How does Walt Whitman show individualism and idealism in his poem "Song of Myself"?

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Margarete Abshire eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Individualism and idealism play major roles in Whitman’s poetry.

Individualism:Song of Myself” of course opens with the assertion that poet and reader are the same (“every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), so in a way the “Song of Myself” is also the “Song of Yourself.” There is always a tension or conflation of the individual, the poet, and the world (or universe) at large, which can be hard to explain. In “One’s Self I Sing” he makes this tension explicit: “One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” For Whitman, the individual and the collective are fused somehow. When he says, in ”Song of Myself,” that “what I shall assume you shall assume,” he is positing a kind of link between poet and world, subject and object, that simultaneously asserts the poet’s absolute individuality and the dissolution of that individuality into the world around him. The spirit of the poet animates the world, and the world, in turn, animates the poet.

Idealism: It’s not too hard to see how this way of thinking leads to a certain kind of idealism. I think the best way to describe Whitman’s idealism is to say that he believes there is an essential spiritual beauty in all things. This comes through in his elaborate catalogs of human activity in section 15, or in his answer to the question “What is the grass?” in section 6. Here is a part of that:

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

On the one hand, the grass is the grass. But on the other hand, Whitman sees the grass as the avatars of the dead, the living embodiment of possible lovers, old people, babies dead in childhood. Another way he expresses idealism is in the section 33, where he reimagines the scene of a rescue at sea, and imaginatively inserts himself into the scene: “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine, / I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there.” Whitman, as is often the case, seems less concerned with the specifics of the situation, or even the eventual fate of the stranded passengers, than with the essential “beauty” or aesthetic pleasure of such scenes. The events he sketches here and in the catalog passages (see section 15, mentioned above) attract his attention because they are beautiful exemplars of his poetic vision.

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Individualism: Walt Whitman’ “Song of Myself” is highly idiosyncratic and individualistic, expressing a point of view about slavery grounded in the particularistic viewpoint and experiences of the narrative “I” as an individual. The poem uses  unusual free verse forms to create an impression of a free American voice liberated from Old World traditions of formal poetry.

Idealism: The anti-slavery points of the poem, as well as the explicit homosexuality, and vision of America are ones that project ideals of freedom and imagine a perfectible world in which individuals can develop their artistic and human potential as free agents.

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