Note: The recently added Arabic, Malay, and Polish versions can also be accessed via the drop-down lists in Sections 1-52 .
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is the great American epic poem and has often been read as the poem that best captures the tensions and conflicting qualities that define what we might call the “American democratic self.” [click to expand/collapse for more]
Whitman originally published the poem in 1855 and then revised it five times over the next twenty-five years, changing its title from “Leaves of Grass” to “Poem of Walt Whitman, An American” and then just “Walt Whitman” before settling on “Song of Myself” in 1881. Over the years, he added and deleted lines, changed punctuation, altered words, and sectioned the poem in different ways. The final version of the poem, which we reprint here, is the version that most translators have used as they have translated the poem into numerous languages from around the world. As the poem has taken on new life in other languages, it has been read less as a distinctly “American” poem and more as a universal evocation of a human self searching for definition in a quickly changing world.
Whitman wrote at a time that geological, evolutionary, and astronomical science were exploding open long held notions about time and space—the history of the earth suddenly was being told in terms of billions rather than thousands of years, and the earth itself seemed to drifting from the center of the universe to a tiny and insignificant outpost on the fringes of a vast galaxy that was itself a speck in the ever increasing vastness that scientific inquiry was opening up. While many writers shrank from this unsettling diminishment of human significance, Whitman embraced it and turned the lesson around: humans, he said, could now—for the first time—see themselves as part of something far more gigantic and sublime than could ever before have been imagined. He welcomed all the new knowledge science was bringing, and he made poetry out of it.
The new vastness aided Whitman in his goal of creating a truly democratic voice, one that could embrace diversity and endless variety, one that could imagine itself as a “kosmos.” He sought in “Song of Myself” to voice an “I” that would for the first time articulate just what a non-hierarchical and nondiscriminating sensibility would sound like. He was not speaking in his poem as the Walt Whitman of the mid-1850s but rather as a Whitman projected far into a more perfectly realized democratic future. He was teaching his readers how to think and speak democratically, in a freer and looser idiom, in a more conversational and less formal tone, in an absorptive and even indiscriminate way. He achieved an uncanny combination of oratory, journalism, and the Bible—haranguing, mundane, and prophetic—all in the service of identifying an emerging new democratic attitude, an accepting voice that would catalog the diversity of the country and the world and manage to hold it all in a vast, single, unified identity: “I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.” This new voice spoke confidently of union at a time of deep division and tension in American culture, only five years short of the outbreak of the Civil War, and it spoke with the assurance of one for whom everything, no matter how degraded, could be celebrated as part of itself: “What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me.” His work echoed the lingo of the American urban working class and took pride in an American language that was forming as a tongue distinct from British English.
These qualities of “Song of Myself” make it a particularly challenging poem to translate, since many of Whitman’s locutions are regional, slangy, and idiosyncratic. Still, the overall force of Whitman’s words is palpable in any language, and many translators from languages around the world have taken up the formidable challenge of moving Whitman into a new tongue.
So, here at the end, how does the poet extract himself from this poem that we have been immersed in for hours, days, months, years? How does Whitman say goodbye? As we might expect, he pulls off one of the great disappearing acts in all of literature: he begins, before our eyes, to “depart as air,” to be coaxed “to the vapor and the dusk,” to “effuse” his flesh “in eddies,” and generally to dissipate into the landscape, where we will find him nowhere and everywhere, growing from the grass he loves, composted into the dirt beneath our “boot-soles.” Every atom belonging to him now as well belongs to us and to the living world around us. He is part hawk, yawping his untranslatable yawp “over the roofs of the world”; he is part of the quickly passing clouds (the “scud”), part of the shadows—part of our very bodies, filtering and giving fiber to our blood. (Where, after all, does our body come from? It is, the poet reminds us here once again, a continually changing organization of materials from the far reaches of the earth, from the far reaches of the cosmos.) So we experience one final Whitmanian catalog, as “I” cascades down the left margin of the page, each time dissolving into the “untranslatable” materials of the world—the air, the sun, the eddies, the “jags,” the dirt, the grass, and finally the “you” that the poem leaves us with.
As “untranslatable” as the hawk’s cry, Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” leaves us with an echo in the air, with a fading twilight, and with grass under our feet. The poet seems to be taunting future translators, like all of those represented here on the WhitmanWeb, who quickly discover the impossibility of moving into another language the vast and intricate web of images and words that is “Song of Myself.” But when Whitman says “I too am untranslatable,” he is also thinking about how the “I,” the self, is finally not translatable from one set of materials to another (“translate,” in its roots, means to carry over from one state to another). As the body decomposes, the self dissipates along with it, all its memories and ideas and thoughts effusing and departing like the materials of the body that gave the self identity: our sights and hearings and touches all vaporize back into the things that generated those sights and sounds and touch—effusing, pouring out, into the world from which they derived, released from the eyes and ears and brain and fingertips, from the bodily network of nerves (what Whitman elsewhere calls “the body electric”) that gives us what we experience as “identity.”
Meanwhile, Whitman—while he was alive and embodied—discovered he could “drift” himself into the “lacy jags” of print (in another poem, Whitman called printed words “those upright lines,” “those curves, angles, dots”), leaving behind this poem, with its curled and jagged letters forming words, forming ideas, forming images. His poem, then, has become another kind of embodiment, the body of work that Whitman has left us, has poured himself into, and that now always stops waiting for us. Without us, it is just a mass of silent lacy jags and dots and curves, but with us (presently embodied humans), those jots and inked letters become voiced, alive again. Just as Whitman’s body is now recycled into endless other bodies—of plants, of people, of animals, of air and soil—so his words are recycled by an endless stream of readers into continually fresh illumination. The poet’s decayed body grew into leaves of grass, and his left-behind words grew into Leaves of Grass. His “I,” at the very end, is given over entirely to “you,” to make of it what you will.
Another constitutional crisis has passed, and Effigy Mounds National Monument, in northeastern Iowa, has reopened. A guide recites a history of the Native Americans who lived along the Upper Mississippi River: how they hunted and fished, gathered berries and nuts, fashioned tools, sang and danced. In the woods and on the bluff are hundreds of mounds, some in the shapes of birds and bears, others rising from the ground in domes, long straight lines, or a combination of the two—a visible record of 10,000 or more years of human habitation of this land. Indians built these mounds to bury their dead, appease the spirits, and maintain harmony with the earth, river, and sky. Inexplicably, they stopped mound-building sometime in the fourteenth century. Perhaps new tribes moved into the area, with different ideas about how to celebrate the lives of those who had passed on, ward off catastrophe, and keep the peace. No one can say for sure.
I am walking this sacred ground with poets and writers from around the world, discussing the spirit of the place, the history of human migration, the civil war in Syria, the short stories of Alice Munro, a first novel accepted for publication, the clouds building to the west, a barge on the river: call it the literary “blab of the pave.” I have in mind a map tracing the routes by which men and women left their homes in Africa to settle Europe and Asia, Australia and the Americas, bearing their stories, songs, and rituals to the distant reaches of the earth, binding us together in a web of connections, artistic, cultural, and social, not to mention the very physical makeup of our bodies. These intrepid spirits are part of who I am, carried in my genes; the pleas and petitions that I make to God and the beloved; the trees, river, and sky that inform my walk in the sun. My foot lodges in a hole covered by leaves, near a burial mound, and it occurs to me that I may have twisted my knee here long ago. Maybe the consequences were dire then. Did my comrades leave me behind for the start of the hunt? Did they bury me with a bird-boned awl?
These reflections, these improvisations on the origins of American poetry, have but one design: to draw you closer to me, not in “the bitter hug of mortality,” but mindful of Whitman’s belief that death unites us, just as we are united on this page, however briefly. This journey does not end. I too will “stop somewhere waiting for you.”
In almost all copies of the first edition of “Song of Myself” (1855), the period at the very end of the poem is missing; only the first few copies off the press had the period, and then the loose piece of type fell off. For a century and a half, readers believed that this absence of a period was an intentional omission by Whitman. If we read the poem with no period at the end, how does that change the way we respond to Whitman’s final words?