Last Updated on November 21, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes. . . .
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
This quotation from part 2 introduces several key motifs that will recur throughout the rest of text. The first is Whitman’s strong preference for the limitless outdoors over the confines of city life. He chafes against the claustrophobia of “houses and rooms,” noting in particular the overwhelming sensory experience of being trapped within one. Sensory experience, too, will become a key motif—much of Whitman’s emotional experience is conveyed through sensory imagery. In contrast to his objection to perfumes, his sensory descriptions of the natural world are ecstatic and reverent.
This nakedness and yearning for contact, too, will recur. Whitman frequently invokes nakedness both with and without sensuality, celebrating both the continued vulnerability of nakedness and the fertile eroticism of his infatuation with nature.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death. . . .
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses
This passage from part 6 illustrates Whitman’s appreciation of the life cycle. Rather than fearing death, he venerates it as a crucial element of life. To die is to provide nutrients back to the land, which creates the conditions for something new to grow. When Whitman cites a “sprout” as proof that death does not truly exist, this is what he means—for a sprout to grow, something else must have died. No death goes un-recycled by nature, which means all the dead are eventually reborn.
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.
This brief quotation from part 13 typifies Whitman’s reverence for the perfection of nature. The tortoise, he is saying, is already in its ideal form. To reject the tortoise for not being something more interesting, more valuable, more resplendent is to reject and distrust nature itself.
This extrapolates to himself, and all other creatures—Whitman often describes himself in venerating terms, but also describes himself in vulgar ones. The rawness and imperfection of living creatures is natural and godly, and thus it is ideal.
You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach to your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Sea of stretch’d ground-swells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths.
This passage from part 22 demonstrates two defining motifs of “Song of Myself.” Here, Whitman personifies the ocean, giving it the same agency and intention and desire he ascribes all earthly material. And, notably, he eroticizes this interaction. The ocean is not simply the ocean, but an enthusiastic participant in a physical erotic encounter between the two. He positions the ocean—and nature itself, frequently—as his lover, writing effusively and romantically.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.
This passage from part 48 exemplifies Whitman’s understanding of the divine. Just as all matter, in his view, is shared among all things, divinity itself manifests in all matter.
Positioned toward the close of the poem, this passage can also be seen as an explanation of and justification for the work so far. Whitman sees divine complexity in all things, human, animal, and celestial; to argue that he should need a more specific manifestation is to reject each of these assertions in turn.