Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

Whitman expresses his main theme in the poem through the first-person narrator, or the “I.” This persona or dramatic personality dominates “Song of the Open Road” and connects its diverse subjects and argument. The role of this dramatic personality and the ideology it has to offer are inseparable, for the personality is emblematic of the joyous journeyer, the individual who has broken away from the herd and achieved autonomy, the spiritual wayfarer traveling light and footloose. Just as important as the “I” are Whitman’s many uses of “you,” which refer not only to the road or to would-be male and female “companions” but also to the reader. Ultimately, the dialogic relationship between persona and reader is at the heart of the poem’s meaning. Other important themes include the necessity of a profoundly democratic receptivity, of diverse experience, of “adhesiveness” or comradeship, and of contact with nature. Regarding life in the open air, the persona declares that “The earth never tires,/there are divine things well envelop’d.”

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One finds in “Song of the Open Road” that the persona has enacted or is in the process of enacting various “movements”: from the social world to the world of nature, from the realm of constraints and restrictions to the realm of limitless possibilities, from the literal to the symbolic, from an enervating rationality to intuition, from the static to the dynamic, and from the physical or material to the spiritual or mystical. This striking motility is in keeping with the poem’s overriding messages. It is also in keeping with the work’s expansiveness and sense of adventure.

“Song of the Open Road” is not a poem that summarizes all or even most of Whitman’s themes but it does contain several ideas that figure prominently throughout his work. The poem can be usefully compared to other pieces in the poet’s canon. It shares with “There Was a Child Went Forth” a fascination with the way in which an individual absorbs what he or she experiences and with how that individual’s self evolves and matures. It shares with “Passage to India” an urge to “sail pathless and wild seas,” that is, an urge to embark on a transcendental voyage to the soul. It perhaps resembles most closely the epic “Song of Myself,” a poem with which it shares a tutorial persona; oratorical appeals to the reader; an affirmation of traveling, spacious catalogs, and sweeping vistas; and a buoyant tone. “Song of the Open Road” finally falls short of the animation, color, zest for life, and sharp imagery of “Song of Myself,” but it doubtless surpasses the longer poem in focus, compactness, and singleness of tone.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” reminds many of its readers just how central the road has been in the American imagination. The poem is quite possibly the most important of the country’s early examples of “road literature.” Consider just a handful of the American road writings that have been published since the middle of the nineteenth century: Roughing It (1872) by Mark Twain, On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958) by Jack Kerouac, and Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962) by John Steinbeck. Anyone who contemplates the road as presented in these diverse novels and autobiographies will without question gain valuable insights into the history of American culture.

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