Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Song of Myself,” the longest poem in Leaves of Grass, is a joyous celebration of the human self in its most expanded, spontaneous, self-sufficient, and all-embracing state as it observes and interacts with everything in creation and ranges freely over time and space. The bard of the poem, speaking in the oracular tones of the prophet, affirms the divinity and sacredness of the entire universe, including the human body, and he asserts that no part of the universe is separate from himself—he flows into all things and is all things.
The “I” of the poem is quite clearly, then, not the everyday self, the small, personal ego that is unique and different from all other selves. Rather, the persona who speaks out in such bold terms is the human self experiencing its own transcendental nature, silently witnessing all the turbulent activity of the world while itself remaining detached: “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, . . . Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” This “I” is immortal and persists through numberless human generations and through all the changing cycles of creation and destruction in the universe. It cannot be measured or circumscribed; it is blissful, serenely content with itself, and needs nothing beyond or outside itself for its own fulfillment.
In “Song of Myself,” this large self continually floods into and interpenetrates the small, personal self, including the physical body, and becomes one with it. It is this union of the absolute self with the relative self that allows the persona of the poem to express such spontaneous delight in the simple experience of being alive in the flesh. “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” announces the persona in the very first section of the poem. This is a state of being that does not have to perform any actions to experience fulfillment; it simply enjoys being what it is: “I exist as I am, that is enough,/ If no other in the world be aware I sit content,/ And if each and all be aware I sit content.”
It is in this context that the persona’s celebration of the pleasures of the body should be understood. Lines such as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,/ Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,” do not signify mere sensual indulgence. The human body is a microcosm of its divine source, in which there is always perfection, fullness, and bliss. There is no dualism of soul and body, because, as William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), a prophetic work which bears a...
(The entire section is 1082 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
“Song of Myself” was first published as the untitled opening poem of Leaves of Grass in 1855. The author’s name does not appear on the first edition’s title page, but it is mentioned in the poem: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” This characterization sums up the subject of identity in “Song of Myself.” Whitman presents himself as an American working man and as a mystical figure at one with the universe.
Although the poem identifies “myself” simply as Walt Whitman, the identity of the speaker is also mythic. Instead of trying to say how unique his feelings and thoughts are, Whitman emphasizes his ordinariness. His ordinariness is in fact so comprehensive that he absorbs each American, past, present, and future. This comprehensive awareness makes the speaker of the poem greater than himself, but it is a greatness and uniqueness that is, he emphasizes, accessible to all.
The idea behind “Song of Myself” is that individual identity is temporary but transcendent. The dominant tone of “Song of Myself” is joyous and mystical. The cycle of life renews itself constantly, and so conquers death. If each person absorbs this knowledge, each may feel kinship with all life, and so gain a sense of victory over mortality.
“Song of Myself” includes many modulations of tone as it moves toward its climax. To work out the theme of endless renewal, the fifty-two sections of the poem move back and forth between general and specific, between description and emotion, between the body and the soul. “Song of Myself” is a powerful—sometimes shocking—poem of physical identity. Sexuality is part of common humanity, and Whitman ignores pretenses in order to reach to the universal truths of human identity, including the truths of the body.
Like the rest of Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself” is in free verse, or poetry without regular rhyme or meter. Free verse was a perfect form for Whitman to use to explore the themes of identity, nationality, and transcendence in a free country. The national motto—e pluribus unum, out of many one—might equally well serve as the motto for “Song of Myself.” Out of the many ethnic, racial, and gender identities Whitman saw in America, and out of the complexities of his own identity, he forged an epic of transcendent identity.