The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Begun as early as 1847, “Song of Myself” first appeared as one of the twelve untitled poems of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Regularly revised, it became “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” in the second edition (1856) and “Walt Whitman” in the third through sixth editions (1860, 1867, 1871, and 1876). Not until the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1881, did the poem undergo its final metamorphosis in name as well as form. The first and final versions of “Song of Myself” are virtually identical in subject, style, and even length (1,336 and 1,346 lines respectively). Phrasings occasionally differ, but never crucially so. (“I celebrate myself,” the 1855 edition begins; “and sing myself,” Whitman later added). The division of the free-flowing untitled poem into fifty-two numbered sections, like the addition and subsequent revision of the title, proves more significant, for this overt structuring appears to add a sense of order and progression that the poem originally seemed to lack. This is not to say that the 1855 text was formless, or that structure is something Whitman arbitrarily imposed. The numbering merely accents the organic principle from which the poem develops, for the poem’s unity derives less from the numbering of its sections according to the yearly cycle of weeks than from the fusion of song and self.
Not identifying himself by name until section 24—and even then in half-biblical, half-comical fashion, as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (in the 1855 edition, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”)—the thirty-seven-year-old narrator strikes a decidedly proud and personal pose and addresses the reader in a doubly direct manner. From the outset, he incorporates his listener/reader into the poem (as “you”) and permits “nature” to speak “without check, with original energy,” which is to say, free of the constraints of either poetic convention or social decorum. The freedom Whitman takes evidences itself not...
(The entire section is 840 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost,” Whitman warned in the preface to the 1855 edition to Leaves of Grass. His admonition is, however, in a way misleading. While it accurately measures the great distance between his “barbaric yawp” and the conventionality that characterized the standard poetry of his day, Whitman’s remark may lead readers to assume that “Song of Myself,” or any Whitman poem, is somehow artless. Whitman divested himself of the “ornaments” and “fluency” of conventional verse in order to craft a poetry more natively American, not only in subject but also in style. He took upon himself the task of discovering a poetic form as raw, as free, as unfinished, as expansive, as experimental, and as full of promise as his Transcendentalist conception of his country. Unlike Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he did not, except briefly, look back to the American past; he looked instead to the present moment and to a projected future. Unlike his fellow Transcendentalist Thoreau, one of his earliest supporters, Whitman did not count a man rich in relation to the number of things he could do without. Whitman’s “omnivorous lines” give the illusion of leaving nothing out, of being democratically all-inclusive, a strange mixture (as Emerson himself noted) of the Bhagavad Gt and the New York Herald. The poem’s democratic thrust is most obviously at work in Whitman’s lengthy catalogs, and more...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1975.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Walt Whitman: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Miller, Edward Haviland. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1990.