Walt Whitman: "Song of Myself", Leaves of GrassThe poem begins with an "I". To what extent does the poem refer to the individual and to the community? What is Whitman's view of his physical self?...
The poem begins with an "I". To what extent does the poem refer to the individual and to the community?
What is Whitman's view of his physical self? Why does he stress it so much?
Discuss Whitman's poetry as a culmination point in the development of American identity.
How does Whitman contribute to the ongoing evolution of self-reliance? Of human freedom? Of concepts of democracy?
In the first section Whitman makes use of autobiographical facts, what is the literary function of such facts?
When Whitman uses the first person, he does indeed seem to mean himself, Walt, "thirty-seven years old in perfect health." However, that is not all that he means by the first person, since Whitman's poetry is also channelling a kind of universal "I" that integrates poet, reader, and indeed all of humanity. Whitman is very clear about this: "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," he declares in the third line of "Song of Myself." While the poem is most definitely Whitman's "song," it is also just as definitively everyone else's. For Whitman, there is a universality in the particular that can be hard to follow, but understanding this is really key to "getting" what he is about.
Your question about the body is another great example. Sex is another expression of this particular/universal dichotomy that characterizes so much of his poetry. Whitman very much tries to appear "bodily" before the reader, as a witness to the things he describes in his poetry; however, another interpretation is that he also emphasizes the body because he would have the reader as his lover. The most famous example of this is in section five, where Whitman remembers, "I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, / How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue / to my bare-stript heart." Here, the question becomes who the second person refers to: it could be a real lover, it could be the reader, or it could be the spirit of poetry itself. It is the peculiar charm of Whitman (and perhaps his main point) that the precise answer to that question doesn't matter.
Your questions about democracy and American identity cover a lot of ground. I think a basic answer would be that Whitman redefined the idea of "democracy"—that is, he understood democracy not as a political system but as a kind of expression of universal spiritual equality. Whitman famously conflates the term "democracy" with the word "en masse"—for him, "democracy" comes to mean a kind of divine collective consciousness of the people, the sum of all the particularities of our individual lives. His vision of America is consequently comprehensive and radically inclusive. Good and bad, rich and poor, the living and the dead, all contribute to a vision of America that is the sum of all its activities and desires. America is, as Whitman himself said, "the greatest poem."
Re: The poem begins with an "I." To what extent does the poem refer to the individual and to the community?
Whitman refers to himself, yes, but his "I" often includes everyone else too. We tend to assume the speaker here is Whitman, which is sometimes a tricky assumption (though it seems safe in this instance). In the first group of lines, he says,
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The poem isn't just a celebration of Whitman, or of the speaker, but a celebration of each one of us. What he assumes about himself is what we, too, should assume about ourselves. Everything that makes him good and wonderful makes each of us good and wonderful as well.
The speaker invites us to join him, not just to listen to him, saying,
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
He doesn't want us to take his word for things but rather to see and discover them for ourselves.
RE: What is Whitman's view of his physical self? Why does he stress it so much?
Part of Whitman's view in this poem is that the human body is a part of nature: vaunted, exalted, adorable and perhaps divine. He associates the individual human with the whole of nature then goes one step further to identify the human with/as nature.