Does Song of Myself reflect the Romantic or Realistic worldview?

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leospengler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before we decide whether Walt Whitman's momentous "Song of Myself" (1855) reflects a Realist or Romantic worldview, we must first define what we mean by these terms.

Realism, in literature, is a technique that aspires to represent its subject matter in a realistic way. Though the work itself may be fictional, realist works seek to depict individuals in a context accurate to their time and setting. Realist authors in American literature include Mark Twain and Henry James.

Romanticism, on the other hand, accentuates intense emotional or transcendental experiences and values not the world as it exists, but instead ideals that should exist in the world. Romantics also held folk art and works of antiquity in high regard. The works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne include Romantic aspects.

So which category does "Song of Myself" best align with? The work includes realist elements, such as the long lists of American individuals, settings, and experiences of section fifteen and sixteen. However, the work also includes various Romantic characteristics, such as the persona's forceful sentiments expressed in sections twenty-five and twenty-six. The work is then best described as Romantic-realist in nature, for it combines elements of both Romanticism and realism to collapse the notions of the real and the ideal to establish a connection between what is and what ultimately should be.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The very nature of the title as one where there is internal reflection and an emphasis on the subjective makes Whitman's work decidedly Romantic.  The notion of "myself" being so important a focal point on the narrative offered is one where Romanticism is evident.  Like so many others in the Romantic movement, Whitman was concerned that the exploration of self can provide universal meaning.  He believed that the subjective can be part of the objective experiences.  In understanding the self, one can gain insight into larger configurations.  This is a Romantic idea and something that Whitman believed as he felt that the idea of the work is to bring out the idea of how individual identity is an inevitable part of American democracy and the sensibilities in the individual are actually linked to a larger social and political fabric.  For Whitman, the recognition of this idea comes from a subjective point of reference and in this, there is much in way of Romantic leanings.  In presenting his work in this manner, Whitman is unabashedly Romantic, hoping to insert his work into the American Romanticism movement of Transcendentalism.