In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself, first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.
However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher. For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”
I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.
Whitman Invents a New Kind of Poetry
Whitman was greatly inspired by American thinker and man of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had argued in 1844 that it was time for America’s poets to come up with distinctly new and American-born forms of poetry. Emerson suggested that the day of formal poetic meter, an old European invention, was coming to an end:
“It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
The free-wheeling, chant-like form of the lines of Song of Myself make it clear that Whitman took Emerson’s idea to heart. The style of Whitman’s poetry in the book Leaves of Grass is completely original, calling on no traditional poetic form, rhyme scheme, or established meter. Instead, the lines of Song of Myself seem to be inspired by the lines of Biblical prophecies from the King James version, as well as by recitative in an opera (the parts that are chanted rather than sung), and by the rounded ringing phrases popular with orators in Whitman’s day.
Though Whitman’s poetic lines can be any length and don’t rhyme, they do have a form, sound, and structure of their own. They use repeated words, phrases, and vowel sounds to make distinctive music. To enjoy Whitman’s writing, try just to relax into it, letting the sound and sense of the words wash over your mind as you read.
Three Ways to Interpret Song of Myself
You won’t have to read far into the poem to encounter multiple thoughts, details, images, and musings that may not seem related to each other. However, this poem is not a series of fragments but rather a series of pieces in a large mosaic.
I see three main themes giving structure, development, unity, and meaning to the poem overall. Keeping these in mind while reading helps you think about how each section of the poem fits with the overarching ideas in the poem.
1. Song of Myself is a hymn to Democracy, to America, and to America’s diverse working people.
In the poem, Whitman travels America to express solidarity with the experiences of many different Americans in many different regions. He depicts Americans as a new kind of people, unique in the history of the world.
However, not everyone perceives Whitman’s democratic sympathies upon first reading. Over my years of teaching this poem, quite a few students have arrived in class on “Song of Myself Day 1” buzzing about what a big ego this guy Whitman has. Whitman certainly does begin his American celebration with a concentrated focus on himself, “I, Walt Whitman.” He assesses his health, his body, and his soul, right down to “the smoke of my own breath” (21) .
However, even from the first three lines, Whitman announces his democratic view that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (3). In his quest to speak for America, he assumes that every American has complete equality with himself. Later, in section 24, he says:
“I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy.
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counter part of on the same terms.” (506-7).
Thus, though his journey may begin with himself, quickly he moves outward to become one in spirit with many diverse American people, moving from a lonely woman to a runaway slave to a trapper marrying a Native American to a prostitute to a fallen soldier.
I always find his total embrace of both the strong and the weak, the successful and the failed, both moving and uplifting:
Undrape! You are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no. . . .” (145-46)
From walking side by side with many kinds of Americans, Whitman then seeks to identify with all aspects of American Nature: animals, vegetation, the sea, and eventually with the divine cosmos itself. A guy with a big ego might stop by enshrining himself in the realm of the divine, but instead Whitman returns from this American journey to present himself at the end of the poem in the humblest form of matter in the organic universe: dirt. (I love this part):
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” (1338-39).
2. Song of Myself is Whitman’s personal journey to become a Poet and Prophet speaking to and for America.
As we noted above, Whitman was inspired by Emerson’s call for new kinds of poets and poems that would be uniquely American. To prepare himself to answer that call, Whitman takes stock of himself, his senses, his experiences, his knowledge of American life, and his affinity with nature. Throughout the poem, he asks himself: What am I, and what do, and can, I know and experience that enables me to speak for America?
Thus, on his journey to celebrate Americans, he is simultaneously searching for the message he will bring to them, and from them. He spends more than half of the poem observing, saying at intervals that he is not yet ready to speak. In line 582, for instance: “Now I will do nothing but listen.”
After many experiences, he finally feels that his soul is complete, but realizes at that point that the message he must share is something he cannot fully articulate:
You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself . . .. (1223-24)
The message Whitman has found is that each person must learn the meaning of life by cherishing and being fully present for every life experience. Whitman’s role as prophet is to encourage and to point the way:
Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life. (1228-30)
3. Song of Myself is Whitman’s search to reconcile the physical and spiritual sides of our existence.
Many faith traditions interpret body and soul, the material and the spiritual, as opposites, conceiving of flesh and the physical world as a lure or a barrier to communion with the divine. Song of Myself illustrates a completely different view that may seem stunning, even today: the physical world of sensation is not seen as the enemy of the Spirit, but the exact path to it.
According to scholar Diane Kepner:
For Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, the act of intuitive perception resulted in a mystical spiritual union between the material world, which included the finite self, and the infinite ideal world; between, in Emerson’s terms, the NOT ME and the ME, NATURE and SOUL. This mystical union formed the center of the Transcendentalisms of all three writers, for the ecstasy accompanying it provided experiential confirmation of the validity of their views of man and nature. For each writer the mystical union and the act of intuitive perception initiating it were unique.
–Diane Kepner. “From Spears to Leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself’.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, vol. 51, no. 2, May 1979, pp. 179-204. EBSCOhost. Web.
“Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen. . ..” (52-3).
Through every intense experience Whitman reports, he illustrates that everything received through his senses leads outward to a larger spiritual meaning, which is why he declares at the outset of his work, “I permit to speak at every hazard/ Nature without check with original energy.” (12-13). It is through our material, physical encounters in Nature that we are put in touch with, and come to comprehend, the Spiritual.
For instance, he reports that his observations of the natural world, as well as intuitions in his own soul, have taught him the spiritual truth that there is no death:
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.” 131-32
Intriguing, Inviting, or Just Strange?
Now that I’ve told you some things about Song of Myself to help you make some sense of it as you read, I’m not sure how you will react. Many of Whitman’s original readers in 1855 did not know what to make of it. Some found his style odd and unpoetic. Others found his frank celebration of all the parts of the body unappealing or even obscene. (One example: Lithub.com recently republished a scathing 1855 review printed in an English journal by a very unsympathetic critic, here.)
However, by the time Whitman published his final edition of the poem in 1881, many Americans regarded Whitman as a sage, and praised his poetry. Whether my description of the work seems intriguing or just strange, I hope you will shake off any trepidation and just spend some time experiencing “Song of Myself.” As always, readers do not need to end by agreeing with all an author’s ideas to have profited and enlarged their minds by reading. In my view, Whitman’s conviction that every single American holds all the essential things in common is an idea much needed in today’s divisive culture.
If you want some more guidance for exploring “Song of Myself,” I am providing two audio discussions I made for my American Literature online students. In each recording, I read a portion of Song of Myself near the beginning of the work, and discuss the meanings of some of the lines to help new readers orient themselves within this amazing work. Please return to this post to comment on your thoughts and experiences! (All comments are held for moderation but will be published as soon as possible. No emails will be published.)
MJ’s Audio Introduction to Song of Myself. Part I: Sections 1-4 (made for an online American lit class)
MJ’s Introduction to Song of Myself. Part II: Sections 6, 7, and 10
Girl in the Grass: Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels
Whitman portrait: By Not specified in source (https://archive.org/details/leavesofgrass1882whit) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hiking Man: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.