Song of Myself (American History Through Literature)
"Song of Myself" is the final title Walt Whitman gave to his long, changing, remarkably fluid poem that he originally published as "Leaves of Grass" in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855).
It was renamed "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" in the 1856 edition and was called simply "Walt Whitman" in the editions of 1860, 1867, and 1871. Only in the final edition of Leaves of Grass in 1881 did the poem become "Song of Myself." Not just the title but many other features of the poem changed over the years: Whitman radically altered the punctuation, added some sections and deleted others, tinkered with many individual lines, and divided up the poem in very different ways. In its original form, the poem had unnumbered stanzas that varied from a single line to over eighty lines; by 1860 Whitman had numbered these stanzas from 1 to 372; and by 1867 he had further divided the poem into fifty-two numbered sections, still keeping the stanza numbers; only in 1881 did he drop the stanza numbers and retain just the fifty-two sections. In addition to the internal changes, Whitman altered the position of the poem in Leaves of Grass, placing it first among the twelve poems in the 1855 edition but dropping it into second position in 1860 and moving it farther back in each succeeding edition. The poem thus plays a different role in each edition of Leaves, and its meanings shifted as Whitman revised it and recontextualized it over nearly three decades. He would never again write a poem anywhere near as long as "Song of Myself."
The origins of "Song of Myself " have remained a mystery. Whitman was an inveterate keeper of notebooks, a habit that began during his days as a newspaper reporter and editor in the 1840s. He used these notebooks to record the names of people he met, to keep financial ledgers, and to jot down notes about sights, sounds, and ideas. In one notebook, now known as "Talbot Wilson" (after the name that appears at the top of the first page), Whitman records many ideas and images that eventually make their way into "Song of Myself." There has been a long debate over when these notebook entries were made; for many decades, critics dated the notebook from the late 1840s, thus suggesting that Whitman had been working on "Song of Myself " for seven or eight years before its publication in 1855. The mystery was intensified during World War II, when the notebook, then housed at the Library of Congress, was shipped for safekeeping to a midwestern university. When the box containing the notebooks was returned to the Library of Congress, the Talbot Wilson was missing. In 1998 it was discovered in the attic of a book collector. Examinations of the notebook showed conclusively that, while Whitman did use it in the 1840s, he cut out the earlier pages and began reusing it in the early 1850s, perhaps as late as 1854. All the notes leading to "Song of Myself " date from the 1850s, thus indicating a much quicker development of the poem than had previously been assumed.
The later dating allows us to see more clearly how "Song of Myself" had its genesis and rapid gestation during the explosive decade of the 1850s, following the Missouri Compromise and the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law, which increased federal oversight of the process of returning runaway slaves to their owners. Many Americans who resisted this law strenuously objected to the imposition of federal jurisdiction over what had previously been state decisions, and many argued that the enforcement of the law made all Americans complicitous in slavery and, even worse, coerced all Americans into becoming slave catchers. The controversies surrounding this law boiled over in 1854 when the escaped slave Anthony Burns was retained in Boston, Massachusetts, and ordered back to the South by federal marshals and by President Franklin Pierce. Pierce provided hundreds of U.S. troops to escort Burns through the streets of Boston, where twenty thousand angry residents demonstrated against his forced return, and stationed a navy boat in Boston harbor to take him back to Virginia. Whitman wrote an angry, sarcastic poem that he later called "A Boston Ballad" about this incident. In the poem, he chastised the people of the North for allowing this injustice to occur, and he imagined hauling King George III's bones out of his coffin, reassembling them, and putting a crown on the corpse's head, since such cowardice indicated Americans had become subservient to tyrannical power once again. But now the tyrannical power was seen as the U.S. government itself, which was imposing an unjust law on individual states. Whitman included "A Boston Ballad" in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but this was hardly the only mention of the slavery issue in Leaves: of the twelve poems appearing in the first edition, nine dealt with slaves, including the three longest poems, "The Sleepers," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "Song of Myself."
Whitman's involvement with the slavery issue dated back to the 1846 Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in territories the United States acquired from Mexico; the proviso had split the Democratic Party, and Whitman became a Barnburner, a Democrat who opposed the extension of slavery to western territories. But it was not until early 1848 that Whitman came into direct contact with the institution of slavery. Acting impulsively on an unexpected offer to edit the New Orleans Daily Crescent, he abruptly left Brooklyn for Louisiana, where for three months he experienced southern culture, witnessed slave auctions, and absorbed the multilingual mix of the Creole city. His sojourn there would have lasting effects, ranging from his use of occasional French terms in "Song of Myself " to his powerful evocation of the slave market in "I Sing the Body Electric" and his detailed descriptions of slaves in "Song of Myself." He carried back with him a slave auction poster, which he kept in his room from then on as a stark reminder of what he had witnessed. Once back in Brooklyn, Whitman founded and edited for a short time a free-soil newspaper he called the Freeman; then, during the years leading up to the appearance of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he gave himself time to read, to write incessantly in the small notebooks he always carried with him, and to allow his roiling ideas to evolve. In a burst of creative energy, still discernible in the notebooks he left behind, he discovered his revolutionary new vehicle, a long-lined free verse organized by a vast and absorptive "I" who would speak for all of America in a brash and nondiscriminating voice.
Whitman's notebooks and surviving manuscripts reveal the intensity and fluidity of the development of his poetic style. Images, phrases, and whole lines of what would become "Song of Myself " can be found in his prose jottings, and only a year or two before Leaves appeared, Whitman was unclear what shapeven what genreis new expression would take. In one notebook from the early 1850s, which contains prose lines that would later take their place in "Song of Myself," Whitman writes: "Novel? Work of some sort/Play? . . . Plot for a Poem or other work ...A spiritual novel?" (Daybooks, p. 775). For a while, he thought about turning his notes into speeches and going on the lecture circuit. Only gradually do the notebooks edge toward his discovery of his line, but once that discovery comes, he moves quickly toward the finished poem. In the Talbot Wilson notebook, we find some of Whitman's earliest proto-lines for "Song of Myself ":
I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves
I am the poet of the body
And I am
I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters
And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike
I am the poet of Strength and Hope
( Notebooks, p. 67)
From the beginning, Whitman was busy embedding deep in his poem impossible contradictions, and he always wedded opposites with his omnipresent "and." He would not be the poet of slaves or the poet of masters but rather the poet of slaves and masters. Whatever democratic voice he invented would have to speak for both, or it was doomed to be partial and thus not representative. And to stand between masters and slaves was to stand in a politically and sexually charged space, historically a place of rape and torture, but a place also where mixing and hybridity began. There is no easy space to inhabit in American history, and Whitman was courageous enough to insist on speaking for the full range of American identities, from the most powerful to the powerless, and to recognize that there are no slaves without masters, no masters without slaves, and that only when every individual begins to recognize the slave and the master within could a democratic voice begin to merge and emerge.
And it was nothing less than the creation of a democratic voice that Whitman was after; he sought in "Song of Myself " to voice an "I" that would for the first time articulate just what a nonhierarchical sensibility would sound like. He was not speaking in his poem as the Walt Whitman of the mid-1850s but rather as a Whitman projected far into a more perfectly realized democratic future. He was teaching Americans how to think and speak democratically, in a freer and looser idiom, in a more conversational and less formal tone. He achieved an uncanny combination of oratory, journalism, and scripturearanguing, mundane, and propheticll in the service of identifying a new American attitude, an accepting voice that would catalog the diversity of the country and manage to hold it all in a vast, single, unified identity: "I am large. . . . I contain multitudes" (Leaves, p. 55). This new voice spoke confidently of union at a time of deep division and tension in the culture, only five years short of the outbreak of the Civil War, and it spoke with the assurance of one for whom everything, no matter how degraded, could be celebrated as part of itself: "What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me" (p. 21). His work echoed the lingo of the American urban working class and took pride in an American language that was forming as a tongue distinct from British English.
Part of that new American speech involved a much more open acknowledgment of sexuality and the body than the culture was accustomed to. "Song of Myself " was fueled by erotic energyUrge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world" (p. 2)nd the narrator initiates his journey with a bizarre sex act:
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
The physical encounter here has been variously read as a homosexual act, heterosexual intercourse, or a kind of charging up of the body by the soul. Whitman is sometimes categorized as a transcendentalist but his beliefs are more "descendentalist," with the soul entering the body to energize the senses instead of the soul transcending the physical world. For Whitman, soul without body was unthinkable, and in this generative scene, the tongue is plunged into the heart, initiating a union of physical voice and heartoth the seat of love and emotion and the organ of life, pumping blood to the head and hands and genitals. In "Song of Myself," the narrator's body speaks and sees and hears and touches and tastes and smells, absorbing the world through heightened senses: "Welcome is every organ and attribute of me . . . / Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile" (p. 14). This erotic drive would urge the democratic self to cross boundaries of race and gender and class: "Who need be afraid of the merge? / Undrape . . . you are not guilty to me" (p. 17). All human beings inhabit bodies, and democracy starts, Whitman believed, with a full acknowledgment of the body's desires and drives: they are what unify us.
In the spring of 1855, Whitman took his manuscript, still in flux, to his friend Andrew Rome, a Scottish immigrant who ran a small print shop in Brooklyn and specialized in printing legal documents. Published around 4 July, the first edition of Leaves, with its legal-sized paper, large typeface, and rough finish, looks like what it is: a declaration of literary independence, a proclamation of a new kind of literature fit for a new democracy. Since Andrew Rome did not normally print books but only legal forms, the large-sized paper was what he would have had in stock. Whitman would have loved the resonance and suggestiveness of printing his poems on legal-sized paper. This was, after all, poetry printed to be posted like a legal notice, a contract between the author and reader, between the "I" and "you": "what I assume you shall assume" (p. 13). When you open this book, Whitman seems to be saying, you enter into a binding agreement with the poet: "Gentlemen I receive you, and attach and clasp hands with you" (p. 28). The legal language continues throughout "Song of Myself": "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love" (p. 56; emphasis added), he writes at the end of the poem.
Whitman included as a frontispiece an engraving of himself in laborer's garb, staring at the reader with a challenging look, wearing a "wide-awake" hat (a hat associated with abolitionists and later with supporters of Abraham Lincoln's candidacy for president, a group known as the "wide-awakes"). The portrait is unlike any previous frontispiece representation of an author: the full-body pose, with the torso as the center of focus, suggests that this poetry emerges not just from the intellect but from the experience of a body at work in the world, hat on, shirt open, ready to be inspired and ready to perspire. The engraving by Samuel Hollyer turns out to be a collage made from an earlier daguerreotype of Whitman dressed in more formal attirehitman the flaneur, the well-dressed young dandy aspiring to be part of the nation's rising professional middle classelded with another shot of Whitman as day laborer, proud to speak for the working class and identifying himself more with "Bowery b'hoys" than with newspaper editors. Whitman's absorptive identity in "Song of Myself " was built on this fluidity, this ease in crossing all the class and gender and even racial barriers that separated Americans. At a key point in the poem, the narrator pauses to name himself and in doing so brings the frontispiece engraving alive:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding . . .
Through me many long dumb voices
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves.
In the very act of identifying himself, Whitman emphasizes his unashamed sexuality and easy sensuality, simultaneously making it clear that the whole point of his poem is to give voice to the previously voiceless, to let the slaves speak as part of the democratic conversation.
This idiosyncratic engraving would remain for Whitman the emblem of "Song of Myself." After 1856 he stopped using it as the frontispiece for Leaves of Grass, but in the 1881 final edition of Leaves, he reprinted it opposite the first page of "Song of Myself," as if to emphasize that the engraving illustrated the "I" of that poem. In the first edition of Leaves, the poem occupied forty-three pages, beginning with "I celebrate myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (p. 13), and ending with "Failing to fetch me me [sic] at first keep encouraged, /
STRUCTURE AND STYLE
Whitman creates two great characters in this poem: "I" and "you." The "I" becomes a model voice of American democracy. The "you" becomes an identity space the reader is invited to occupy. It is possible to hear the "you" in "Song" as addressed to the entire nation or the entire world, and it is also possible to hear it as intimately addressed only to the individual reader at a particular moment. "Song" opens with "I" and ends with "you," and the poem enacts a transfer of the absorptive energy from poet to reader, who by the final lines is sent off alone to continue the journey the poem began.
The deep structure of the poem seems to be a half-submerged slave-escape narrative, in which the speaker is seeking to liberate the reader from every kind of enslavementeligious, philosophical, moral, social, as well as physical. Chattel slavery was only the most conspicuous and blatant form of soul-killing coercion operating in mid-nineteenth-century America, and Whitman knew the culture was generating other forms, including the emerging "wage slavery" brought on by incipient capitalism, which had already begun to sap the individuality and pride that Whitman had admired in the artisanal culture he grew up in. Instead of using their hands in creative and skilled work, more and more Americans were becoming hired hands, selling their labor in a demeaning marketplace that treated humans as interchangeable machine parts and paid them by the hour. So "Song of Myself " takes the reader on what the poet calls "a perpetual journey" (p. 51), one that turns into an escape narrative for those who need to liberate themselves from the enslaving beliefs and possessions that prevent individual growth, need to put "creeds and schools in abeyance" (Complete Poetry, p. 188) and embark on a new road: "Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, / You must travel it for yourself " (Leaves, p. 52).
An actual slave-escape narrative surfaces in the poem at key points, as when the speaker states "The runaway slave came to my house" (p. 19), was welcomed in, given a room that opened onto the narrator's room, and shared the table with the "I," who gave the slave food, water, a bath, clean clothes, and hope. Soon, a kind of utopian space seems to open up as the "I" watches white workers taking part in a "shuffle and breakdown" (p. 20), black dances that seem to be loosening up and liberating the white laborers. Then the narrator describes in detail a working "negro" who "holds firmly the reins of his four horses" and has a "glance" that "is calm and commanding" as the sun "falls on the black of his polish'd and perfect limbs" (p. 20). As the democratic escape narrative progresses, racial boundaries are crossed and blacks acquire agency, pride, and beauty. Later, more distinctions collapse as the "I" literally gives itself over to a runaway slave who is captured, and speaks as the slave instead of for or to or of the slave: "I am the hounded slave ...I wince at the bite of the dogs" (p. 39).
Whitman's free verse picked up the rhythms of American speech and issued in vast, flowing sentences that ran over his lengthy lines, each one an extended exhalation of breath, complete with an early "stream of consciousness" effect produced by Whitman's idiosyncratic use of ellipses instead of more standard punctuation. His poetry, he announced at the beginning of "Song of Myself," was based on "respiration and inspiration" (p. 13), the breathing in of the world around him in all its diversity and the breathing out again in words that echoed that world. Whitman invents a style that captures the easy influx of sensory experience, and, throughout "Song of Myself," he pictures himself as the ultimate absorber of physical sensations, his five senses wide open, allowing each moment to redefine who and what he is: "In me the caresser of life wherever moving" (p. 11); "I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise" (p. 23); "I resist anything better than my own diversity" (p. 24); "To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow, / All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means" (p. 26). The speaker of "Song" is someone whose senses are charged up, heightened, electric:
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.
Is this then a touch? . . . quivering me to a new identity.
Whitman turns the impersonal act of reading into an intimate sensory experience and talks to his reader as if the print on the page were itself a sentient being aware of the reader's presence: "Listener up there! Here you . . . what have you to confide to me?" (p. 55). We as readers are being addressed more directly than we are used to by a writer, and we are even being asked to respond, to confide to the "I" of this poem our secrets, dreams, anxieties. Whitman's exclamation to the readerListener up there!"omes as a shock because it expresses awareness of the physical position of the reader in relation to the text, of the reader's face hovering above the page. Whitman creates, in other words, a new democratic act of reading, where the author is not so much the "authority" as the companion, someone not only to be listened to but also talked to. Whitman always believed that a democracy would have to develop new, more rigorous reading habits, and readers would have to learn to wrestle with authority and never passively accept what persons in authority claimed. Democracy would require a new concept of "author" and "reader," a more intimate interaction between the "I" and the "you" of any text. "Song of Myself " sets out to enact this new relationship and in so doing, to forge a democracy.
Three versions of "Song of Myself " (1855, 1856, and 1860) appeared before the Civil War, three more (1867, 1871, and 1881) after. After the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, the historical currency of "Song of Myself " changed dramatically, and the poem, when read in the context of Whitman's later work, receded into a nostalgia for a dreamed-of democracy that was never realized, that was shattered by the war, by the persistent racial strife in the culture after emancipation, and by growing class disparities. In each new edition, Whitman tamed "Song" a bit more, channeling the original nonstop flow into numbered sections and replacing the innovative use of ellipses with more standard punctuation. By the twentieth century, most people had stopped reading "Song" as a poem growing out of the specific turbulent social history of 1850s America, and many began reading it as primarily a spiritual or mystical text. But in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, "Song of Myself " was examined anew as a key text in nineteenth-century American cultural studies, a poem that responds acutely to the tensions of class, race, and sexualitys well as to linguistic, religious, and scientific issueshat defined the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War.
See also "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry": Leaves of Grass; Lyric Poetry; "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"; "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price, eds. The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org.
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Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Vol. 3. Edited by William White. New York: New York University Press, 1978.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Andrew H. Rome, 1855. Available in facsimile at www.whitmanarchive.org. Except where otherwise noted, page citations in text are to this edition.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Vol. 1. Edited by Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
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Warren, James Perrin. "'The Real Grammar': Deverbal Style in 'Song of Myself.'" American Literature 56, no. 1 (1984): 16.