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A male wood-duck or wood-drake


My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and daylong ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
….I believe in those winged purposes,
And acknowledge the red yellow and white playing within me,
And consider the green and violet and the tufted crown intentional;

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855) p. 38


In the history of literature, birds often act as stand-ins for the figure of the poet. Whitman’s use of a wood-duck instead of a dove or raven marks an important choice for the tenor of his poem.

If a raven represents the mournful, misunderstood poet of Poe, Whitman’s wood-duck is the perfect representative for the liberated American.  Wood-ducks are present all over America’s lakes, rivers and wetlands, breeding in great numbers in Louisiana, Kentucky and the deep south.  Females and the general species are labeled wood-ducks, but the male of the species is nicknamed a wood-drake.  Whitman’s pair of male and female echoes the perfection of sexual union that he carries throughout the entirety of the poem.

Not only is the wood-duck important in its ubiquity, but the bright myriad of colors of the male’s plumage hearkens to the variety that exists in the American republic.  Whitman stresses that America encompasses men and women of many colors, all of which are equal under democratic rule.

Below is a caption from the Audubon Society’s website on the habit of wood-ducks:

On the ground the Wood Duck runs nimbly and with more grace than most other birds of its tribe. On reaching the shore of a pond or stream, it immediately shakes its tail sidewise, looks around, and proceeds in search of food. It moves on the larger branches of trees with the same apparent ease; and, while looking at thirty or forty of these birds perched on a single sycamore on the bank of a secluded bayou, I have conceived the sight as pleasing as any that I have ever enjoyed.

The closeness and apparent camaraderie of these birds lends them to occupy an ideal place in Whitman’s poetry–another symbol to break with European tradition and invent a distinctly American flavor to add to literary convention.

Cited Works

The Audubon Society.  The Wood Duck, Summer Duck.

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