I Sit and Look Out Questions and Answers 2 & 5

I Sit and Look Out Questions and Answers 2 & 5


1. What is the purpose behind writing the poem I Sit and Look Out?

The poem I Sit and Look Out is a ten-line lyric which was published in the 1860 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass Through the onlooking speaker, the poet illustrates the tragic scenes of war, exploitation and despair that ravages the world. Almost all the lines begin with “I”, who is a collective figurehead for the Americans and common people in general. The speaker is a mere onlooker and listener, who sits passively. This suggest the general tendency of common people to remain passive and nonchalant in the face of crisis. The reader feels an urge to identify with the abstracted “I”.

The opening line of the poem (“I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame”) is a general statement. The lines which follow, focus develop on the general opening line orientation. The speaker goes on to describe a world where the youth feels guilty after committing shameful and heinous, Everywhere he sees mistreatment, treachery, neglect and falsehood. It is a morally dead world where people are constantly exploited, where unreciprocated love gives birth to jealousy. The world is ravaged by wars, veneral diseases, tyranny. It is a world where the good dies out and the evil finds power. It is a selfish world, where at sea poor lives are sacrificed during a famine so as to protect the lives of those that matter. It is a cruel world where the arrogant and powerful class oppress and insult the poor labourers and enslave the negroes (black African Americans). It is a world of never-ending selfishness, evil and agony. These images illustrate the nature of the poet’s concerns.

The poem is a criticism of wars, patriarchy, exploitation and slavery. The poet gives a collection of instances, and circles back to the opening nudge through the closing line: “All these – all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent.” The poem is thus, a powerful lyric which dramatizes the fact that the onlooking speaker sees the world in its pitiful condition, that he is filled with pain by the sights, but he is left with no choice other than accepting it.

2. What is the central idea of the poem I Sit and Look Out?

The poem I Sit and Look Out is a poignant criticism of life. In this poem, the speaker acts as a detached observer. The speaker looks out upon the world of misery. He is passive as he merely sits, marks, observes and hears. He chooses to stay silent. This points to the fact that the general tendency of people is to remain nonchalant until it concerns them. The poem can be a satire upon the hypocrisy of the society. He can see the oppression and shame that looms large on the face of the earth. The phrase ‘look out upon’ refers to the fact that the speaker is away at a considerable distance from all these. He can hear the agonised sobs from the disillusioned youths who probably took part in wars and other acts of violence. The poem also carries the essence of the democratic ideas that Whitman believed in. Whitman’s pacificism, his concern for the poor people, labourers, negroes, exploited women and neglected aged people find expression in this poem.

The speaker visualizes a mistreated mother whose own children have abandoned her. She is distressed and lonely. She is waiting for her death. The speaker also sees the wife who is mistreated and cheated by her own husband. The husband is a treacherous man who deceives his own wife and is a philanderer.

Offering us a deeper look, the speaker’s eyes demarcate those passions that attempt to hide. These are the emotions of jealousy and unreciprocated love that are hidden underneath an artificial appearance. As an onlooker, the speaker also witnesses the aftermath caused by wars, diseases, autocracy. Wherever he looks, he can see martyrs and prisoners – the byproduct of wars.

The onlooking speaker then paints a gruesome image of a famine taking place onboard a ship which is perhaps lost. The image of the sailors selecting and casting people out of the ship owing to acute shortage of food supplies, is moving. The image of the powerful class people humiliating and exploiting the poor people, labourers and negroes brings out the ugly facve of human society. He sees how the weak and poor people are subjected by the strong people. 

The speaker is like a helpless observer who looks out upon all the évil, suffering and unending malady that plague the world. He watches it all, hears all the sighs of pain, but remains silent. He neither judges nor protests against the problems of life.. He remains passive, allowing free thinking to his readers. This establishes Whitman’s philosophy of individualism. The speaker opens a window for us to see and awake from our slumber of ignorance.


1. Where is the speaker? What is he doing?

The speaker is at his window, looking out upon the world which has become cruel, soul less and exploitative. The phrase ‘looking out upon’ establishes the fact that the speaker is at a higher plane.

2. How does the poem reflect the issue of ill-treatment of women?

The speaker paints a picture of mistreatment and neglect meted out towards an aged mother by her own offsprings. She lies emaciated, waiting for her death. It shows the heartlessness of the young generation. On the other hand, the speaker also describes how ill-willed men mistreat and cheat on their wives, how they seduce young women. It exposes the true face of patriarchy.

3. According to the poem, what is the state of the rejected lovers?

The rejected lovers feel jealous. They are bitter and angry as they did not get their loved one. Although they try to hide the strong passions in their eyes, the deep sighs betray their unhappiness.

4. The speaker’s concerns transform from private to public. Do you agree?

Yes, the speaker’s initial concerns are individual in nature as he speaks about the oppression and malady that is suffered by youths, women, mothers. However, in the later part of the poem, his concerns become all the more public as he speaks of the oppression suffered by poor people, labourers and negroes at the hands of the Capitalists and powerful men.

5. Why does the speaker see martyrs and prisoners?

The speaker sees martyrs and prisoners because both these groups are the byproducts of war. The speaker only tries to show a world rife with violence where many innocent lives are claimed. Young men either die as soldiers and go on to become martyrs, while the surviving people are taken as prisoners by the winning nation. The world that we live in is without peace.

6. Why do the soldiers cast out people?

In a gruesome image, the speaker says that onboard a ship which has perhaps lost its way, a famine has occurred. In such a situation, people are randomly selected and thrown out from the ship so as to cope with the shortage of food supplies and protect the lives of the rest. It is a cruel and selfish world that we live in.

7. Do you think the speaker’s passive approach is for a cause?

Yes the speaker is passive in his approach because he has a purpose. He just ‘look(s) out upon’, ‘see(s)’, ‘hear(s)’ but remains ‘silent’. His detachment as an observer is a satire on the common people who are hypocrites and remain nonchalant even after watching the miseries and unjust rules of the world. Also, it is a silent call for the readers to act and protest.


8. What is the general tone of the poem? What kind of imagery abounds in the poem?

The general tone of the poem is that of pessimism. The speaker is unable to protest strongly against the evils of the world. He sees a bleak picture of the world. The imagery in the poem is apocalyptic. It speaks of a total disintegration of a healthy society.

9. How does the speaker criticise Capitalism in the poem?

The speaker criticises Capitalism in the poem when he gives the picture of the insults and humiliations meted out by powerful men towards the poor people, labourers and the enslavement of the negroes.

10. If you were in the speaker’s place, how would you approach the problems of the society?

Although it is impossible to reform all the negative sides of the society, yet I would try to do something to decrease the social inequality. I would try to lessen the gender gap. Education is the most powerful weapon for fulfilling the goal. So, I will prioritise true education for the citizens. I would like the society to undergo a change in the mentality.

11. The poem has several ideas quoted in two lines each. These lines do not end in a full-stop but rather is punctuated with a comma. Why do you think it has been written so?

The poet has developed separate ideas of oppression and suffering in two line verses. However, he has left the lines open ended, punctuated with a comma because he wants to show the continuity of cruel actions and exploitations in the world. He wants to culminate the ideas into the last couple of lines, where he keeps looking on at the world of oppression ‘without end’.

12. How can we be sure that the speaker is passive in the poem?

From a close reading of the poem, it is evident that the speaker in the poem is passive because in each of the beginning verses, he talks about some passive act – sit, hear, mark, observe, etc. These are the permutations of passive observance.

13. Is there any redemption offered at the end of the poem?

Yes, the poet offers a redemption at the end of the poem, where he condemns the society (the unified identity through the reference – ‘I’) for its nonchalance. In spite of beholding the oppression, exploitation and suffering, the ‘I’ in the poem choose to remain ‘silent’. It shows the selfishness and hypocrisy which is at play in the society. This poem is a call for action for the passive observers.

14. How does the nature of suffering change throughout the poem?

Throughout the poem, the nature of suffering change visibly as in the first half of the poem it is more personal and individual, chartacterised by individual guilt, individual failure, individual subjection. However, later in the poem, it becomes more and more social as the speaker talks about agonised poor people, labourers and enslaved negroes.


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