In Walt Whitman's The Voice of the Rain from his book Leaves of Grass, he writes:

I descend to lave the droughts, atomies, dust-layers of the globe...

What does "atomies" mean here? I could picture small particles but then I cannot be sure. Looking the word up yields nothing that would fit in here.

  • 1
    Is there a reason you dismiss the standard definition of skeleton? The question may attract more responses if you discuss exactly what you have considered and dismissed, and why.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 7, 2017 at 8:04
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    Can you link the full text of the passage? (Been a while since I last read Leaves and context is everything!)
    – DukeZhou
    Sep 7, 2017 at 16:23
  • @DukeZhou, here: whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/349
    – ditsuke
    Sep 7, 2017 at 18:54
  • @Spagirl, I just couldn't comprehend it being the standard definition, why would the rain descent to wash skeletons? I mean they're mostly in peace buried and not many skeletons exist out to be relieved by rain, and those that are are just not where the rain can get them. My reasoning may be flawed but yep, that is how i thought.
    – ditsuke
    Sep 7, 2017 at 18:57
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    Thanks for accepting. I've amended with a note at the end on my personal interpretation you may find interesting. (Also thanks for this question! It's a wonderful passage, well worth analyzing.)
    – DukeZhou
    Sep 8, 2017 at 18:00

2 Answers 2


The confusion comes from Whitman's using a (now archaic) word form. I don't know to what degree Whitman's specific choice "atomies" was standard in his time, but Whitman is generally considered a poet of the first rank, and poets are allowed to invent words and engineer novel usage. (Often, those two capabilities are marks of the greatest poets. Shakespeare was the most fertile because he was writing during the first period of what came to be modern English.)

  • Atomies may refer to the atomic level of existence

I take this from context of this particular verse, Voice of the Rain, and because the idea is established at the outset of Leaves of Grass:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Whitman: Song of Myself

This is supported by "And all that in them without me were seeds only..." in that seeds, dust, and atoms are small, basic units, similar to motes. You'll note that atom and mote are standard definitions of atomy.

This is further supported in that Whitman was famous for using lists in this poem in particular, thus using different words for similar concepts is not only consistent, but almost certainly intended in this passage. However,

  • It's quite possible Whitman was intending a double meaning (again a mark of poetry) in the secondary usage of bones

Specifically, bones are often hidden in the "dust-layers of the globe". Whitman was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and the paleontology was an exciting, rapidly developing area in science. [Note: The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published a few years before On the Origin of Species, but Voice of the Rain seems not to have appeared until the 1891 edition of Leaves.]

My personal feeling is that what Whitman's was really saying with atomies is "all of the sets of minutiae that comprise the world".

Atomy is related to anatomy, and this strengthens the anthropomorphic theme--that of the poet has giving voice to the rain. (See also "What the Thunder Said".) If the rain has a voice, surely the earth itself can be regarded as an organism, or an amalgam of organisms.

Leaves is, at times, quite sexual, and this passage is distinctly so. The rain is creating life in a process analogous to procreation: "I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe, And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn; And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin..." In many ways, this section calls to mind the mating of Gaia and Ouranos (heaven and earth) but transforms the process into something nurturing as opposed to terrifying in that the progeny is sustaining, not destructive.


According to me, here 'atomies' means the tiny particles.This is because in the line 'I descend(moving down or to a lower level;as the rain drops itself on Earth) to lave(wash) the droughts, atomies, dust-layers of the globe..' the rain says tht it descends, it falls down on to the Earth so as to lave or wash/bathe the droughts, tiny particles or atomies and also the dust-layers which are formed on the globe(Earth).

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