Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, Essay Example
Walt Whitman continues to enjoy a reputation of being, in a sense, the poet who is not a poet. In his day, as well as today, there is little about the work or the man that relates to traditional ideas about poetry. There are no sweet, lengthy ballads to picturesque scenes or lovely women, and no perfectly rhymed tributes to flowers, the stars, or to love. It is, for him, all about the reality of living. If Whitman is viewed as the quintessential American poet, it is because his voice echoes American ideals, and is completely unconcerned with typical poetic expression and accepted notions of what poetic subject matter should reflect. Instead, he exalts features of common men and women. He writes poetry about sweat, and pain. There is no rhapsodizing about the divine qualities of a running stream in a green meadow; Whitman would rather stand on a bridge and sing the praises of the rusty girders beneath his feet. As loudly and persistently vocal as he is about his sense of self, Whitman is the blaring voice of the American individual: flawed, rough around the edges, at work, and wholly human. In his poetry, Walt Whitman gives voice to the poetry that exists in the soul of the common man and woman, and he gives it in a joyous shout.
Song of Myself
One of the most fiercely American characteristics of Whitman binds him closely to the “everyman”, and in a very ironic way. Whitman’s declaring of his selfhood in the appropriately named, “Song of Myself”, is relentless. If this is a kind of egocentrism, it is everywhere, and makes itself known from the beginning. Whitman cannot, early on in the poem, take in the fragrances of rooms and the outdoors enough, and he desperately wants to absorb all of them. His phrasing, however, is defiantly avaricious: “I am mad for it to be in contact with me” (Whitman 2, 10). He wants it badly, and in a way that services his need for it, and does not place himself, as traditional poets do, as a humble supplicant to the wonder of the atmosphere. In fact, there is nothing in his travels in the poem that may remotely make him worshipful, or lessen his implacable awareness of the importance of his own being: “Why should I pray?/ Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” (20, 11). He is utterly uninterested in that sort of posturing, because he views it as blocking the truth. This is truly a song of one man determined to stand up and bellow about everything he sees, and the pride of self roars through every stanza.
The irony, however, exists both in Whitman and in the American sensibility he represents. That is to say, the powerfully individualistic Whitman joins forces with everyone through this celebration of self, and the effect is nearly political. His voice is his own, he seems to be saying, but we are all brothers as well, so his voice is that of every man. In “Song of Myself”, the apparent arrogance of self-assertion is never arrogance because every self is meant to be expressed in his cry. He is one man, wandering the country, and he is a universal embodiment of all: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1, 3). In this approach, echoed throughout the poem as consistently as Whitman’s first-person declarations, he unites himself to the world.
He also, again, forges this alliance, not with princes and kings, but with common people everywhere, for they are to him the soul of the world. As Whitman exalts, in vivid detail, smells and debris and the wreckage of regular life, he delights in it all as the debris of the lives all ordinary people lead. It is in this debris, in fact, that Whitman seeks to find the glory within himself and with his “brothers”. He will, for example, briefly touch on a tender scene, such as spying on a sleeping baby in a cradle. He loses no time, however, in then shifting scene and sensation to the ugly; there are flies to swat away over the infant. If he watches a boy and a girl escape up a hill to be alone, he also takes the time to peer at the bloody suicide at his feet. Every object and every simple interaction encountered is noted, and given importance: “The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders…” (8, 9-10). Whitman, in his own way, reverses traditional poetic approach through all that he chooses to record. He does not pursue the beautiful in life, in its streets or its people, to find meaning in the beauty; instead, he is convinced that there is real beauty in the refuse of the living we do. In this approach, Whitman essentially takes his fellow man by the hand, to draw attention to all that is ignored, yet so full of truth and power.
Whitman’s celebration of the ordinary, and of the ordinary man and women, is not ever free from the earthier aspects of living. He makes no excuses for the cruelties and wrongs he sees and records, but believes them to be essential parts of the greater, and truly great, whole. Then, and in keeping with the duality of the approach, he does not spare himself. People do ugly things, people behave because they seek to gratify desires, and Whitman is as one with his fellow man in both pursuing desire, and not in any “romantic” fashion. This is the actual material of “Song of Myself”, in fact: sensuality. It is not necessarily sexual lust that runs through the verse, but more an insatiable appetite for all earthly experience. Interestingly, he somewhat alludes to the senses of propriety he is aware of perhaps shocking, or offending: “Copulation is no more rank to me than death is/ I believe in the flesh and in appetites” (24, 29-30). His insistence on the tapestry of all life as being of enormous, if not divine, value, empowers him to assert himself so unequivocally. In doing so, Whitman strongly implies that old-fashioned ideas about human desire are misplaced; if we do it, in other words, it has meaning and a kind of grandeur, no matter how “unseemly” it is seen. For him, hunger and lust are beautiful things.
Above all, Whitman is universal. He touches and is touched by everything. Given the consistent and fiercely deliberate universality in Whitman, then, the question actually becomes: is he his own poet? After all, the bulk of his work, and certainly “Song of Myself”, are relentless poetic efforts to forge a union with all men and all life. Every line of the poem is a determination to be as one with the common man; there is even a sense that Whitman would speak with a voice other than his own, if this were possible. In a sense, then, he renders himself not unique. In presenting himself as a kind of channel or conduit, and even as he celebrates his own state of being, he is most concerned with denying individuality, and this may suggest that he is not a truly unique voice.
The answer to this lies within the question, and not unexpectedly. However revolutionary Whitman was in his time, and leaving aside the specifically American aspect of his work, the fact remains that he stands as a unique poetic presence by virtue of that intense effort to “lose himself” in living. For one thing, as noted, he never abandons an awareness of his own senses, motives, travels, encounters, and individual impressions. He strides, he watches, and he interacts in the scenes unfolding around him as an individual. He shares a kettle of chowder with boatmen. He sails the Arctic and hunts polar bears. He even refers to himself by name, which is certainly removed from accepted poetic form: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (24, 1). However, it only through the efforts to truly lose himself in life that he becomes the essentially unique poet that he is. It is denial of self as exalting of self, and this is a very individual achievement. More exactly, Whitman takes a course that could be viewed as Christ-like, in that his presence is defined through the willing giving up of it. He definitely knows who he is, as a man in the world: “I…Breathe the air but leave plenty after me/ And am not stuck up, and am in my place” (16, 32-34). It is more that this is no point to being so, to him, unless he can shed the shell and be as one with all men and life.
This is the soul of Whitman, and it is most certainly his most valued ambition. In a very literal way, and as evident in virtually every line of “Song of Myself”, he is desperately in love with all mankind, and with all of the world. To express that love, he willingly casts himself aside, except as a vessel to represent all human vessels: “When I give I give myself” (40, 10). It is the only way he can manifest his love and seek to bring everyone together as one, which is how he sees his fellow man and woman. This may be why his emphasis is so profoundly on the ordinary, and on the working class multitudes of the world. The bulk of life, they then are life, to Whitman. He will celebrate absolutely every aspect of their being, and rejoice in himself as a part of this vast and glorious whole.
Ultimately, Walt Whitman both speaks for all men and sings of himself, in a unity achieved through an unrelenting ambition to do so. He has seen the world, he has looked past the falsity of appearances, and he needs to make this world see itself, and walk with him in the process: “What is known I strip away/ I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown” (44, 2-3). In stanza after stanza, Whitman reinforces his lack of interest in the pretty and the conventionally “nice”. He never holds up a rose to praise it in the sunlight; instead, he digs into the ground and pulls up soil, and demands that it be perceived as the equally beautiful thing it is. As “Song of Myself” goes on, Whitman in fact leaves his selfhood to take on incarnations of men before and after him in life, and he does this to assert the wonder of mankind’s being as one, always. We are all the same, he cries out, and everything we are and see has a profound glory to it, no matter how mundane or seemingly unattractive. In his eyes, the runaway slave is no different than the cop on the street corner, for all men are the same flesh, and share the same, human soul. In his poetry, and very much so in “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman does not gently pay tribute to mankind. He digs out and displays the poetry that exists in the soul of the common man and woman, and he presents it in a joyous shout.
Whitman, W. Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882. Print.
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