Themes and Meanings

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

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.)”

Illustration of PDF document

Download Song of Myself Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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, Whitman projects an “I” as expansive and diverse as the country itself, in a poetic form and language as experimental and new as the nation and its democratic political system.

Even as it overtly and enthusiastically expresses Whitman’s faith in cosmic evolution and therefore in the essential indivisibility of Emersonian self-reliance and Over-Soul, “Song of Myself” also expresses in the...

(The entire section contains 420 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Song of Myself study guide. You'll get access to all of the Song of Myself content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Analysis
  • Reference
  • Quotes
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial
Previous

Summary

Next

Analysis