Study Guide

Song of Myself

by Walt Whitman

Song of Myself Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 strong resemblance to “Song of Myself,” “that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five senses.”

Hence the Whitman persona can declare that “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul”; he will not downgrade one in order to promote the other. The senses are “miracles,” no part of the body is to be rejected or scorned, and sexual desire should not be something that cannot be spoken of: “I do not press my fingers across my mouth,/ I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,/ Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.”

This perception of the divine essence in the physical form extends to everything in the created world, however humble its station:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-  work of the stars,And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of  sand, and the egg of the wren,And the tree-toad is a chef-d’uvre for the highest,nd the running blackberry would adorn the  parlors of heaven.

Heightened perception such as this also extends to other human beings, all of whom are viewed as equally divine by the persona. It is this conviction of the shared divinity of the self that enables the persona repeatedly to identify and empathize with other human beings, as in section 33: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

In the worldview of the persona, humankind and nature interpenetrate each other in the most intimate way. The cycle of death, rebirth, and transformation is endless and unfathomable. The grass may, the persona muses, be made from the breasts of young men or from the hair of old people; he bequeaths himself to the earth and counsels the curious reader to look for him “under the boot-soles.” This points to a paradox, one of many in the poem. The self is immortal, yet it will also go through many transformations (“No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before”); similarly, the universe is complete and perfect at every moment, yet it is also perpetually flowing onward in dynamic transformation and evolution. Finally, the self merges with everything in the world yet also stands aloof and apart from the world. Paradoxes such as this cannot be rationally explained, but they can, the persona would argue, be spontaneously lived through.

Scholars have discussed whether “Song of Myself” has its origins in Whitman’s own mystical experiences or whether the persona is solely a literary invention designed to embody the kind of universal, all-seeing American bard that Whitman believed was appropriate for a vast and still expanding land. Such questions are impossible to answer with any certainty; however, it might be noted that in section 5, the Whitman persona records a significant moment when the transcendent soul seemed to descend and envelop him in an intense, almost sexual embrace, as a result of which “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.” He then knows, as an immediate fact of awareness, that his own spirit is a brother of the spirit of God, that all humankind are his brothers and sisters, and that the whole universe is bound together by love.

Attempts have also been made to discern a structure to the poem, but these have not, in general, proved satisfactory. Rather than trying to find a linear progression of themes, it is perhaps more useful to think of each of the fifty-two sections as spokes of a wheel, each expressing the same theme or similar themes in diverse ways, from diverse angles. As the persona states, “All truths wait in all things.”

Song of Myself Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.