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Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself introduces and celebrates the speaker himself, announcing that he, in a sense, will be the subject of his poems. Yet the opening three lines, while announcing this topic, also include the reader as well. In line 2, the speaker almost sounds domineering – as if the reader will or must automatically share the speaker’s own assumptions. Line 3, however, seems to lay greater stress on mutuality, on what the speaker and reader have in common:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Lines 4 and 5 then introduce two more topics: the speaker’s soul and his natural surroundings. In lines 6-8, the speaker continues to expand his focus, now mentioning not only himself and nature but also his ancestors and his nation, while in line 9 he emphasizes himself again and then, in line 10, alludes to the prospect of his death. This acknowledgment of the inevitability of death is important: it helps counteract whatever egotism this opening poem might seem to imply. The speaker recognizes and publicly concedes that he is mortal. By calling immediate attention to a key limitation he shares with all humans, he wins both our sympathy and our respect.
In the final four lines of the poem, the speaker momentarily puts conventional opinions to one side and announces that he intends to try to let nature speak through his poems. In almost all the ways just mentioned, then, Whitman announces himself as a Romantic poet with a capital “R.”
As the opening poem of Song of Myself, this first lyric is especially important. It introduces many key themes of the larger work. Although initially the poem might seem almost egocentric, by the end of the text the speaker has proclaimed his desire to become a spokesman for nature. The poem, then, is well-balanced between its concern with self and its concern with everything beyond the self, and the speaker’s tone is so openly personal and unpretentious that it seems quite refreshing and would have seemed something quite unusual and distinctive to its original readers. Whitman’s assumption that we will be interested in his apparently straightforward self-presentation and his seemingly relaxed style and form marks him as a particularly democratic poet – a poet who somehow seems peculiarly American.
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