The purpose of this research is to provide an analysis of a short, significant part of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” relating that part to the whole poem itself.
The part of “Song of Myself” to be analyzed thus is:
These seven lines are taken from the 46th “paragraph” of Whitman’s poem. The first five lines summarize his vision of his own role as a poet; the last two lines explain Whitman’s idea of the role that each individual reader must play in the journey through both life and the poem itself. The points made in these lines reflect the heart of the message carried by the entire poem—-that the poet and the reader are travelling companions rather than teacher-and-student. Their travels include local and continental and cosmic excursions; and that each individual alone has the map and the legs that will carry him or her through that journey, over that road. These declarations apply as much to Whitman’s entire collection of poetry, but here we will be singly concerned with the relationship of the above-quoted seven lines and the poem from which they are taken—-Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
The first line of “Song of Myself”-—“I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (Whitman 24)—-typify Whitman’s stance throughout the whole poem, and especially echo the sentiments expressed in the seven lines we are studying here. Whitman is saying that, as he celebrates and sings his consciousness of the world, his consciousness of himself, and his consciousness of consciousness itself. Each individual reader make his or her own unique way into, through, and perhaps out of the poem and the world presented in the poem. “You must travel it for yourself,” Whitman says, and he might have added, reflecting the first line of the poem, “You must celebrate yourself, and you must sing yourself; not I, not any one else can celebrate so sing yourself for you.”
Whitman writes that he has “no chair, no church, no philosophy.” He leads no man to “dinner-table, library, (or) exchange.” He is saying, in other words, that that reader will be disappointed who comes to “Song of Myself” seeking some incontrovertible set of concepts by which to live. One of Whitman’s most emphasized messages is that he in fact has no message. Or rather, that he has no message of such consistency and rigidity that it could be termed a philosophy, or a religion. His work, his mind, his intention—-he himself—-is fluid, not to be understood as being in any way less mobile or active than life itself. He refuses (in lines 1 and 2) to allow himself to be placed In the reader’s mind as a pedant of superior and distant attitude. He is saying that he is free, above all, and that he wishes the reader, his companion, to be as free—-free from scholastic pedantry, free from any sedate or restrictive religion or philosophy, free from the confining atmosphere of the “dinner-table, library, (or) exchange.” By “exchange” we can assume Whitman is referring to some specific place where commodities of some sort are bought and sold.
Again, if we return to an earlier part of the poem, we find a clear relationship between Whitman’s snubbing of churches and philosophies and the rest of the poem.
“Creeds and schools in abeyance,” (Whitman 24), he writes:
Do you guess I have intricate purpose?
Well I have, for the Fourth-month showers have,
and the mica on the side of a rock has (Whitman 38).
Logic and sermons never convince . . . (Whitman 48).
All the studied maneuvers and machinations, all the cleaver moves made by people in the hopes of establishing a set of rules and regulations by which to gauge and guide their leaves—-all these Whitman refutes, both in our seven chosen lines and in the entire poem “Song of Myself.”
After forgoing the institutions of mind and earth, Whitman installs in their place the view from “the knoll”, the “landscapes of continents and the public road.”
We may understand the knoll as a physical pinnacle from which a great panorama of earthly majesty and beauty may be openly observed, or we may understand the knoll as a point in the cosmos of consciousness from which the internal wonders may be appreciated best, most clearly. Whitman here, as elsewhere in “Song of Myself,” deals simultaneously with the internal and external universes. In both cases, in lines 3, 4, and 5 or our chosen seven, Whitman is saying that his role as poet and leader is limited to “pointing” from that knoll to the world(s) beyond, to continents and public roads. And again, as he forsook church and philosophy for more informal and natural fare, Whitman again, even in such a limited role as leader, insists that that role be characterized by his personal touch. He brings his own body continually into “Song of Myself”, and these seven lines are no exception. He as well calls often to mind physical contact between himself and the reader. His left hand hooks the reader’s waist; his right hand indicates the road upon which the reader must eventually go his own way, no matter how intimate the companionship of poet and reader.
Regarding the rest of “Song of Myself”, we find many additional instances of reference to the body, to physical contact between the poet and the reader, and to an emphasis on the relationships between humanity and the physical world and the celebrative nature of that set of relationships.
Of his celebrative, ecstatic sense of his own body, Whitman writes:
If I worship one thing more than another it shall
Be the spread of my own body, or any part of it . . . (Whitman 44).
First and foremost Whitman is intent with his senses, which he considers to be the essential anchors which keeps him from floating free from his home on earth. His body he sees as the intersection through which the world passes, and without it neither he nor the world could be made heads or tails of.
But celebration of his own body in isolation is not what Whitman is after. Rather his ecstasy is founded on the physical relationship with other human beings, and with the physical, sensory, sensual things of the earth.
For instance, Whitman writes most passionately of his vision of union an contact with others in the physical realm:
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles . . .
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy
whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds (Whitman 44).
Intensifying the swirling passion and intensity of his ideal relationship of union, Whitman goes on:
You my rich blood! Your milky stream pale
strippings of my life! Breast that presses
against other breasts it shall be you!
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions! .
. . Hands I have taken, face I have kiss’d,
mortal I have ever touch’d, it shall be you (Whitman 44).
In our final reference to “the knoll” and the implied simultaneous calling-to-mind of both internal and external worlds, and the relationship of that particular and simultaneity to other parts of “Song of Myself,” we discover this apt excerpt:
Space and Time! Now I see it is true, what I
What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass,
What I guess’d while I lay alone in my bed,
And again as I walk’d the beach under the paling
stars of the morning. My ties and ballasts
leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my visions (Whitman 50).
There we see the unification of imagination, the wonders of the astronomical and terrestrial worlds, and the human body. And even in the ecstatic midst of this revelation, Whitman, ever conscious of his primarily physical link with the universe, declares himself not awash, not overtaken, not stunned in the face of such extraordinary insight, but afoot—-the poet is walking through his vision.
Whitman’s message in the last two lines of our chosen seven is self-reliance.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself (Whitman 69).
To Whitman there is nothing higher than one’s self, and if any lines can be said to succinctly summarize the “meaning” of “Song of Myself,” it can be reasonably said that those two lines serve well.
Whitman, in the 48th “paragraph” of “Song of Myself,” in lines which echo and emphasize lines 6 and 7 of our chosen seven, has this to say:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is . . . And I say to any man or women,
Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million
universes (Whitman 71).
Thus, if there can be a paraphrased “point” to “Song of Myself” it is that Whitman is, simply, singing his self. He says that he “understand (s) God not in the least,” and adds that he doesn’t “understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (Whitman 71). Further implied in lines 6 and 7 of our selected lines is the belief that the very uniqueness which makes it impossible for any other person to walk that road for us also makes it impossible for us, for any individual soul, to completely and accurately communicate or articulate that self to another individual.
In the 25th “paragraph” of “Song of Myself,” for instance, we find Whitman claiming, despite all his willingness for unification:
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me
what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me, . . .
Writing and talking do not prove me . . .
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic
Here we discover one of the most basic paradoxes of “Song of Myself,” and of our selected lines, and of Whitman’s entire body of work. Despite his incessant call for contact on every level—physical, mental, spiritual, cosmic—-Whitman realizes at the same time and just as incessantly emphasizes the ultimate uniqueness of very individual, a uniqueness that, fortunately and unfortunately, keeps at least the sense of isolation present in even the most intimate encounters. No matter how naked Whitman’s proclamations to his readers, he reserves that central secret, that “final merit” refused the reader, refused the “other.” And, in regard to lines 6 and 7 of our selected lines, Whitman is saying that no matter how much he “points” to the road of poetry, to the road of life, the reader himself must travel that road, must experience the world and the poem.
“Song of Myself” then, as a complete poem, includes practically every experience know to man, from death to love and everything in between.
However, no matter how complete, no matter how all-inclusive is Whitman’s poem, the warning expressed in our chosen seven lines remains a signpost for the reader. Come along with me, Whitman is saying, as I come along with you, and I will show you what I see, I will point out to you some of the things I have done and thought and felt, some of the right turns and wrong turns and confusing contradictory turns I have made, and aim to make. But never forget that I am merely traveling my road my way, that I am not intent on pleasing you if pleasing you means betraying myself. Likewise, Whitman, in other words, is saying that the reader must take the identical responsibility on himself or herself. And he or she must take from Whitman’s poem what can be of use, what fits in with that reader’s self, and must shed the rest, leave it behind, and go out on his or her own, with, of course, Whitman’s cosmic and intimate blessings.
Thus we have seen that, in the first two lines of our chosen seven, Whitman stresses the naturalness of his quest, the lack of rigid categories of thought or demeanor. This inclination is reflected throughout the poem proper, and can be said to stand for much of the essence of “Song of Myself.” The third, fourth, and fifth lines emphasized the physical closeness, the closeness on every level, which Whitman seeks with his reader and with his fellow humans. The final two lines, again echoing the oft-repeated declaration of the whole poem, state that each individual self is primary, and that no self can be substituted for another in the experiencing of life or of poetry.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library,