Can someone please explain section 4 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" to me? Specially the paragraph where it says something about a bending arm.A short summery of this section in other words...

Can someone please explain section 4 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" to me? Specially the paragraph where it says something about a bending arm.

A short summery of this section in other words would be fine, too.

Asked on by lori12war

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James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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I love Whitman's "Song of Myself," but I have the hardest time explaining it to anyone.

Section 4 seems like much of the poem, focusing on a wide range of things recollected or perceived by the speaker, who is somehow able to transcend all limits and offers glimpses of the past, present, and future.

This section, like the poem as a whole, is full of suggestive references. The phrase "horrors of fratricidal war" is almost certainly a reference to the American Cvil War, which was raging while Whitman was continuing to expand and revise Leaves of Grass.

You asked specifically about the "bending arm." Here are a few lines from that part of the poem:

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

The speaker here is not part of the bustling world of America. He is "amused, complacent... idle..." One of the reasons I like Whitman, I suppose, is that he writes against the Puritan doctrines that have so strongly shaped American culture; for example, he celebrates the body and the value of not working and not feeling guilty about failing to be productive all the time. The "bending arm" is part of this pose struck by the poem's speaker. You can picture him lying on the ground, with one arm bent and his head resting in his hand. The arm is not engaged in any sort of gainful work at the moment. The speaker is more than happy to observe and reflect on what he observes.

The bent arm is also used in one of Whitman's most famous likenesses, which appears in many editions of Leaves of Grass. Do a Google image search of "Leaves of Grass" and you'll see the poet standing, head tilted and hat cocked at an angle, one hand in his pant pocket and the other (with bent arm) resting on his hip.

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