Beware: spoilers for Breaking Bad 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

    enter image description here

  • 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.

  • I don't know about a more profound understanding of the Breaking Bad characters, but it didn't hurt that Walter White having the same initials as Walt Whitman allowed for some suspense when Hank found "To W.W. My star, my perfect silence" in Gale's lab notebook. Remember Walter raising his hands and saying "Ya got me!" jokingly? But the viewer knew what he was really feeling. youtube.com/watch?v=xFTGUwwzaeU Mar 11, 2014 at 19:54
  • 2
    The fact that Whitman is worked so thoroughly into the plot makes me assume that White was named after Whitman, not that Whitman was shoehorned in to match White.
    – vastra360
    Mar 11, 2014 at 23:22
  • FYI: Walt is an INTJ, Jesse is ESFP, Skyler is ESFJ, Hank is ESTJ, Gus is INTJ, Saul is ENTP, Mike is ISTP, Gale is INTP. That should give you more insight into the characters, if you know about Myers-Briggs types.
    – Chloe
    Oct 8, 2016 at 3:22

1 Answer 1


I can only guess at the answer, but here goes. You've already noted the episode titled Gilding Over All is a reference to Walt Whitman, and has the line many deaths I'll sing.

It is no coincidence that both Walter White and Walt Whitman share the same first name. Even their surnames are basically the same: White and Whitman (White man).

Walt Whitman was one of America's most influential poets - a great in his field. He was obsessed with his work Leaves of Grass and was constantly revising it. The work was not easily accepted because of its celebration of self and sensuality - the editors asked Walt Whitman to censor his work, but he would not - just as Walter White was obsessed with creating the greatest meth possible - his life's work - and his work would also be frowned upon by less enlightened people than himself.

Walter White and Gale Boetticher were both brilliant chemists; indeed Walter White would have been recognized as such by his success with Gray Matter if he had not acted so rashly/impulsively by walking away from it in a huff. It is an insight into White's arrogance that he never takes responsibility for this act, instead nourishing this grudge throughout the entire series. Walter White thinks of himself as being a world-class brilliant man cut down by chance (not his own flaw) to his lowly position as a high school chemistry teacher.

When Walt and Gale first meet, Gale is already aware of Walt's brilliance, and they discuss their pure love of chemistry. We know why Walt is in the meth business; Gale explains,

“I was on my way—jumping through hoops, kissing the proper behinds, attending to all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied with. You know that world. That is not what I signed on for. I love the lab—because it’s all still magic, you know? Chemistry? I mean, once you lose that….”

And Walt agrees with him. They have a moment where they agree with Walt Whitman that the purity of what they love had been spoiled for them. For Whitman, this was a declaration of disillusionment with convention and of liberation. So, too, are Walt and Gale liberated from the lecture room (class room for Walt, academia for Gale) and convention.

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer... in the lectureroom,
How soon... I became tired and sick;
Till... I wander’d off by myself...
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt is accepting of Gale's obvious great admiration verging on adulation as if it were his due. It is with some of this stardust in his own eyes that he purchases a copy (paperback) shortly afterwards and reads it himself. Perhaps Walt liked Walt Whitman's celebration of himself that occurs in I Sing the Body Electric and other poems in Leaves of Grass. Though it is never explained, I think Walt sees himself in Walt Whitman. It doesn't hurt that two of the poems in Leaves of Grass were mourning the death of the great president, Abraham Lincoln. One might even go so far as to say that to Walt, he with the insufferable ego (and self-deception) himself believes he is a great man who will deserve to be mourned when he dies (of cancer).

  • 1
    This is a fantastic answer to the in-universe parts of my question. Thank you! Glad I went to the trouble of tracking you down on the English Language and Usage site.
    – vastra360
    Mar 12, 2014 at 5:41
  • Sorry I arrive some two years late. While I appreciate a lot the insights in this answer, they are in part at odd with the impression I got. The Withman collection given by Gale to WW is seen several times, in both WW's houses, but always unopened or at most soon closed, and it ends up in the bathroom, not exactly the place of honour, where most people keep old magazines and the like. What I deduced was that WW never went so far as to open it and read the dedication, otherwise he wouldn't have kept and left around so incriminating an item.
    – DaG
    Jun 5, 2016 at 18:12
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    @DaG - In one episode, WW is indeed reading Leaves of Grass. Smiling. My error is that it was not a paperback but the hardback Gale gave him. Jun 5, 2016 at 19:23
  • Thanks, @anongoodnurse, I didn't remember that. Which episode? This of course changes my perception. But then again, why did WW leave around such a dangerous object?
    – DaG
    Jun 5, 2016 at 20:25
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    @DaG - The episode was "Gliding Over All". I agree that it was dangerous; I think it was partly just forgetfulness, but more a sign of a the size of his ego. Jun 6, 2016 at 21:19

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