In the poem "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass, what does the first stanza mean?

In "Song of Myself" in Leaves of Grass, Whitman declares that the "I" of the narrator includes not only himself as an individual, but also the rest of humanity and the entire universe.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Song of Myself" was originally untitled in the collection. Later, it was called "Poem of Walt Whitman , an American," and later still it was shortened to "Walt Whitman" before it was given its final name. Whitman saw his whole body of work as interconnected, and he continued...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

"Song of Myself" was originally untitled in the collection. Later, it was called "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American," and later still it was shortened to "Walt Whitman" before it was given its final name. Whitman saw his whole body of work as interconnected, and he continued revising and adding to Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime.

"Song of Myself," along with many of the other poems in Leaves of Grass, draws heavily on the philosophy of transcendentalism, which sees people and nature as good and extols the virtues of individualism and idealism.

The first stanza of "I Celebrate Myself and Sing Myself" serves as a thematic statement for not only "Song of Myself," but also the entire body of Whitman's work. It is important to keep in mind that the "I" of the narrator does not merely stand for Whitman himself. Instead, it represents much more. A key to this is found in the first stanza where Whitman writes that "what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

The narrator's "I" in fact represents three things. First of all, it is the individual person Walt Whitman who, as he goes on to say, is 37 years old as he writes this and was born in America of parents and grandparents who were also born in America. Part of Whitman's celebration in "Song of Myself" is a declaration that as an individual he sees himself as good.

However, the narrator goes far beyond seeing himself as one lonely person apart from other people. Instead, he identifies himself with others. Later in the poem he describes an array of different types of people and expresses his love for them all. He proclaims that he speaks with the voices of slaves, prostitutes, the diseased, the despairing, and others. Still later, he becomes the people that he writes about, and tells their stories in first person as if it were all happening to him. In other words, the "I" that the narrator celebrates and sings of includes all of humanity.

Whitman also includes nature and the universe in his all-encompassing "I." He writes that he believes that "a blade of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars." He feels a part of nature and of the animals, which he also describes and declares that he loves.

We see, then, that the first stanza in "I Celebrate Myself and Sing Myself" is no less than a declaration that Whitman is celebrating and singing about himself as an individual, the rest of humanity, and the entire expanse of nature and the universe.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first stanza of this poem by Walt Whitman is one of his most quoted. In introducing the poem in this way, Whitman is making a commitment to his readers, explaining what it is he is doing in writing this poem. He says that he is celebrating himself, and that he will "sing" himself -- that is, he is writing in celebration of who he is, and he will speak his own truths. However, he then gathers the reader in and invites him or her to "assume" the same thing as the poet -- that is, he is issuing an invitation to the reader to come on this journey with the speaker.

Next, the speaker goes on to explain why it is possible for him and the reader to "assume" the same thing. It is because the two of them, in fact, are one; "every atom" that is part of the poet may as well be part of the reader, too. In this, Whitman is suggesting that there is a unity between all people, as we are all made of the same materials and inhabit the same world. He is also suggesting that when we "sing" ourselves, we are also singing of a particular experience relevant to every other human on earth. Essentially, Whitman is here celebrating the togetherness of being human.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The opening stanza of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" is one of his most quoted verses.

The first stanza reads:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

He begins by speaking for himself. However, in the second and third line of this stanza, we realize that he is not just speaking for himself, but for the reader as well, bringing us to one of the primary themes of the poem, which is universality—something which the nineteenth-century American poet explores throughout Leaves of Grass.

This done, Whitman irresistibly invites the reader's curiosity in order to have them become a part of his journey as well.

He continues to do so in the rest of the poem, as he uses the pronoun "you" several times, entangling the reader by sharing his experience with them. The first stanza serves as a declaration of what is to come—a shared experience between the poet and the reader, or everyone in this universe who shares the common "atom" of being.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Whitman’s poetry celebrates both the individual and the collective. “Song of Myself” could just as easily been called “Song of Ourselves,” because Whitman sees “himself” as a kind of microcosm of everyone else. When he writes, in the first lines of the poem, “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he is being characteristically direct about his sensibility. Whitman asserts that his reader will “assume” or believe what he assumes, not because Whitman is a powerful orator or gifted poet, but because he shares a commonality with all people on an atomic level. It‘s easy to think of that contention as hyperbole, but Whitman really means it. The spiritual unity implied by the word “assume” is in parallel to—and equal to—the physical unity implied by the word “atom.” His poem will describe that unity.



Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The opening lines of the poem celebrate the individual as well as the community to which he belongs—in “celebrating” himself, he celbrates “you” because all human beings are bound by their beautiful humanity.  The speaker celebrates all aspects of himself, good and bad, and claims the right to “loafe” so that he might invite his soul to participate in nature—to “observe a piece of grass.”  The poem was ground breaking for many reasons, one being a radical change in language that embraces a common vernacular, the bodily and quotidian aspects of life, and the earth as part of the experience of being human

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team