Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Contact Us Recording, April-September 2007

This long autobiographical poem, persuasively read by Allan Davis Drake (who has also read Emerson for other podcasts) vividly animated Whitman’s vision of the poet and his responsibility to society.


Like Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman does not distinguish himself from his fellow human beings. Rather he believes that the poet should set an example of showing how individuals can communicate with God and appreciate nature through his work. He believes that true poets understand that no distinction exists between life and death; it is all part of a divinely ordered universe which can only be understood by those with developed imaginations. True poets can not only appreciate the beauties of nature, they also have the ability to communicate that appreciation through words. This is certainly true of “Song of Myself” which celebrates the sound as well as the sense of its discourse. Whitman also believes that true poets should empathize with others; he recounts the example of encountering a slave, or an African-American, and finding him especially attractive – so attractive, in fact, that the poet transforms him into a quasi-God, a part of nature. The poem at this point also dramatizes Whitman’s sexual instincts; it not only celebrates individualism as a state of mind, but also as a way to explore one’s feelings and/or sexual instincts.


In the second section of the poem, Whitman explores the idea of an animated world, in which everything is joined together. Unlike Emerson or Thoreau, he is prepared to contemplate a world in which industry and commerce can thrive; where slavery exists; where immigrants come from abroad to settle; and where human beings live by killing beasts. It is not the poet’s job to try to change that world; rather to record it in the most appropriate kind of language. Each part of the contemporary world provides evidence of a certain kind of universal order; it is the poet’s responsibility both to understand that order and communicate it to his readers. He becomes a seer, a prophet perhaps. On the other hand, Whitman emphasizes the fact that he is also an ordinary person, part of “the common arch that bathes the globe.” Everything he possesses also belongs to everyone else: “in all people I see myself.” The poet is the body; he is also the soul. He is the universe, describing what happens in the universe as well as describing his state of mind. He is also the source of all human potential – someone who appreciates the delights of nature and can capture them in words to express “that we call being.”


In the third section, Whitman continues the same theme; to touch anything in the world is to appreciate the beauty of the universe. Anyone who writes poetry can feel everything and can recall anything when they desire it. They can move beyond such mundane issues such as class conflict or covetousness. To achieve this, one must learn how to contemplate nature, dissociate oneself from the sinful life and trust in simplicities instead. His poem communicates this through the use of multiple descriptive sentences – precise descriptions of natural phenomena that prove how the American language can capture the moment, the immediacy of specific occasions. The most obvious example of this is his depiction of a massacre of 42 soldiers during the Civil War. This had nothing to do with the Alomo; rather it was an act of wanton brutality. Whitman not only displays a journalist’s eye for capturing the occasion; he uses a certain turn of phrase to shock readers and thereby extends the possibilities of the American language. Another historical interlude talks about the crew of a ship escaping from English colonists. In this description Whitman empathizes with the pain of the victims lost at sea. Eventually the experience of such interludes proves too much for the poet himself: he exclaims “Enough! Enough! Enough!” and turns instead to the subject of the Noble Savage – the lawless, simple person providing new creative possibilities.


In the poem’s final section, Whitman returns to the idea of the poet being part of the people and at one with them. If anyone dies, he will die with them. He will also help the sick and the needy. He is the past, present and future; the bringer of past wisdom to the present who can also see into the future. He can explore new intellectual riches, while being guided by past masters. He subsequently goes on to communicate his sexual yearnings for young people; the experience of being kissed and the exchange (or intermingling) of souls that might be achieved through close communion with them. The poet in this case is the teacher of athletes, the person who can transform young men into Adonises. The poem ends with a further emphasis on the fact that God is everywhere, and it is the poet’s responsibility to transmit that information to his readers. He has a “something” within him – an understanding of eternal life and happiness – to infuse and inspire the blood of others.