The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Begun as early as 1847, “Song of Myself” first appeared as one of the twelve untitled poems of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Regularly revised, it became “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” in the second edition (1856) and “Walt Whitman” in the third through sixth editions (1860, 1867, 1871, and 1876). Not until the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1881, did the poem undergo its final metamorphosis in name as well as form. The first and final versions of “Song of Myself” are virtually identical in subject, style, and even length (1,336 and 1,346 lines respectively). Phrasings occasionally differ, but never crucially so. (“I celebrate myself,” the 1855 edition begins; “and sing myself,” Whitman later added). The division of the free-flowing untitled poem into fifty-two numbered sections, like the addition and subsequent revision of the title, proves more significant, for this overt structuring appears to add a sense of order and progression that the poem originally seemed to lack. This is not to say that the 1855 text was formless, or that structure is something Whitman arbitrarily imposed. The numbering merely accents the organic principle from which the poem develops, for the poem’s unity derives less from the numbering of its sections according to the yearly cycle of weeks than from the fusion of song and self.

Not identifying himself by name until section 24—and even then in half-biblical, half-comical fashion, as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (in the 1855 edition, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”)—the thirty-seven-year-old narrator strikes a decidedly proud and personal pose and addresses the reader in a doubly direct manner. From the outset, he incorporates his listener/reader into the poem (as “you”) and permits “nature” to speak “without check, with original energy,” which is to say, free of the constraints of either poetic convention or social decorum. The freedom Whitman takes evidences itself not only in his language and intimate mode of address, but in his very posture as well. The poem presents not merely a mind thinking or a voice speaking, but an entire body reclining on the ground, leaning and loafing, “observing a spear of summer grass.” Like Henry David Thoreau in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), Whitman situates himself and his poem outdoors and therefore outside convention and tradition; and, like Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Nature (1836), Whitman deliberately conflates natural world and poetical word, leaf of grass and Leaves of Grass. Radically democratic and explicitly (as well as metaphorically) sexual, “Song of Myself” goes well beyond even the extended bounds of Transcendentalist thought in its celebration of the relation between physical and spiritual, individual and universal.

The middle third of the poem extends still further the sexual union of self and other, body and soul. As earlier he had claimed to be able to “resist anything better than my own diversity,” now it is sensuous contact of any kind that Whitman’s “hankering, gross, mystical, nude” figure cannot resist. Taking Emerson’s symbol of the “transparent eyeball” (from Nature) to the very frontiers of poetic expression, Whitman indulges in an orgy of seeing, hearing, and feeling (sections 25-28). The scene culminates in orgasmic release (section 29), and is in turn followed (section 30) by a postcoital peace that passeth understanding. The knowledge that “All truths wait in all things” leads to the poem’s longest and most exuberant catalog (section 33). Paradoxically “afoot with my vision” and flying “those flights of the fluid and swallowing soul” (while rooted to the very spot where his song began, still leaning and loafing, still observing the same multi-meaninged leaf of grass), Whitman continues his transgression of all social, temporal, and spatial boundaries.

By line 798, however, the pace begins to slacken as Whitman identifies closely and narrowly with one segment of society only: the injured, the imprisoned, the enslaved, the despised. Whitman has become one of the “trippers and askers” that surrounded him earlier. Finding himself “on the verge of a usual mistake,” he pulls back barely in time, resuming “the overstaid fraction,” the individual I. Saved from torpor and despair, he rises from the dead, an American Christ, and rises from the recumbent position he has maintained, appearances to the contrary, throughout the poem, to proclaim his faith in himself and in all others, equally divine, and in a vaguely defined but enthusiastically embraced cosmic plan.

Declaring an end to his loitering and talking, he prepares to resume the role or guise he left off to become the chanter of this “Song of Myself.” The poem’s last eight sections are marked by the urgency of his departure: by last-minute preparations, last words of advice, and reluctance to leave at all until his listener, who is also his student and comrade, brother and sister, speaks his or her own word in response. Standing accused by the free-flying hawk, Whitman reluctantly but also joyously and certainly garrulously sounds the last words of his “barbaric yawp,” continuing his “perpetual tramp,” not so much departing the scene as dispersing himself into the elements themselves.