“Song of Myself” Themes
The main themes in “Song of Myself” are self-identity and community, nature and the life cycle, and perspective and scale.
- Self-identity and community: Whitman celebrates the divinity of the individual self as well as the broader community of matter to which the self belongs.
- Nature and the life cycle: Full of imagery of the natural world, the poem portrays the reciprocal relationship between life and death.
- Perspective and scale: Throughout the poem, Whitman measures the relative brevity of the human lifespan against the vast scale of cosmic time.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Self-Identity and Community
Clearly delineated in the poem’s title, self-identity is one of the most important themes in “Song of Myself.” Though the title’s wording suggests the work is an elevation of the self above others, Whitman’s overarching conclusion is somewhat more nuanced: he celebrates himself as both an earthly embodiment of the divine and as one singular representative node in the interconnected egalitarian natural world.
In the first section, Whitman notes that the celestial atoms that comprise him are shared among all people and recycled in perpetuity. This sets the precedent for the work to follow, which explores the self and the community as both clearly delineated and intractably twinned. Whitman’s life and body are his to explore, his to celebrate, his to spend, and his to bequeath, but they stem from a communal reserve of organic matter that links everyone to everything.
As Whitman considers those outside himself in these terms, especially those experiencing pain, fear, violence, or other crises, he places himself firmly in their shoes. In his view, all experience is shared among all sentient life. The joy of others is his to celebrate as his own, just as the pain of others is his to suffer. Crucially, he does not say he understands these people—he says he is these people. Though the work nominally venerates himself, he can extrapolate that self to stand in for any other communal body.
Nature and the Life Cycle
Throughout the work, Whitman reflects on life, death, and the endless cycle and benevolent relationship between both.
The author treats death not as something to be feared, but as an intrinsic and necessary part of continued life. Death, he reminds the reader, is the earthly process of recycling—death and decomposition provide nutrients for new life to begin, just as death and consumption provide fuel for existing life to continue. For plants to grow from the soil, something else must first die to enrich it. For humans or animals to eat, a plant or animal must die. This relationship continues in perpetuity, and any disruption to this natural order would mean the end of life itself.
In the forty-ninth section, Whitman exemplifies this principle by mixing anatomical and botanical imagery:
And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.
By describing the lips of the corpse as “leafy” and the breasts of the corpse as “melons,” Whitman bridges the gap between the nutrients this corpse will provide and what might eventually grow from them. He moves time forward, superimposing the future onto the present so that they might both exist in the same conceptual body.
At the poem’s close, Whitman celebrates and welcomes his own participation in this cycle by enthusiastically “bequeathing” himself to death.
Perspective and Scale
Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman contrasts the smallness of human time and space with the vastness of celestial time and space by zooming in and out between them.
This vacillation in scale allows Whitman to work in two relative realities. He often considers the life of a person in the context of an individual lifespan, celebrating their earthly experience as a whole world and eternity of its own. But when he takes a wider view, a single human life—indeed, all of human life—becomes cosmically insignificant.
In part 44, he juxtaposes human time and celestial time:
The clock indicates the moment—but what does eternity indicate?We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
(This entire section contains 742 words.)
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them
He expands and contracts his narrative repeatedly throughout the text, switching between a tangible scale and an unfathomable one. The two worlds are inextricable—his larger world is always reflected in the smaller one, just as the smaller world can always be extrapolated to the larger. The two orbit each other, definable by virtue of their contrast in scale.
This mirrors Whitman’s prevailing thesis that the individual is an embodiment of the entirety of nature and the universe. He sees himself in all others and all others in himself, containing multitudes that vastly outsize his physical form. And he sees an individual as a small, earthly embodiment of God, concentrating the vastness of the universe and celestial world in one tiny being.