Beware: spoilers for season 5 below.
These are the facts as I understand them:
- Leaves of Grass is a compendium of poems by Walt Whitman, an American influenced by Transcendentalism and Romanticism.
One of the many quirky ways that Boetticher impresses Walt is by reciting Whitman's 'When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer'
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lectureroom,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Boetticher later gives Walt a copy of the book with the following inscription
Walt Whitman is also very well-known for his homoerotic content, but it's unclear whether Gale is using the book as a subtle way to romantically pursue Walt or if Walt understands that's what's going on.
The book is eventually Walt's downfall when Hank finds his copy in the bathroom in the episode Gliding Over All, whose title is another Walt Whitman quote.
"Gliding o'er all, through all
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing."
You could even make an argument that Walter White is named after Walt Whitman, as the similarity in their names is pivotal to the plot.
Why did the showmakers choose to feature this particular poet so prominently? It feels like a deep analytic understanding of the poet could be used to understand the Breaking Bad characters more profoundly, as well as the heavy use of scenes set in nature. An ideal answer would explain why 'The Learn'd Astronomer' in particular was recited in full, why Gale chose it and why Walt was intrigued by it.