Summary Song of Myself
The poem “Song of Myself” was originally published in 1855 as part of “Leaves of Grass” and was later republished in 1891-1892 with fifty-two sections. “Song of Myself” is comparable to a journey that takes readers from the human body to the soul and then to the highest regard for the natural order of things.
Whitman, who is widely regarded as the father of American “free verse,” gave America one of its true epics with this poem. ‘Song of Myself’ is regarded as one of Whitman’s most comprehensive literary works, revealing him as both a poet and an individual.
Sections 1 and 2
This poem celebrates the poet’s individuality, but while the “I” is the poet, it is also universalized. The poet will “sing myself,” but “what I assume you shall assume” because “every atom belonging to me belongs to you as well.” The poet lounges on the grass and awaits the arrival of his soul. He states that he was “formed from this soil” because he, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born here. He is 37 years old and “in perfect health.” He hopes to continue celebrating his individuality until his death. He will allow nature to speak unimpeded by original energy.
In section 2, the self asserts its individuality by claiming separation from civilization and proximity to nature. “Houses and rooms are full of perfume,” says Whitman. Perfumes are symbols of other individual selves, whereas the atmosphere outside represents the universal self. The poet is tempted to merge with other individual selves, but he is determined to maintain his uniqueness.
The poet expresses his happiness via his senses. The ecstasy of his physical sensations captivates him. He can appreciate all five senses — taste, hearing, smell, touch, and sight — as well as the process of breathing, the beating of his heart, and “the sensation of health.” In order to discover “the origin of all poems,” he invites the reader to “stop this day and night” with him.
Sections 6, 7, 10, and 17
The sixth section of “Song of Myself” introduces the poem’s central symbol and marks the first significant transition. A child with both hands full of leaves from the fields approaches the poet and asks, “What is grass?” The poet initially feels unable to answer this question, but continues to ponder it. He ponders whether “the grass is itself a child” or “the handkerchief is itself a child.”
In Section 7, the poet alludes to his universal nature, which considers it “just as lucky to die” as it is to be born. The universal self finds both the earth and the stars to be beneficial. The poet is an integral part of his surroundings. He sees everything and judges nothing.
The sections 8–16 are a catalogue of everything the poet sees: people of both sexes, all ages, and all conditions, from various walks of life, in the city and the country, by the mountain and the sea. Animals are also included. In section 17, the poet’s thoughts are again described as “the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands.” Sections 18 and 19 honour the entirety of humanity.
Grass, a central symbol in this epic poem, suggests the divine nature of everyday objects. The nature and significance of grass reveal the themes of death and immortality, as grass is symbolic of the natural cycle of life, which guarantees the immortality of every man. Nature is a symbol of God because God’s eternal presence is evident everywhere in it. Grass is the key to unlocking the mysteries of man’s divine relationship. It means God is everything and everything is God.
These sections discuss God, life, death, and the natural world. Their primary purpose is to reveal the nature of the poet’s life journey and the spiritual wisdom he seeks along the way. They reveal an essential aspect of a mystical experience: the poet’s awakening. This mystic experience is articulated poetically in “Song of Myself.” It is based on the belief that one can achieve communion with God through meditation.
Without the use of human reason, contemplation and love exist. It is a method for acquiring intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths. Sections I through 5 describe the poet’s entrance into a mystical state, while sections 6 through 16 describe the poet’s awakening to his own universality.
This section presents some of Whitman’s fundamental beliefs. He refers to himself as a “kosmos.” The word “kosmos,” which means universe, is significant and amounts to a reevaluation of the poet’s self-definition as someone who loves all people. Through him, “many long dumb voices” of prisoners, slaves, thieves, and dwarfs — all of whom “the others look down on” — are articulated and transformed. He also discusses lust and the flesh, because every part of the body is a miracle: “The aroma of these armpits is more refined than prayer.” In section 25, Whitman discusses the vast scope of the poet’s power. He declares, “With the twist of my tongue, I encompass the world and the volume of the world. Speech is the twin of my vision.” He must speak because he cannot contain everything he has to say, but “writing and talk do not prove me” His face reveals his personality.
The selfevaluation of the poet is the focal point of sections 2025. He describes himself as grotesque and supernatural. He feels a part of everyone and everything he has met and seen. He is fundamentally a poet of equilibrium, as he accepts both good and evil in his universe. When he refers to himself as “a kosmos,” he expresses his awareness of the universe, or cosmic consciousness, by conjuring an image of the harmony of the universe. He accepts all aspects of life, whether they be noble or ignoble, refined or crude, beautiful or ugly, pleasurable or painful. The physical and spiritual are both aspects of his vision, which has the same organic unity as the body and soul. Whitman recognises that both the physical and spiritual are Divine aspects. Love represents the culmination of the poet’s experience of the self.
As he contemplates the meaning of grass in terms of mysticism, he realises that all physical phenomena are as immortal as grass.
These chants represent various phases of the poet’s mystic self-experience. The first stage is known as “Self-Awakening,” while the second is “Self-Purification.” Acceptance of the body and its functions is necessary for purification. This acceptance demonstrates the poet’s desire to attain mystical experience through physical reality. This contradicts the puritanical view of purification by mortifying the body. The self is purified in Whitman’s philosophy not through purification but through acceptance of the physical. Man should abandon his traditional conception of sin. The mystic experience paves the way for the merging of physical and universal realities.
Whitman is representative of humanity because, according to him, the voices of men, animals, and even insects speak through him. To him, all of life is a beautiful miracle. The sections 20–25 conclude on a note of exaltation of the poet’s expressive ability, despite the fact that they indicate his deeper self is beyond expression.
Sections 46, 49, 52
In section 46, the poet embarks on the “perpetual journey,” inviting others to join him and issuing the warning, “No one can travel that road for you/You must travel it yourself.” The poet states in section 47 that he is a teacher, but he hopes that those he instructs will learn to assert their own individuality: “He most honours my style who learns to destroy the teacher through it.” Section 48 reiterates that “the body is not more than the soul” and “the body is not greater than the soul.” Nobody is more important than oneself, not even God. The poet requests that man not be “curious about God” because God is everywhere and in everything: “In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.”
The poet does not fear death. In section 49, he says, “And as for you, Death, you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to attempt to alarm me.” Because there is no true death. Men pass away and are reborn in various forms. He has died “ten thousand times before.” The poet believes (section 50) that there is something greater than death, but he is unable to name it: “It is form, union, and plan; it is eternal life; it is Happiness.”
The final two sections are farewell expressions. “The past and present wilt—I have filled and emptied them/And am now filling my next fold of the future.” He recognises that his writings have been obscure, but he views the paradoxes in them as natural components of the cosmos’ mysteries: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, then I contradict myself/(I am large, I contain multitudes).” The poet can wait for those who can comprehend his work. He tells them, “If you want to me again, look under your bootsoles,” as he will have entered the cycle of eternal life. He will be waiting, though it may be difficult to locate or interpret him. “Missing me in one place and search in another,/I wait somewhere for you.”
The poet’s journey and search for selfhood have reached their conclusion. He begins by expressing a desire to lounge on the grass and concludes by resigning himself “to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.”
These chants contain many of Whitman’s most significant ideas and doctrines. The poet delivers a new message of faith for the strong and the weak, a belief in the universe’s harmony and orderliness. Noting what has been said about the universe, the poet demonstrates how his own theories, which are more universal in scope, surpass them.
Assuming the identity of the Savage-Christ, he delivers a sermon that envisions the transcendence of the finite through the union of the individual soul with the Divine Soul. The poet offers to guide men and women “into the unknown,” or transcendental reality. Whitman discusses the self as a component of the process of eternal life. There is no death because man is repeatedly reincarnated. The poet discusses man’s relationship with time and eternity. Time is endless in eternity, as is the self.
The poet does not prescribe a specific route to self-awareness; rather, it is up to each individual to find his own path. Death, like the poet, is a creation of God, and it is through death that one can reach God. His vision of eternal life represents the culmination of the poet’s mystic experience. Life is harmonious, reflecting the union of the poet’s individual soul with the Divine Soul; it is neither chaotic nor finite. Grass is the central symbol in “Song of Myself,” representing the divinity contained within all living things. The logical manner in which the poet returns to his image of grass demonstrates that “Song of Myself” was intended to have an order and unity of concept and image, despite the absence of a traditional form.
Analysis of Song of Myself
In the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, the poem appeared without sections and as the first of twelve untitled poems. It is currently one of the most popular poems in the collection. Whitman funded the publication of the first edition of his work. In the 1856 edition, Whitman titled his poem “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,” which he shortened to “Song of Myself” for the 1860 edition. The 1867 edition of the poem contained fifty-two numbered sections.
“Song of Myself” is a sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic meditation. Whitman uses symbols and witty commentary to get at important issues. The majority of “Song of Myself” is comprised of vignettes as opposed to lists; Whitman accomplishes his purpose through the use of small, vividly rendered scenes.
Not until the 1881 edition did this poem receive the title “Song of Myself.” Prior to that, it was titled “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,” and in the 1860, 1867, and 1871 editions, it was simply titled “Walt Whitman.” The shifting nature of the poem’s title alludes to the subject matter of this piece by Walt Whitman. As Walt Whitman, the specific individual, dissolves into the abstract “Myself,” the poem explores the potential for communion between individuals. Whitman attempts to demonstrate that he encompasses and is indistinguishable from the universe by using the premise that “what I assume, you shall assume.”
In a sense, Walt Whitman’s epic poem is an American epic. Beginning in medias res, roughly in the middle of the poet’s life, it loosely follows a quest structure. “If you don’t find me in one location, look in another,” he tells his reader. “I’m somewhere waiting for you.” In its catalogues of American life and its constant search for the limits of the self, “Song of Myself” shares many characteristics with classical epic. This epic sense of purpose, however, is accompanied by a near-Keatsian valuing of repose and passive perception. Since Whitman considers the self to be the cradle of poetry, the best way to study poetry is to relax and observe one’s own mental processes.
While “Song of Myself” is dense with information, there are three episodes that must be analysed in particular. The first is located in the sixth section of the poem. When a child asks the narrator, “What is grass?” the narrator is forced to examine his own use of symbolism and his inability to reduce things to their fundamental principles. The grass in the child’s hands becomes a symbol of the natural world’s rebirth. Grass, the ultimate symbol of democracy, grows everywhere in the United States. After the Civil War, the grass reminds Whitman of graves because it feeds on the bodies of the deceased. The natural origins of democracy lie in mortality, whether due to natural causes or internal conflict. Despite the fact that Whitman typically enjoys this type of symbolic ambiguity, he is a bit troubled by it here. “I wish I could interpret the hints,” he says, implying that the line between including everything and saying nothing is easily crossed.
The second instalment is more upbeat. The poem’s eleventh section contains the infamous “twenty-ninth bather.” In this passage, a female observes twenty-eight young men swimming in the ocean. She fantasises about joining them invisibly and describes their seminude bodies in detail. The invisible twenty-ninth bather provides a model of being comparable to that of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”: to truly experience the world, one must be fully immersed in it and a part of it, yet distinct enough from it to gain perspective, and invisible enough not to interfere with it unduly. This set of contradictory conditions aptly describes the poetic stance that Whitman seeks to adopt. This section’s lavish eroticism reinforces this notion: sexual contact enables two individuals to become one while remaining distinct; it provides a moment of transcendence. As the female observer introduced at the beginning of the section disappears and Whitman’s voice takes over, the eroticism transforms into homoeroticism. Again, this is not so much an expression of a sexual preference as it is a yearning for communion with all living things and a connection that utilises both the body and soul (although Whitman is certainly using the homoerotic sincerely, and in other ways too, particularly for shock value).
Having traversed a number of the conditions of perception and creation, Whitman reaches, in the third key episode, a point where speech becomes essential. In the twenty-fifth section, he writes, “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, / It provokes me eternally, it says sarcastically, / Walt, you contain enough, so why don’t you let it out?” Having established that he can have a sympathetic experience when interacting with others (“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person”), he must now find a way to transmit that experience without falsifying or diminishing it. Later, he vows that he will “never translate [himself] at all” because he resisted simple answers. Instead, he adopts a more rigorous philosophical stance, stating, “I strip away what is known.” Again, Whitman’s position parallels Emerson’s, who says of himself, “I am the unsettler.”
However, Whitman is a poet, so he must reassemble after unsettling: he must “let it out.” After cataloguing a continent and encompassing its multitudes, he concludes: “I too am not tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the world’s roofs of the world.” Thus, “Song of Myself” concludes with a sound that could be categorised as either prelinguistic or postlinguistic. Whitman’s yawp is the release of his “kosmos,” a sound on the verge of saying everything and nothing. The yawp is, more than anything else, an invitation to the next Walt Whitman to read into it, to have a sympathetic experience with it, and to absorb it as part of a new multitude.