When this poem was first published as the opening work in Whitman's collection Leaves of Grass, it did not have a title; Whitman later titled it "Song of Myself" in 1881. This fact is telling when considering the poem's themes and truths: Whitman himself did not necessarily consider the implications of such a self-referential title, although modern scholars often interpret the work as intensely personal and perhaps even self-indulgent. But Whitman's body of work is influential for these very subjects of intimate and scrupulous self-knowledge and self-iventory. The free verse format of the work is further evidence of the poet's iconoclastic approach, one that serves inspiration and impulse (also themes found in this poem) more than it does the formal expectations of poetry.
As with much of Whitman's poetry, themes of sexuality, nature, identity and life's purpose are woven throughout this text. Whitman unites these themes in a sort of cosmic manifesto, one that questions the very fabric of life and the human being's place in it. In the poem's celebratory language exploring the human body, for example, he goes beyond mere biological or physical functions and pleasures and considers the more mystic and spiritual aspects of the body's context within in the natural world. He also questions the experience of human suffering and seems to embrace his responsibility as a poet to give voice to the vast spectrum of human experience. Because the poem was written just before the conflicts that ignited the American Civil War, it is possible Whitman's thought process was influenced by questions surrounding slavery, sovereignty and national pride.