American Romantic authors tried to convey certain ideals in their works: the importance of nature, the depths of varying emotions, and the power of imagination. Taken as a whole, then, "Song of Myself" portrays a Romantic worldview.
Nature is seen as enchanting, beautiful, and impossible to accurately capture with words. For example, the speaker notes that a child asks him what grass is, and he has difficulty capturing the entirety of that seemingly simple concept with mere words:
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
He goes on to say that maybe grass is the "beautiful uncut hair of graves," providing an interesting juxtaposition of a positive adjective in an otherwise macabre metaphor. This image touches on the Romantic ideals: Nature becomes a source of great imagination.
The speaker also touches on the incredible diversity of America, such as in these lines:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
He paints a thorough portrait here of the variety of people who make up our country. There is power in this imagery, a recognition that people who are all so different are yet part of the same goal. This creates an emotional pull toward the ideals of America and what it represents. It also becomes easy for each reader to identify with part of this description and therefore with the pride in diversity that Whitman establishes.
This call for Americans to bond together, to unite in strength based on all they share, is a Romantic ideal—an emotional plea to recognize the power that individuals have to value and love each other in order to make America stronger.
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.
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.