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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.
Whitman opens his poem with a conventional iambic pentameter line, as if to suggest the formal openings of the classic epics, before abandoning metrics for a free-flowing line with rhythms that shift and respond to the moment. Instead of invoking the muse to allow him to sing the epic song of war, rage, and distant journeys, Whitman becomes his own muse, singing himself and announcing that the subject of his epic will be himself. He “celebrates” that self, and the etymology of the word “celebrate” indicates “to return to” or “to frequent.” The whole poem will be Whitman’s record of the self expanding out into the world, absorbing more and more experience, then contracting back into the self, discovering that he can contain and hold the wild diversity of experience that he keeps encountering on his journeys through the world. He sets out to expand the boundaries of the self to include, first, all fellow Americans, then the entire world, and ultimately the cosmos. When we come to see just how vast the self can be, what can we do but celebrate it by returning to it again and again?
Throughout the poem, Whitman probes the question of how large the new democratic self can become before it dissipates into contradiction and fragmentation, and each time he seems to reach the limit, he dilates even more. In the first three lines, he abandons the two main things that separate people, that create animosity, jealousy, and war—beliefs and possessions: “what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me.” At every level of our being, we are incessantly transferring and exchanging materials, ideas, emotions, affections. The atoms that yesterday composed a living cow or a growing plant today are part of us, as the eternal atoms of the universe continue their nonstop interaction and rearrangement.
It is in this way that Whitman introduces us to his two main characters, “I” and “you.” This section begins with “I” and ends with “you,” just as the entire “Song of Myself” does the same: we experience the transfer of energy from Whitman’s “I” to the “you” that we as readers learn to inhabit in this poem. It is possible to hear the “you” in “Song” as addressed to the entire nation or the entire world, and it is also possible to hear it as intimately addressed only to the individual reader in this particular moment of encounter. It is one of the most difficult words in the poem to translate, because the second-person pronoun in English is quite promiscuous: “you” is the word we use to address our most intimate lover as well as a total stranger, a single person alone with us in a room or a vast crowd. Whitman teases out all the implications of this promiscuous English pronoun that signals at once only you, a “simple separate person,” and also you, the “en masse,” the world of potentially intimate strangers who always hover around us. Translators must decide in each case whether the “you” is informal or formal, singular or plural.
The speaker of the poem “loafes” and observes “a spear of summer grass,” and the entire poem is generated in that act. Thinking of the land he grew up in and of his ancestors, he realizes that every leaf of grass is a sign of transference, like the grass that grows from graves, as the atoms of the dead arise again out of the earth and now give voice to him, forming the very tongue that will sing of his past (his organ of vocalization is literally made up of the atoms of the land he sings on and sings about). So “Song of Myself” starts us out on what the poet will call “a perpetual journey,” one that turns into an escape narrative for all readers of the poem, who need to liberate themselves from all the enslaving beliefs and possessions that prevent individual growth, who need to put “Creeds and schools in abeyance” and risk a journey that will take us beyond preconceived notions of “good” and “bad,” a journey that will allow us to confront the “original energy” of nature unchecked, nature freed of the restraints that we have all been taught to put on it.
It is said that a poem is an act of attention—to someone, something, some experience or portion of existence, grasped, imagined, or remembered—and in the first section of “Song of Myself” Whitman offers an image of the poet attending to the world, loafing (marvelous word!), leaning, opening his soul up to the world. What he observes could not be simpler, a spear of grass, and that is the point: a poem seeking nothing less than to tell the story of the universe, within and without, will begin at the atomic level, in the blood, the soil, the air, and circulate everywhere—the testament of a man determined to enlarge our imaginative capacities.
The influence of “Song of Myself” on American poetry is incalculable. The poet insists that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—words that have inspired countless poets to map new worlds. Indeed it is hard to imagine William Carlos Williams discovering “the pure products of America,” Theodore Roethke undertaking “the long journey out of the self,” or Allen Ginsburg writing “Howl” absent Whitman, not to mention the work of contemporary poets like C. K. Williams and Pattiann Rogers. We all live under the gaze of that pioneer who counsels us, in the final lines of “Song of Myself,” to look for him under our boot-soles.
A word about Whitman’s prosody: the movement from iambic pentameter in the first line to cadenced free verse in the manner of the Psalms signals his departure from traditional English versification, propelling him from the known into the unknown. He is ever traveling toward the future, from a spear of grass to the farthest star and back again, and for this journey he will need a more versatile music than he could muster in blank verse. The line that he discovered, which could accommodate an extraordinary range of subject, diction, tone, imagery, and ideas: “Nature without check with original energy.” This energy fuels his song.
"I celebrate myself"—this was the first line of the first published version of "Song of Myself," to which Whitman later added the clause, "and sing myself." How does this addition change your understanding of the poem? Why do you think Whitman made such a change?
Check out the discussion of this and many other questions about 'Song of Myself' and Walt Whitman, as part of the University of Iowa's Whitman MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course) Every Atom: Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, taught February 17 - March 29, 2014.