The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

“Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman is familiar, widely admired, and often alluded to by later readers and writers. In certain respects, the poem is iconic, for it speaks symbolically of American mobility, restlessness, and love of freedom and open spaces. The poem’s 224 lines, which in 1881 Whitman arranged in fifteen sections, are divisible into two parts: sections 1-8, the persona’s exuberant description of the healthful lessons and benefits of open-air living on the road, and sections 9-15, the persona’s impassioned invitation to companions to join him in his liberating and ultimately spiritual journey.

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The poem begins with the first-person narrator setting out on a “long brown path.” The journeyer is “Afoot and light-hearted,” for he is done with the routines, customs, and safe behaviors of his previous life, “done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms.” He renounces a life devoted to the conventional pursuit of material success: “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.”

Early in section 2 the journeyer acquires an egalitarian ethos; he learns “the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial” of any man or woman. Even nature, it appears, is governed by a democratic principle, as the persona observes the “light that wraps [him] and all things in delicate equable showers!” In section 5, in a moment of quasi-mystical dilation, the journeyer declares his spiritual independence: “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,/ Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.”

The first half of the poem concludes with reflections on wisdom, which is not to be found in schools, philosophies, or religions: “Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.” To understand the nature of wisdom is to discover the source of happiness.

Beginning in section 9 of “Song of the Open Road” and extending through the fifteenth and last section, the persona speaks directly and insistently to the reader: “Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!” The word allons, French for “let us go!” or “come on!,” introduces all but one of the poem’s final seven sections. Rising to a fever pitch, the persona urges his reader to reject the established and formulaic: “Allons! from all formules!/ From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.” He exhorts all men and women “to know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.” He warns that to journey on the open road is to endure a struggle, a battle. He says he must be honest: “I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,/ These are the days that must happen to you.” The poem ends with the persona awaiting an affirmative response from his reader, his would-be “Camerado.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

Like nearly all the poems Whitman included in the final edition of Leaves of Grass, “Song of the Open Road” is written not in traditional accentual-syllabic meters but in free verse. Whitman did not invent this poetic technique but remains one of its most celebrated practitioners. His distinctive use of free verse is indebted to the prosody of the English Bible and is notable for its long line. Sometimes, as in section 13 of “Song of the Open Road,” one of his lines is so long that it threatens to exceed the very boundaries of the page and has to be broken up into indented units:

All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was  or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into  niches and corners before the procession of souls along  the grand roads of the universe.

Thirty-six words appear in this line.

Other prominent characteristics of Whitman’s free verse include syntactic parallelism (a sequence of coordinate phrases or clauses), repetition (especially anaphora, which involves repeating the same word or words at the beginning of lines), and cataloguing (a list or inventory of persons, places, objects, occupations, or ideas). The first two techniques are related devices essentially designed to create prosodic regularity and are illustrated by a passage in section 4:

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and  all free poems also,I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and  whoever beholds me shall like me,I think whoever I see must be happy.

Cataloguing or list-structure can be found in various parts of the poem but the best example, even if only a few of its lines can be quoted here, occurs in section 12:

Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic  men—they are the greatest women,Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings.

At first one is inclined to call the form of “Song of the Open Road” a lyric, but closer inspection reveals it is more accurately described as a dramatic monologue, a type of poem in which a single narrator makes a sustained speech to a silent audience. In the first half of the poem the persona often directly addresses the road or highway. In the last half he addresses men and women who might be recruited as fellow travelers. From no addressee does the persona receive a response.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

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