Early in the poem, a child asks, “What is the grass?” Although he claims, or pretends, not to know the answer, the Whitmanian persona goes on to offer a number of surmises, each plausible, each partial. “Song of Myself” constitutes one such seemingly simple yet punningly enigmatic leaf of grass: a poem in a book, Leaves of Grass, that expands and changes shape over nine separate editions even as it remains in essence always the same. The poem is for the reader what the grass is for the child: a “uniform hieroglyphic” for which there is no single Rosetta Stone by which it may be deciphered, other than the faith that Whitman cheerfully and insistently proclaims. Its “barbaric yawp” opens itself to a variety of interpretative strategies but chiefly attests its own capacity to outstrip them all: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
The self that Whitman sings and celebrates proves as much a “uniform hieroglyphic” as the grass: equally evocative, multiform, and full of contradictions. It is as much a physical presence as a projected (spiritual) possibility. It is Emerson’s self-engendered, self-reliant man, one who exists not in Thoreauvian isolation but in “ensemble,” speaking the word “en-masse.” As self-appointed bard of democracy, Whitman projects an “I” as expansive and diverse as the country itself, in a poetic form and language as experimental and new as the nation and its democratic political system.
Even as it overtly and enthusiastically expresses Whitman’s faith in cosmic evolution and therefore in the essential indivisibility of Emersonian self-reliance and Over-Soul, “Song of Myself” also expresses in the very stridency of its affirmation a division deep within the poem’s prototypical “self,” within the poet himself (psychologically considered), and within the country (both socially and politically). It offers a Transcendentalist solution to the crisis of union that, only five years after the poem made its first appearance, would lead to civil war. “Song of Myself” presents, therefore, a complex set of variations on the theme sounded in more narrowly political terms in Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1858 “A House Divided” speech. The poem did not resolve the national debate, nor did it bring about the Transcendentalist democracy Whitman envisioned—nor, apparently, did it ease the psychosexual divisions within Whitman’s own psyche. Those failures, however, must be measured against the greatness of a work generally regarded not only as its author’s most ambitious but also as one of American literature’s most representative.