitman writes about them, but Whitman's wars are eternal and his battlefield is life; the "soldiers" are all of humanity, and their victory is the triumph of the spirit over matter.