Summary and Analysis: Calamus
Scented Herbage of My Breast
The fragrant "herbage of my breast" suggests the poet's poems, which are called "Leaves." The poet's death will not destroy his thoughts; the Leaves will continue to grow from his grave — for the Leaves are "blossoms of my blood" and unfold the poet's heart. Some few passers — by will notice the Leaves and "inhale [their] faint odor." The Leaves make the poet "think of death." Death and love are both beautiful: the poet does not know whether he prefers death or life. He thinks "these Leaves" (his poetry) carry the same message as does death.
The poet declares that he stifled his inmost being far too long and far too much. He now is "determin'd to unbare this broad breast." His doctrine of love and comradeship will find "immortal reverberations through the States" and be "an example to lovers." Love and death are "folded inseparably together." Death is the "real reality" which waits for all and which will "dissipate this entire show of appearance."
The title "Scented Herbage of My Breast" evokes, for one thing, a concrete image of a strong, robust chest. The theme of love and death is concretized by this image. The herbage is fragrant; it suggests the spiritual emanation of love. The breast contains the heart, poetically the source of love. The image of herbage is later transformed into "Leaves" (poems), which future generations will read. "Tomb-Leaves" symbolize the idea of the immortality of man: Leaves continue to flourish on tombs and assert the supremacy of the principle of life in death. "Perennial roots" signify the heart, of which the leaf is the artistic expression.
The Calamus plant suggests many qualities of spiritual love. The poet introduces many variations on the significance of Leaves: they represent the Calamus plant, the hair on the breast, the grass on the grave, the pages of a book of poems, and the growth of spiritual love. At last, death brings men to the "real reality" — spiritual love. Thus manly, or athletic, love is another aspect of spiritual love.