Note: The recently added Arabic, Malay, and Polish versions can also be found 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.
Now Whitman explores what it feels like to touch, to really touch. The twentieth-century poet Karl Shapiro called this section “one of the greatest moments of poetry,” as Whitman takes us through a shimmering cascade of sensual images that are at once sexually explicit and maddeningly vague. Every moment of touch, Whitman suggests, “quivers us to a new identity,” as our sense receptors respond to the provocative stimuli of the world that are constantly redefining who we are as we feel the flames of sensual contact rush through our veins. This passage has been read as a description of homosexual passion, masturbation, and/or heterosexual intercourse. The vagueness creates a charged sexual field in which any act of intense touch can be imagined. When touch is fully activated, the “fellow-senses” slide away, and we give ourselves over to the charged interpenetration of body with body. We can never be quite sure who the “prurient provokers” are who “stiffen my limbs” and “graze at the edges of me,” like mouths devouring the very edges of identity. We sense that the other body so completely in touch with our own “is hardly different from myself”: the moment is simultaneously mystical and physical, as touch allows us a glimpse of being that seems out-of-body precisely because it has so fully heightened the sensitivity of every inch of our flesh to a body not our own.
Whitman captures the way that intense erotic experience creates sensations of torture and rapture, as if we are dying in the most heightened moment of living. The “prurient provokers” are described as “straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,” and this wildly conflated image genitalizes the heart (just as in Section 5), merging the conventional seat of emotions with the sexual organs. The male phallic imagery here is rendered, surprisingly, in female nurturant terms, as the “udder” is squeezed until it releases its milk or semen. We seem to be slipping between metaphor and metonymy here: the heart is not so much a metaphor for the penis as it is part of a metonymic system, a circuit of excited blood pumped from the heart to the stiffening sexual organ and, through capillaries webbed throughout the body, to the surface of the eroticized skin. There’s a reason the heart beats faster during sex.
The sexual excitement brings the poet finally to “a headland,” to a precipice over a vast ocean, to the point where the solid land meets the liquid sea, where the body confronts dissolution, where whatever protective devices we have for the self (our “sentries”) “desert” us and leave us “helpless to a red marauder.” Whatever this “red marauder” is (an engorged sexual organ?, a wild Indian?, any blood-drenched pillager?), the body is helpless to defend itself, and the poet experiences himself taken over. It is as if the body—which normally defines us and protects our boundaries, distinguishing what is “me” from what is “not me”—has betrayed us, has become a “traitor.” Just as in Section 26, when the poet felt himself lose his breath when he was overwhelmed by the opera , so now the poet feels his breath “tight in its throat,” as if he is about to die into this moment of ecstasy, ready to surrender himself to this invasion of his body as touch threatens to open the “floodgates” and allow the invading stimuli to engulf it. Seldom has language taken us on such an intimate journey through the familiar and yet miraculous experience of sexual touch.
The sentries on the headland, bearing witness to the tribulations of a man caught up in the throes of passion—who or what are they? These vivid figures from Whitman’s erotic imagination, this herd of animal spirits leading him to a lover or to himself, these provokers (within and without) who betray with kisses and caresses, unmask the poet, “quivering [him] to a new identity.” He is carried off on a surge of feeling to an imagined promontory by the sea, and there, “helpless to a red marauder,” he becomes everyone and no one. Ah, touch… How easily we are deceived! How we long for the villainous pleasures of human contact, even with the sentries keeping watch—the inhibitions, personal and collective, that stand in the way of our true happiness.
Among the more provocative statements made by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was his claim, in a review-essay on Constantine Cavafy, that ninety per cent of the best lyric poetry is written post-coitum—a figure derived, presumably, from his experience, reading, and, perhaps, the anecdotal evidence of his friends. (Hard to imagine devising, much less filling out, a survey that would generate reliable data on the work habits of poets!) In this section Whitman seems to be writing in the immediate aftermath of sex, if not in the act itself; hence the mélange of strange images—flesh and blood transformed into lightning, the udder of his heart, his senses grazing at the edges of the self. For his “Song of Myself” now requires the dissolution of the self, the union and scattering of its atoms over the sentries, the headland, and the sea—la petit mort, the French euphemism for orgasm: the little death. I is everywhere.
Is the experience of touch that Whitman describes here specific enough that you can relate it to particular experiences you have had? Or is it general enough that it could describe virtually any intense experience of touching someone or something? Which of his images do you find particularly evocative and why?