The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

“Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost,” Whitman warned in the preface to the 1855 edition to Leaves of Grass. His admonition is, however, in a way misleading. While it accurately measures the great distance between his “barbaric yawp” and the conventionality that characterized the standard poetry of his day, Whitman’s remark may lead readers to assume that “Song of Myself,” or any Whitman poem, is somehow artless. Whitman divested himself of the “ornaments” and “fluency” of conventional verse in order to craft a poetry more natively American, not only in subject but also in style. He took upon himself the task of discovering a poetic form as raw, as free, as unfinished, as expansive, as experimental, and as full of promise as his Transcendentalist conception of his country. Unlike Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he did not, except briefly, look back to the American past; he looked instead to the present moment and to a projected future. Unlike his fellow Transcendentalist Thoreau, one of his earliest supporters, Whitman did not count a man rich in relation to the number of things he could do without. Whitman’s “omnivorous lines” give the illusion of leaving nothing out, of being democratically all-inclusive, a strange mixture (as Emerson himself noted) of the Bhagavad Gt and the New York Herald. The poem’s democratic thrust is most obviously at work in Whitman’s lengthy catalogs, and more subtly in the combining of these catalogs with passages of considerable narrative power and others of great lyrical intensity.

Free in form and epic in reach, “Song of Myself” creates a structure all its own based upon repetition of words, phrases, and parallel syntactical structures. At both the micro and macro levels, the poem develops its own cumulatively powerful rhythm of ebb and flow, absorption and release, stasis and motion, or, to borrow Whitman’s own operatic conceit, aria and recitative. Singing, however, serves as only one of a multiplicity of metaphors at work in “Song of Myself,” no more but also no less important than building, weaving, and sexual union. Each plays its pervasive but ultimately partial role in Whitman’s drama of the emerging self.

The merging of self and other in terms of sympathetic identification serves to hold the poem’s varied materials together in one organic, evolving whole. As important as this metaphorical merging is the emphasis the poem places on the “I” that emerges from the speaker’s self-generating, self-projecting performance. The Whitmanian persona comes to embody the paradoxical process of becoming what he has always been and must be. Freeing himself from all poetic and social constraints, he becomes his own transgressive self: an Emersonian representative man, a Transcendentalist version of the typically American tall-tale hero, bragging for all mankind.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

Suggested Readings

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1975.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Walt Whitman: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Miller, Edward Haviland. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

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