It's all about me! We explore Walt Whitman's poem, Song of Myself,a unique and complex work of poetry. We hope this guide is particularly helpful for teachers and students to better understand its significance, as well as its contribution to the genre of Transcendentalism.
Quite simply, Whitman's poem is an unabashed celebration all about himself, exemplifying the Transcendental Movement to a "T." The poem had no title when first published in his collection, Leaves of Grass (1855). It was called A Poem of Walt Whitman, an American until he changed it in 1881 to Song of Myself, a reflection of the work's broader implications: that the divine spirit resides within all of us, and that we have knowledge about ourselves that "transcends" the world around us. We see all, are part of everything, and condemn nothing.
Whitman shares his belief that every object in the universe, no matter how small, has a natural and spiritual self that contain part of the infinite universe. Whitman has great respect for the mystical union of his self and his soul with God (the absolute self). He is inseparable from his poems, he is his poems, which makes for a somewhat confusing, yet exhiliarting experience for his readers, establishing Whitman as a foremost poet of the ages.
There are three main themes in Whitman's epic poem:
1. The idea of the self
2. The self in relation to others
3. How the self relates to elements in nature and the universe
His concept of self is a spiritual entity that can interact and flex with others and the cosmos, yet maintains a permanence that reflects the individual's intellectual, spiritual, and artistic being. The poet loves them all and is part of them all. And it never ends: the "perpetual journey" is where our self confronts limitless time and limitless space, and we are products of ages past and future.
Universal "I": Though the poem is about the poet's self, he universalizes the concept of "I" to include all of our selves in his experiences. It's this simplistic beauty of inclusivity and at the same time its complexity that make this poem one of the most celebrated.
Symbols: Whitman uses symbols extensively to illustrate various states of "self." Perfume represents individuals, houses and rooms represent civilization, the atmosphere represents the universal. Grass is the central symbol to explain that the divinity is in the ordinary: "the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation" (section 6) and that nothing really dies: "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death" (section 6). He reused these symbols consistently throughout his work, even beyond Leaves of Grass, as in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
Experiment of words: Whitman uses colloquialisms to merge spiritual and natural concepts and to discover the joy he experiences through his senses (e.g.: "The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind," (section 2) "Loaf with me on the grass," (section 5) and "not contain'd between my hat and boots") (section 6). Whitman says he was "form'd from this soil" and refers to "talkers," "trippers and askers" (section 4) as wasting their time intellectualizing, when they could be enjoying simple things like watching a blade of grass. The colloquial expressions (void of obscure high-art references) give Whitman's poem an accessibility and charm that is both obscure and wandering, yet we want it to be within our grasp so we can celebrate right along with him. Does he come off as a love-yourself-with-me populist-poet or an egotistical recluse who is disengenuous and rambles?
Imagery: Whitman includes seemingly random and vivid descriptions of elements in nature that collectively unify the spiritual ideas in the poem. "The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless," "the play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag," and "Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine" all convey the energy emininating from nature and its spiritual affect on the self.
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." (section 1)
"You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self." (section 2)
"Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news,
the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself." (section 4)
"I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait." (section 4)
"We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers.
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them." (section 43)
"And as to you Death, you bitter hug of mortality,
It is idle to try to alarm me." (section 49)
Whitman's obsession writing about "self" was affected dramatically by the American Civil War and particularly, Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. During the War he treated wounded soldiers in Washington, DC army hospitals. Though he had spent years reorganizing and adding works to his epic collection, Leaves of Grass, publishing six very different editions in all (1855-1892), he began writing about events of the War and its impact. Described as impressionist sketches of Civil War scenes using words rather than colors, this profound shift in his writing style is best exemplified in two of his finest poems, tributes to Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and O Captain! My Captain!, an extended metaphor with conventional meter and rhyme, that's often recited and inspired many generations. His poem, Hush'd Be the Camps To-Day, was printed on Lincoln mourning ribbons with the closing: "God save the Union and our Martyr."
After the War, Whitman worked at the Departments of Interior and Justice, where he served as a clerk until his first stroke in 1873, which left him partially paralyzed. He lived almost twenty more years, continuing to suffer health problems. Though he continued revising his epic Leaves of Grass (last edition the same year as his death: 1892), he produced two other major poems during this period: Passage to India (1871) and Prayer of Columbus (1874).
2. Cite some lines in this poem relating to education and discuss Whitman's philosophy favoring experiential learning, and seeming contempt for formal education (particularly early in the poem).
3. Discuss how Whitman created a new form of modern poetry about "self" as its sole subject. What do you think of his assertion that the poet and poem are the same? And his indictment of pretentious poetry in favor of his "down to earth" approach (e.g.: "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" section 2)
4. How does Whitman fit into the notion of being "uniquely American" in his expressions of "self" and Transcendental philosophies?
5. Discuss the literary connections between Whitman and Abraham Lincoln's rise to power. How did their respective published or spoken words compliment one another?
6. Explain Whitmans lines in section 6 below, and speculate on its meaning, particularly on the brink of the American Civil War:
"Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves."
8. Fellow poet and contemporary, Emily Dickinson, firmly in the Dark Romanticism camp, seems to express the exact opposite philosophy from Walt Whitman. Do you agree? Provide textual evidence from both poets.
9. Does the cumulative affect of Whitman's poem come off as a love-yourself-with-me populist-poet or an egotistical recluse who is disengenuous and rambles?
Essay Prompt: Can you think of a modern songwriter or writer you admire who shares some of Whitman's philosophies and literary techniques? Provide textual evidence to support your comparison.
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