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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Early in the poem, a child asks, “What is the grass?” Although he claims, or pretends, not to know the answer, the Whitmanian persona goes on to offer a number of surmises, each plausible, each partial. “Song of Myself” constitutes one such seemingly simple yet punningly enigmatic leaf of grass: a poem in a book, Leaves of Grass, that expands and changes shape over nine separate editions even as it remains in essence always the same. The poem is for the reader what the grass is for the child: a “uniform hieroglyphic” for which there is no single Rosetta Stone by which it may be deciphered, other than the faith that Whitman cheerfully and insistently proclaims. Its “barbaric yawp” opens itself to a variety of interpretative strategies but chiefly attests its own capacity to outstrip them all: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The self that Whitman sings and celebrates proves as much a “uniform hieroglyphic” as the grass: equally evocative, multiform, and full of contradictions. It is as much a physical presence as a projected (spiritual) possibility. It is Emerson’s self-engendered, self-reliant man, one who exists not in Thoreauvian isolation but in “ensemble,” speaking the word “en-masse.” As self-appointed bard of democracy,...

(The entire section is 420 words.)