Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
“Song of Myself” is a free verse poem by Walt Whitman, published in multiple iterations and finalized in 1892. The poem consists of fifty-two free verse parts, in which Whitman contemplates self-identity, the natural world, the life cycle, and the divine.
Though Whitman writes in free verse and with inconsistent structure, he utilizes several different linguistic techniques to bring cohesion to the work. Anaphoric repetition often appears within sections, creating granularity of focus within larger undefined blocks of text. Assonance and alliteration introduce rhythm at the line-specific level, offering structure in the absence of formal rigidity.
Whitman’s language is precise but fanciful. He writes with wonder, awe, and adoration about the vast intricacies of the world surrounding him. Nature itself is often personified and sometimes even eroticized. In one passage, Whitman describes something akin to a sexual encounter with the ocean. This is consistent with his attitude toward the world as a whole, both sexually and non-sexually. He describes nature as though it is his romantic lover, noting the night’s “bare bosom” and “flinging out his fancies” to the mountains.
This sensual language mirrors and reinforces a running motif of procreation throughout the work. Whitman constantly alludes to reproduction both directly and indirectly, often using language that evokes fertility and abundance. He regularly describes both people and things as “voluptuous,” focusing on bounty and abundance and reproduction and growth. His meditations on death, too, are intertwined with his fixation on birth—as he reminds the reader, there is no birth without death, as the nutrients of death are what provide all nourishment for life.
As he contemplates this, he reiterates the interconnectedness of all things. People are made from celestial matter that has existed for an eternity, and this matter is a shared resource among all. This means that all that is earthly is divine, even at its most human and vulgar:
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from.The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
This perspective is reinforced at the work’s close, when he reminds the reader that he needs no more precise vision of God than he sees already: the tangible world before him, composed entirely of the celestial and eternal recycled over and over.
Though the work has been published in several iterations, the final version—published in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death—represents a long revision process that is thoroughly evident in the work. Though the poem itself cites Whitman’s age as thirty-seven, he was seventy-two at the time of the final revision’s publication. Consistent with this broad timespan, there are textual elements that suggest a critical reflection on his younger life and perspective.
In part 4, Whitman reflects on how he has mellowed in temperament since his younger days, preferring to listen and watch rather than argue:
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.
And perhaps most crucially, part 10 includes a ten-line stanza in which Whitman imagines himself finding a formerly enslaved person taking shelter in his woodpile. Recognizing that the man is journeying north toward freedom, Whitman envisions himself welcoming the person in, feeding him, dressing him, and tending his wounds before the man continues his journey.
This passage is an especially notable moment of self-reflection; Whitman’s own evolution toward accepting abolitionism was slow, and his attitude toward race remains one of the most contested elements of his legacy.
Leaves of Grass ,...
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the famous compilation in which “Song of Myself” was initially published, followed a similar pattern of lifelong revision over the course of Whitman’s career. Grass appears as a foundational motif in both works, and it is this motif that exemplifies the author’s perspective better than any other. Grass is abundant and overlooked, barely noticed by most people. For Whitman, though, it has a deep emotional and spiritual resonance. In part 6, he speculates:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord.
Whitman sees grass as the very fiber from which his entire disposition might be spun or as something woven into a divine object of simple utility. This is the overarching implication of this work: that each tiny thing shares both matter and meaning with all things at all scales of existence, drawing from a communal reservoir of life itself.