Walt Whitman's Inclusive 'Song of Myself'
FROM PREVIOUS BLOG
My exposure to American poetry has thus far been limited, I have to admit. I have no real excuse as to why I have never thought to delve into it, but perhaps I can blame it (partially) on simply never having had the opportunity to do so at school.
However, upon sitting in on a seminar aimed at introducing us to Walt Whitman, I decided to take a closer look at this poet’s work. Unfortunately, I doubt I would be able to delve into him very deeply, but perhaps this will be of some interest to those who also have not yet ventured out to that area, and maybe someone could comment and add further to my brief glances.
1819 – 1892 : A People’s Poet
Walt Whitman was born to a large family on Long Island, whose economic difficulties prevented them from settling in a permanent home. Helping out with household income took priority over his education, leading to working in the printing business.
Self-taught, a voracious reader, journalist and founder of ‘Brooklyn Freeman’, Whitman buried himself in social and political issues, troubled by slavery and shocked by the civil war (1861-1865).
He also self- published his first collection, titled ‘Leaves of Grass’, in 1855. It would come to be revised several times before establishing itself commercially, but even the first edition of 12 unnamed poems did not go by unnoticed, the use of the first person and the seeming disregard for traditional rules projecting his voice across society.
Song of Myself
Originally untitled, this free-verse poem appeared in the first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ before eventually settling with its current title and division of 52 sections. The length is considerable, and, lacking a narrative, a section could probably be plucked out and viewed just as separately from its predecessor as its follower. However, the importance of its whole should not be undermined: the collection of images displayed for the reader merge together not incongruously, but in a manner as to illustrate the spread of the Whitman’s critical gaze over America.
The voice is outspoken, unafraid and almost impetuous, ready to challenge the reader: Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? For our learning lies at the core of the poem, portrayed as ‘perfumes’ kept in houses, intoxicating and artificial when faced with the expanse of nature, to where Whitman turns himself for truth. Grass is shown, after all, to be egalitarian, Growing among black folks as among white, and ageless, both the produced babe and the uncut hair of graves. This question of knowledge blazes overhead to reveal society’s moral shortcomings, shedding light upon our inability to grasp concepts shown by mere vegetation.
Whitman embraces the world both in terms of its spatiality and its temporality:
Myself moving forward then and now and forever,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In this spiritualistic description, the poet dissolves the boundaries set by laws of physics and joins not only himself, but also the reader, to the unity created by every atom in the universe. By addressing the reader directly, he widens his embrace and encourages a sense of a greater community and of belonging, going further by weaving elements of nature into his own breath: The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind.
Throughout the length of the poem, the narrator’s voice and gaze seems to move over all, depicting scents, sounds and images that span across America. At the same time, he underlines his own presence in this community: I come and I depart. ‘Song of Myself’ gives a bardic presentation of America, each section illustrating yet another facet that builds into the whole. The fleetingness of each image does not, however, lead to a sense of incompletion, but rather a collection that is joined together by the poetic voice.
The ending lines return to the reader and the direct address given by Walt Whitman, who closes off his speech-like poem with final instructions:
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.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
The use of the verb bequeath, in combination with its indirect object, dirt, is suggestive of a final will that marks the conclusion of what has been developed as a organic piece. The poet rests within obscurity, stating that the reader will hardly know the meaning and the poetic voice behind the poem, yet he also establishes a familiarity and a closeness, even taking on the role of an organ working in tandem with the body of the reader. This omnipresence recalls the communal sharing of every atom that is presented at the beginning, underlining for the last time the sense of community and mystical oneness that is created in 'Song of Myself'. Yet the ending is not synonymous with death, for the narrator lies in waiting, ready for the reader to join in the social movement expressed throughout the poem.
If you have anything to add or discuss, please do so! It was definitely interesting to read, and I found myself drawn to the (if I can be permitted to call so) extensive use of synaesthesic description, albeit quite heavy at times.