The Poem

“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.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 448 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.