What elements of realism are present in Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself"?

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"Song of Myself" captures numerous qualities that we find in realist literature:Verisimilitude: Realist writers want to present as close a portrait of truth as is possible. Whitman takes this one step further: he urges the reader to evaluate the world around him and decide what is true...

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"Song of Myself" captures numerous qualities that we find in realist literature:

Verisimilitude: Realist writers want to present as close a portrait of truth as is possible. Whitman takes this one step further: he urges the reader to evaluate the world around him and decide what is true for himself: "You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself." Whitman acknowledges the value of truth, but he also values the importance of discernment that is crucial to truth. This process of evaluating is dependent not just on examining "through the eyes of the dead," but through a close, personal inspection.

Accessible language: Realist writers include ordinary people in their content and in their potential audience. This means they strip away pretentious and flowery structures and vocabulary and try to make both the syntax and meaning transparent. After all, if the purpose of the writing is to convey a truth, these writers want to be able to convey that truth to as many people as possible. Whitman's opening lines easily draw readers in: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Readers immediately are bonded to the poet through both the ease in language and an immediate shared experience.

Detail: Realist writers are not the "big picture" types and instead weave their truths together with lots of detail in everything they describe. Consider these lines where Whitman reflects on the wonder of nature in his immediate world: "The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the sun" and then "The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs swag." Whitman uses key sensory details, from sight to smell to touch, to create a beautiful, detailed image of truth in his poem. These lines almost read like a painting and present a stunning image of the glory of nature.

A focus on education and literacy: Because of realism's roots around the time that the printing press was taking off, authors who embraced this form reflect the need for expanding literacy to the masses. There are some reminders of this in the lines: "Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? Stop this day and night with me . . . " Here Whitman acknowledges the history of education and of analyzing poetry, but he asks his readers to put that aside for a moment to really observe and evaluate the world around them for a while--that literacy and knowledge depend on not simply what they have already been taught but on experiencing life and nature personally.

In "Song of Myself," Whitman champions not just for himself (as the title might seemingly represent) but for the knowledge that comes when many individuals come together in a sense of shared experience, especially with common people and in common ideals. These ideas are core to the tenets of realistic literature and poetry.

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Walt Whitman's final 1892 version of his poem "Song of Myself," published just before his passing, is an interesting mix of both realism and spirituality. As Steven G. Kellman, editor of Masterpieces of American Literature, points out, the "I" speaking in the poem is not simply a corporeal self; it's a divine self able to interact with the entire universe and affirm the "divinity and sacredness of the entire universe, including the human body" (eNotes, "Summary"). We can see the divinity of the "I" expressed in the very first stanza since the speaker, using the universal "you," states that what he assumes, "you" also assume. The speaker further states that "every atom belonging to" the speaker "as good as belongs to you," meaning that the speaker shares every single atom of the universe because the speaker is universal. Hence, from a divine and universal standpoint, Whitman explores and praises what it is to be human--what it is to be corporeal--but he does so by seeing the human body as a mini representation of its divine creator.

Since Whitman praises what it is to be human, we can certainly see elements of realism in the poem, which is a technique aimed at portraying life as it truly is. We particularly see realism in the first stanza of section 24 when Whitman gives a description of himself as one born in Manhattan, one who is emotionally agitated, one who is sensual, and eats, drinks, and breeds:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.

All of these descriptions are accurate, literal descriptions of what Whitman is like, so all of these descriptions are examples of realism.  But more importantly, Whitman is describing himself as the universal everyman who is a part of the creator, so Whitman is also using these descriptions to apply to every man.

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