The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 464 words.)