Submit Comment

show all (15)
There are no comments. Click the text to your left to make a new comment.

“To Thee Old Cause” is part of the first section of the final edition of Leaves of Grass. As a statement of Whitman’s purpose as a poet and a reflection on a larger American ideal, “To Thee Old Cause” truly serves as a preface to the many verses that follow.


How do we define the cause to which Whitman refers?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cause” may refer (in this context) to the religious and civil liberties sought by Puritans in the mid-seventeenth century.

Critic Clarence Gohdes* cites one of Whitman’s notebook entries (which may have been used as a manuscript for this poem):
“the ‘good old cause’ is that in all its diversities, in all lands, at all times, under all circumstances,–which promulgates liberty, justice, the cause of all people as against infidels and tyrants.”

Gohdes, Clarence. “Whitman and the ‘Good Old Cause’.” American Literature. 34.3 (1962): 400-403. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2009.


Although Whitman doesn’t define the word “cause” in his poem, he does provide many adjectives to describe it. By juxtaposing positive and negative, Whitman suggests that the cause is a good thing, but that it has potentially negative consequences.

“Peerless” and “good” suggest that the cause is unlike any other abstraction and that it is, at its core, a “good” value.


More juxtaposition occurs in this line.

The cause is “stern” and “remorseless,” suggesting a severity, yet it remains “sweet” as well.


Whitman conveys the cause’s universality. The cause does not just apply to Whitman’s contemporaries. It is a concept that all people throughout history and in any country can identify with.


Now changing gears to a discussion of war, Whitman continues to juxtapose adjectives in this line.

The war is “strange” and “sad,” but also “great.”


This is the first of three times that Whitman uses parentheses in this poem.

Here, we see a clear shift in the speaker’s voice. Throughout the poem, Whitman’s role is as poet. In this line, however, a more political voice seems to intervene. By placing the comment in parentheses, Whitman acknowledges that this statement is of a different nature than the others, but that it is valuable and important enough to include.


The “chants” are a reference to the verses contained in Leaves of Grass. The is Whitman’s first reference to the book in which this poem appears.


In the second use of parentheses, Whitman shifts his audience (instead of the speaker) in order to address the soldiers. He insists that the soldiers should not feel alone in their fight to uphold the cause and that many people, like Whitman, have been “silently waiting” for their opportunity to uphold it as well. Although Whitman did not fight in battle, he sees poetry as his chance to capture the same patriotism and loyalty to the cause.


Whitman consistently refers to the cause as something cyclical and round. By referring to it as an “orb,” he reinforces this idea.


Whitman again juxtaposes adjectives in this line in order to “define” the cause. By combining more negative words like “seething” and “latent” with the positive “well-kept” and “centre,” Whitman again achieves an emphasis on the positive and negative qualities of the cause.


The third and final use of parentheses conveys a similar feeling to the first (line 6). Whitman again allows the political voice to intervene, remarking that there will be many reprecussions to follow the war.


This line brings together Whitman’s three major concepts (the poet, the war, and the book) in clear unity.


The “oneness” of the book and the war is a response to the idea proposed in line 10, that is, the way in which Whitman chooses to act (not unlike the soldier) in order to uphold the cause.


The final two lines truly bring together the book, the cause, and the war. Whitman refers to the cause as an “axis” around which all other things (including Leaves of Grass) turn.

1 1

TO thee old cause!

2 1

Thou peerless, passionate, good cause,

3 1

Thou stern, remorseless, sweet idea,

4 1

Deathless throughout the ages, races, lands,

5 1

After a strange sad war, great war for thee,

6 1

(I think all war through time was really fought, and ever will be really fought, for thee,)

7 1

These chants for thee, the eternal march of thee.

8 0


9 1

(A war O soldiers not for itself alone,

10 0

Far, far more stood silently waiting behind, now to advance in this book.)

11 0


12 1

Thou orb of many orbs!

13 1

Thou seething principle! thou well-kept, latent germ! thou centre!

14 0

Around the idea of thee the war revolving,

15 0

With all its angry and vehement play of causes,

16 1

(With vast results to come for thrice a thousand years,)

17 1

These recitatives for thee,—my book and the war are one,

18 1

Merged in its spirit I and mine, as the contest hinged on thee,

19 0

As a wheel on its axis turns, this book unwitting to itself,

20 1

Around the idea of thee.