Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'Song of Myself' [1855]
Author:
Miller, James E., Jr.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, "Song of Myself" came first in the series of twelve untitled poems, dominating the volume not only by its sheer bulk, but also by its brilliant display of Whitman's innovative techniques and original themes. Whitman left the poem in the lead position in the 1856 edition and gave it its first title, "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American," shortened to "Walt Whitman" in the third edition of 1860. By the time Whitman had shaped Leaves of Grass into its final structure in 1881, he left the poem (its lines now grouped into 52 sections) in a lead position, preceded only by the epigraph-like cluster "Inscriptions" and the programmatic "Starting from Paumanok." 

"Song of Myself" portrays (and mythologizes) Whitman's poetic birth and the journey into knowing launched by that "awakening." But the "I" who speaks is not alone. His camerado, the "you" addressed in the poem's second line, is the reader, placed on shared ground with the poet, a presence throughout much of the journey. As the poem opens, the reader encounters the poet "observing a spear of summer grass" and extending an invitation to his soul. He vows to "permit to speak at every hazard, / Nature without check with original energy" (section 1). Leaving "[c]reeds and schools" behind, he goes "to the bank by the wood to become undisguised and naked" (sections 1 and 2), clearly preparing himself for the soul's visit of section 5, which dramatizes the transfiguring event that launches the poet on his lifelong quest. 

This event may best be described as the organic union of the poet's body and soul, the latter appearing first in the disembodied "hum" of a "valvèd voice." In highly charged erotic imagery, the soul settles his head "athwart" the poet's hips, "gently" turns over upon him, parting his shirt from his "bosom-bone" and plunging his "tongue" to the poet's "bare-stript heart"—while reaching simultaneously to feel his "beard" and to hold his "feet." In short, the soul with his phallic tongue (instrument of his "valvèd voice") penetrates directly to the poet's heart, bestowing there, without aid of mind or "reason," the teeming sperm of life-affirming intuitive knowledge, in effect the foundation for transcendent self-assurance that will sustain the poet on his search. Held in the trance-like grip of the soul from beard to feet, the poet suddenly awakens to the "peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth," a fragmentary but certain knowledge: "that the spirit of God is the brother of my own," "that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers," "that a kelson of the creation is love." These sweeping affirmations trail off into what seems a heap of incoherent images—"limitless" "leaves," "brown ants," "elder, mullein and poke-weed." In effect, the incomprehensible multiplicity of nature, in its smallest manifestations, is also embraced in the all-inclusive affirmations of God and brotherhood. 

As the awakening portrayed in section 5 has prepared the poet for a new kind of knowledge, section 6 launches him on his journey into knowing, beginning with exploration of a child's question, " What is the grass? " This phase of the journey extends through section 32, providing ample occasion for the poet to establish many of the subjects and themes that are addressed elsewhere in Leaves of Grass. From the focus on the grass imagery in section 6, the poet moves on to the theme of "en-masse," in sections 7-16. He becomes Walt Whitman, American, roaming the continent, celebrating everyday scenes of ordinary life. He presents himself (in section 13) as the "caresser of life wherever moving . . . Absorbing all to myself and for this song." This movement rises in a crescendo to the extended catalogue of section 15, with its rapid-fire snapshots of American types and scenes. 

Moving away from American diversity in section 17, the poet turns to human commonality—to "the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is." In sections 18-24, the poet proceeds to collapse traditional discriminations, celebrating "conquer'd and slain persons" (section 18) along with victors, the "righteous" along with the "wicked"—extending his embrace to include outcasts and outlaws. But increasingly his focus fixes on the equality of body and soul and ways of rescuing the body from its inferior status. He turns to himself and his own body, presenting in section 24 a nude portrait of "Walt Whitman, a kosmos," providing a catalogue, meticulously metaphoric, for every item of his anatomy ("Firm masculine colter," "duplicate eggs"). 

Throughout sections 18-32 of "Song of Myself," the poet celebrates the erotic dimension of all the senses, but he turns to the miraculous touch in section 28: "Is this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity?" In some of the most surrealistic lines in all of Leaves, the poet proceeds to portray himself in a scene of self-induced sexual arousal to the climactic point of orgasm. Section 29 presents the poet's tender farewell to complicit touch, while sections 30-32 explore the knowledge bestowed by the experience: "What is less or more than a touch?" Having experienced and affirmed the most intense of physical ecstasies, the poet contemplates becoming one with the animals: he mounts and races a "gigantic beauty of a stallion." But he ends by "resign[ing]" the stallion, realizing that deeper knowledge lies in wait. 

Adjusted to his new identity bestowed by touch, he is now ready for the second major phase of his journey. Section 33 begins with new and higher affirmations: "Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess'd at, / What I guess'd when I loaf'd on the grass." In this longest section of "Song of Myself," the poet feels the exhilaration of being no longer bound by the ties of space and time: he is "afoot with" his "vision." He feels able, indeed, to range back and forth over all time, and to soar like a meteor out into space. But in one of the strangest reversals in "Song of Myself," this peak of exaltation in section 33 glides into its opposite as the poet begins to identify more and more closely with the outcasts and rejected: "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there." He becomes the "old-faced infants and the lifted sick," the mother "condemned for a witch," "the hounded slave." A note of despair sounds louder and louder through sections 34-37, until at the end the poet becomes a homeless beggar. Such despair, unfelt during similar identifications with outcasts in sections 17-20, suggests that the poet has moved obscurely beyond the knowledge of his previous phase. 

Section 38, opening with strong rejection of the role of beggar he has assumed ("Enough! enough! enough!") suddenly resets the direction for the poet on his journey: "I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake." Although he is never quite explicit about the basis for what he knows, he says that he "remember[s] now" and resumes "the overstaid fraction." He suggests metaphorically that the nature of this "overstaid fraction" is contained in the resurrection that followed (or follows) crucifixion, in lines implying humankind's identification with the universalized experience of Christ: "The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves, / Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me." Thus out of his despair, the poet emerges "replenish'd with supreme power," a power that reaches beyond identification with the downtrodden and rejected, a power indeed to bring "help for the sick as they pant on their backs" as well as "yet more needed help" for "strong upright men" (section 41). 

This stage, in which the poet is confident in his transcendent power, extends through the closing sections, 38-49. In section 43 the poet affirms all religious faiths ("worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern"), and in section 44 he celebrates his place in evolutionary theory: both religion and science contain the seeds that provide the source for his supreme power. 

The reader learns in section 46 that the poet's is a "perpetual journey," that he has "no chair, no church, no philosophy," that he cannot travel the road for "you," but "you must travel it for yourself." In sections 48-49, he again affirms the body equal with the soul, as he affirms the identity of selfhood and Godhead. And similarly, he proclaims death and life so inseparably bonded as to render one unimaginable without the other. Near the end of section 49, the poet appears to give up further effort to convey in words what he knows and turns to the natural world for help: "O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions, / If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?" 

In section 50 the poet seems to be emerging from a trance-like state similar to that he entered in section 5: "Wrench'd and sweaty—calm and cool then my body becomes, / I sleep—I sleep long." Coming out of his deep sleep, the poet stammers almost incoherently: "I do not know it . . . it is a word unsaid, / It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol" (emphasis added). Readers may guess that "it" refers to the ineffable transcendent meaning of the poet's experience on his dream-like journey. That meaning can be conveyed only by oblique analogy: "Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on, / To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me" (emphasis added). In the end the poet addresses those "brothers and sisters" first evoked in section 5, trying to hit upon a word that might convey some notion, however inadequately, of the transcendent meaning discovered on his journey: "It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness." 

As the poet's camerado from the beginning, "you" the reader come to the fore in the two concluding sections (51-52) of the poem. The poet does not deny but dismisses his "contradictions," asserting, "I am large, I contain multitudes." On beginning his journey (section 1) he promised he would "permit to speak at every hazard, / Nature without check with original energy"; similarly, at the end, he describes himself as "not a bit tamed," as "untranslatable," as one who sounds his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." His journey over and done, he prepares for departure, bequeathing himself "to the dirt to grow from the grass" he loves, and tells the reader: "If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles." To the end, the poet insists that his transcendental knowledge gained on his spiritual journey cannot be embodied in words, but that nevertheless it can be conveyed indirectly. Readers will come to "know," not because he has conveyed his meaning abstractly, but rather because he has come to "filter and fibre" their blood. At the end, the poet admonishes his readers to "keep encouraged" and continue their search for him, promising: "I stop somewhere waiting for you." 

Like most poetic works of genius, "Song of Myself" has defied attempts to provide a definitive interpretation. In a very real sense, no reading of the poem has clarified the sum of its many mysteries. Critics have provided useful readings, concentrating on one or another dimension of the poem: Carl F. Strauch on the solidity of a fundamental structure, Randall Jarrell on the brilliance of individual lines, James E. Miller, Jr., on the portrayal of an "inverted mystical experience," Richard Chase on the often-overlooked comic aspects, Malcolm Cowley on the affinities with the inspired prophecies of antiquity, Robert K. Martin on the resemblance to a "dream vision based on sexual [essentially homosexual] experience." In addition, Edwin Haviland Miller has provided a guide through the various readings in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of Interpretations (1989). In the final analysis, readers must find their own way through "Song of Myself." They will know that they are on the right path when they begin to feel something of the "great power" that Ralph Waldo Emerson felt in 1855 (Whitman 1326).   

Bibliography 

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964. 

Cohen, B. Bernard. Whitman in Our Season: A Symposium. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1971. 

Kummings, Donald D., ed. Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." New York: MLA, 1990. 

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979. 

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989. 

Miller, James E., Jr. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. 

____, ed. Whitman's "Song of Myself": Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964. 

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 


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