“Song of Myself” Summary
In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman celebrates the self. The speaker of the poem speaks not just for himself but for all mankind, praising the joy and wonder of experiencing nature.
- In this fifty-two-part poem, Whitman celebrates the human body and its ability to become one with the self and with nature.
- The speaker shows that the union of the self and the body allows for a truly transcendent experience.
- This joined self is capable of simultaneously being one with nature and standing apart from nature. The self can merge with all things and experience all things, and it will undergo many transformations.
Last Updated on November 21, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629
“Song of Myself” is a poem by the American poet and author Walt Whitman. It was published in several iterations over the course of Whitman’s life and finalized with its 1892 publication.
The poem unfolds across fifty-two numbered sections of varied length and form, all spoken in the first person. Whitman identifies himself by name as the speaker in section 24, and the poem’s text can be understood to represent his perspective.
The sections vary considerably in length and structure; some are separated into clear stanzas, while others are unbound and meandering. Each is written in effusive free verse, and Whitman often uses anaphoric repetition to create an underlying sense of rhythm within the otherwise irregular text.
Whitman opens the first section with a veneration of the self, citing the interconnectedness of life and concluding that the individual self is an embodiment of all humanity. He reminds the reader that all life on earth consists of recycled organic matter and that matter belongs equally to everyone.
He considers the life cycle, humanity’s resonance with the land, and the reciprocal and intractable relationship between death, growth, and nourishment. He goes on to contemplate work, labor, and the busyness of human life within this cycle, suggesting that the human identity is universal and the labor of one is the labor of all.
Meditating on the vastness of celestial time, Whitman considers the meaning of eternity and the comparative insignificance of time on a human scale. Reflecting on the interconnectedness of all tangible matter, Whitman then reverently evaluates the sea, the stars, and the human body.
Evoking the sensory experience, the author spends several sections narrowly focused on hearing and touching, and how these senses contextualize him in the world. This evolves into a dense contemplation of the endless bustle surrounding him—section 33 includes a lengthy unbroken stanza of nearly ninety lines observing the infinite actions and labors concurrently at play in the human and animal worlds. Whitman himself is nearly absent from this section, focusing only on the moving elements outside himself.
Whitman proceeds to consider death, war, and violence, recounting both a historic massacre in Texas and a secondhand story of brutal combat at sea. As all humans are one, he argues, sharing matter and space and time and experience, he walks beside the participants in their ordeal.
The author meditates on theistic cultures and gods across various belief systems, considering the divine lineage of deities and their relationship to the earthly world. He connects this to considerations of human fertility, celebrating human procreation as an analog to universal genesis.
Returning to thoughts of eternity, Whitman wonders how the human clock relates to vast, unending celestial time. What seems like eternity on earth—enough time for infinite generations to recycle themselves—barely registers on a cosmic scale. As his perspective zooms out further into the universe, he realizes, each wider view shrinks the human world down even smaller.
Considering his own imagined son’s journey toward adulthood and self-agency, Whitman meditates on teaching, learning, and mentorship. He reflects on the evolution of human skill, the diversity of trade, the power of vocation, and the ingenuity of craft.
Whitman contemplates God and the expectations surrounding one’s relationship with God. The expectation that one should “see” God in a certain way is erroneous, he argues—he sees God every hour of every day, in the entirety of the world surrounding him: in himself, in other people, in nature, and in eternity.
As the poem draws to a close, Whitman meditates on death. He celebrates the dead as the manure that will bring forth new life, arguing that he himself is unafraid. Rather, he notes, he bequeaths himself to death so that he may participate in the generation of new life.