What is the meaning of the line "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person" from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"?

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Song of Myself” is a poem by Walt Whitman . It was first published in 1855. It is an exploration and celebration of oneself as a person, which is why the poet chose to write it from the perspective of a first-person narrator. In fact, it is quite...

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Song of Myself” is a poem by Walt Whitman. It was first published in 1855. It is an exploration and celebration of oneself as a person, which is why the poet chose to write it from the perspective of a first-person narrator. In fact, it is quite telling that the very first word of the poem is the word “I,” as it clearly states the key theme of the poem from the very beginning.

However, when looking at the poem more closely, the reader begins to realize that the poem is not as selfish and egocentric as it might have appeared at first glance. It soon becomes apparent that the poet sees and defines himself not only through himself, but also through other people. His experience of others has an effect on him and shapes his personality and character going forward. The line “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person” clearly underlines this interpretation of the poem. Through this line, the narrator tells us that he experiences empathy when looking at the pain of others. He does not need to ask how they feel, as he can relate to how they feel and therefore can almost feel the pain himself: “My hurts turn livid upon me.”

To the poet, all people are connected, despite being individuals. It is important to be aware of oneself while appreciating the connections we have with those around us.

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At the heart of Whitman's "Song of Myself," as indeed with many of his poems, there's a strong sense of empathy between the poet and his fellow man. For Whitman it is a false choice to decide between affirming one's individuality and recognizing that one is part of a much bigger reality. One can, and should, do both.

Indeed, it is only because Whitman can affirm his uniqueness that he is in a position to help his fellow man. As an individual he can see himself not as an isolated atom, but as intimately linked to every other living thing. It is this insight which leads to an empathetic identification with humanity, with all its stresses, strains, and sorrows.

As the above excerpt makes clear, Whitman's celebration of himself—which may, on the face of it, appear somewhat selfish—has the exact opposite effect. It means that he is able to put himself in other people's shoes, becoming the wounded person instead of simply asking how the wounded person feels. This way of looking at the world abolishes the distance between human beings, a distance that all too frequently generates mutual hatred, distrust, and incomprehension. Once the barriers are down, a new way of living together becomes possible in which we all look out for each other.

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To understand the meaning of the line "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person," it is important to understand it in the context of one of Walt Whitman's most important themes in "Song of Myself." Whitman celebrates his uniqueness, individuality, and importance in a cosmic sense. He also expresses his identification and empathy with others, and his unity with the universe and with nature.

This quote concerns the deep empathy he feels for his fellow humans. He feels this empathy so strongly that he becomes the person that he empathizes with. He shares their pain and exults in their joy. In the poem, his empathy for humankind includes everyone, no matter how different one person is from another. That's why in the beginning of the poem he writes that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," and at the end of the poem, in part 51, he writes, "I am large, I contain multitudes."

Whitman gives clues of this total inclusivity and universality of existence throughout "Song of Myself." For instance, he opens part 16 by declaring, "I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise" and then goes on to delineate examples of wildly diverse types of people from different locations and occupations and insists that he is all of them. In part 24 he proclaims that he speaks with the voices of many different people and says that "whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me." He is again expressing his empathy for others.

In part 33, Whitman takes his empathetic awareness to the ultimate level by declaring that he not only sympathizes with people undergoing trauma, but he becomes these people. As examples he writes that he is a wife screaming at the sight of her drowned husband, a runaway slave chased by dogs and riders, a fireman crushed as walls tumble onto him, and a wounded person in agony. All of these examples serve to highlight Whitman's, and by inference the reader's, unity with all of humankind.

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This amazing insight from Walt Whitman is an encapsulation of his philosophy – that we are not so much individuals as “leaves of grass”; superficially we appear to be individual, unique beings, but in a larger sense, we are each part of the whole, and we share the condition of being “human” – we are "each other" in the larger, cosmic sense.  Here, he differentiates between empathizing the pain of another, and actually “sharing the experience” itself.  It is difficult to paraphrase this difference in words more succinct, more viable, than Whitman’s own.  Whitman’s ability to empathize goes beyond mere imagining what an experience might be to another – he negates the, to his mind, separateness of individuality, and steps, not “into the shoes” of the wounded person, but into the wholeness that is the human species.  His experiences in the Civil War gave him this anguished and anguishing insight.

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