What happens in Song of Myself?
In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman celebrates the self. The speaker of the poem speaks not just for himself but for all mankind, praising the joy and wonder of experiencing nature. He enjoys the union of his physical and spiritual selves.
In this 52-part long poem, Whitman celebrates the human body and its ability to become one with the self and with nature.
The speaker shows that the union of the self and the body allows for a truly transcendent experience in which one attains absolute fulfillment.
- This joined self is capable of simultaneously being one with nature and standing apart from nature. The self can merge with all things, experience all things, and will undergo many transformations while paradoxically remaining immortal.
“Song of Myself,” the longest poem in Leaves of Grass, is a joyous celebration of the human self in its most expanded, spontaneous, self-sufficient, and all-embracing state as it observes and interacts with everything in creation and ranges freely over time and space. The bard of the poem, speaking in the oracular tones of the prophet, affirms the divinity and sacredness of the entire universe, including the human body, and he asserts that no part of the universe is separate from himself—he flows into all things and is all things.
The “I” of the poem is quite clearly, then, not the everyday self, the small, personal ego that is unique and different from all other selves. Rather, the persona who speaks out in such bold terms is the human self experiencing its own transcendental nature, silently witnessing all the turbulent activity of the world while itself remaining detached: “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, . . . Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” This “I” is immortal and persists through numberless human generations and through all the changing cycles of creation and destruction in the universe. It cannot be measured or circumscribed; it is blissful, serenely content with itself, and needs nothing beyond or outside itself for its own fulfillment.
In “Song of Myself,” this large self continually floods into and interpenetrates the small, personal self, including the physical body, and becomes one with it. It is this union of the absolute self with the relative self that allows the persona of the poem to express such spontaneous delight in the simple experience of being alive in the flesh. “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” announces the persona in the very first section of the poem. This is a state of being that does not have to perform any actions to experience fulfillment; it simply enjoys being what it is: “I exist as I am, that is enough,/ If no other in the world be aware I sit content,/ And if each and all be aware I sit content.”
It is in this context that the persona’s celebration of the pleasures of the body should be understood. Lines such as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,/ Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,” do not signify mere sensual indulgence. The human body is a microcosm of its divine source, in which there is always perfection, fullness, and bliss. There is no dualism of soul and body, because, as William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), a prophetic work which bears a strong resemblance to “Song of Myself,” “that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five senses.”
Hence the Whitman persona can declare that “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul”; he will not downgrade one in order to promote the other. The senses are “miracles,” no part of the body is to be rejected or scorned, and sexual desire should not be something that cannot be spoken of: “I do not press my fingers across my mouth,/ I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,/ Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.”
(The entire section is 1,471 words.)