Summary and Form
This most famous of Whitman’s works was one of the original twelve pieces in the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass. Like most of the other poems, it too was revised extensively, reaching its final permutation in 1881. “Song of Myself” is a sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic meditation. It is not nearly as heavy-handed in its pronouncements as “Starting at Paumanok”; rather, Whitman uses symbols and sly commentary to get at important issues. “Song of Myself” is composed more of vignettes than lists: Whitman uses small, precisely drawn scenes to do his work here.
This poem did not take on the title “Song of Myself” until the 1881 edition. Previous to that it had been titled “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” and, in the 1860, 1867, and 1871 editions, simply “Walt Whitman.” The poem’s shifting title suggests something of what Whitman was about in this piece. As Walt Whitman, the specific individual, melts away into the abstract “Myself,” the poem explores the possibilities for communion between individuals. Starting from the premise that “what I assume you shall assume” Whitman tries to prove that he both encompasses and is indistinguishable from the universe.
Whitman’s grand poem is, in its way, an American epic. Beginning in medias res—in the middle of the poet’s life—it loosely follows a quest pattern. “Missing me one place search another,” he tells his reader, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” In its catalogues of American life and its constant search for the boundaries of the self “Song of Myself” has much in common with classical epic. This epic sense of purpose, though, is coupled with an almost Keatsian valorization of repose and passive perception. Since for Whitman the birthplace of poetry is in the self, the best way to learn about poetry is to relax and watch the workings of one’s own mind.
While “Song of Myself” is crammed with significant detail, there are three key episodes that must be examined. The first of these is found in the sixth section of the poem. A child asks the narrator “What is the grass?” and the narrator is forced to explore his own use of symbolism and his inability to break things down to essential principles. The bunches of grass in the child’s hands become a symbol of the regeneration in nature. But they also signify a common material that links disparate people all over the United States together: grass, the ultimate symbol of democracy, grows everywhere. In the wake of the Civil War the grass reminds Whitman of graves: grass feeds on the bodies of the dead. Everyone must die eventually, and so the natural roots of democracy are therefore in mortality, whether due to natural causes or to the bloodshed of internecine warfare. While Whitman normally revels in this kind of symbolic indeterminacy, here it troubles him a bit. “I wish I could translate the hints,” he says, suggesting that the boundary between encompassing everything and saying nothing is easily crossed.
The second episode is more optimistic. The famous “twenty-ninth bather” can be found in the eleventh section of the poem. In this section a woman watches twenty-eight young men bathing in the ocean. She fantasizes about joining them unseen, and describes their semi-nude bodies in some detail. The invisible twenty-ninth bather offers a model of being much like that of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”: to truly experience the world one must be fully in it and of it, yet distinct enough from it to have some perspective, and invisible so as not to interfere with it unduly. This paradoxical set of conditions describes perfectly the poetic stance Whitman tries to assume. The lavish eroticism of this section reinforces this idea: sexual contact allows two people to become one yet not one—it offers a moment of transcendence. As the female spectator introduced in the beginning of the section fades away, and Whitman’s voice takes over, the eroticism becomes homoeroticism. Again this is not so much the expression of a sexual preference as it is the longing for communion with every living being and a connection that makes use of both the body and the soul (although Whitman is certainly using the homoerotic sincerely, and in other ways too, particularly for shock value).
Having worked through some of the conditions of perception and creation, Whitman arrives, in the third key episode, at a moment where speech becomes necessary. In the twenty-fifth section he notes that “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, / It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” Having already established that he can have a sympathetic experience when he encounters others (“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”), he must find a way to re-transmit that experience without falsifying or diminishing it. Resisting easy answers, he later vows he “will never translate [him]self at all.” Instead he takes a philosophically more rigorous stance: “What is known I strip away.” Again Whitman’s position is similar to that of Emerson, who says of himself, “I am the unsettler.” Whitman, however, is a poet, and he must reassemble after unsettling: he must “let it out then.” Having catalogued a continent and encompassed its multitudes, he finally decides: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “Song of Myself” thus ends with a sound—a yawp—that could be described as either pre- or post-linguistic. Lacking any of the normal communicative properties of language, Whitman’s yawp is the release of the “kosmos” within him, a sound at the borderline between saying everything and saying nothing. More than anything, the yawp is an invitation to the next Walt Whitman, to read into the yawp, to have a sympathetic experience, to absorb it as part of a new multitude.