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, as if to catch his breath after the erotic storm of the previous section, Whitman gives us the briefest section in the poem—six lines of post-coital withdrawal. The heightened sensual touch that he just finished describing now “leaves” him, and he addresses Touch once more, as its electrified energy departs from his spent body. The moments of unifying touch were so powerful—ecstatic and painful and blissful—that now the parting of two sexually charged bodies creates an “ache” of absence as the body’s “sheaths” once again cover over the sharp nerve receptors. But the “parting” is matched by a new kind of arrival, as the poet realizes that any intense touch continues to pay dividends after the ecstasy of touch is ended. Like a gentle “showering rain” that nourishes the ground after the fierce thunder and lightning have moved on, the continuing “payments” of the body that had been “loaned” (and will again and again be loaned) to another during the ecstasy of sex are indeed “rich.” So, when heightened Touch departs, the loss brings “recompense,” compensation in the form of soft fertilizing rains that allow “sprouts” to “take and accumulate,” tiny leaves of grass that will eventually become “full-sized and golden” (for Whitman, “grass” is not only the green stuff of lawns, but what he called the “manly” prairie grasses and the corn and the wheat). The entire landscape arises with stalks thrusting upward, “projected masculine” like a vast sea of erect plants reaching for the sun.
It is as if the experience of heightened sensual touch has now sexualized the entire landscape, offering another glimpse into the way that all of nature is continually about the procreant “urge and urge and urge” of desire itself (as Whitman said in Section 3). And as the poet speaks of the departure of “blind loving wrestling touch . . . leaving me,” he allows us to hear a double meaning in the phrase “leaving me”: yes, the rapturous touch has left him, but the experience of that touch is also literally “leaving” him in the sense of making him leaf, grow, speak, write, produce leaves, the Leaves of Grass that arise from his intense experience of touching the world. Words themselves—like all living things—emerge from experiences of intense touch and take form in the calming rains that follow the storm.
Now the ache of leaving, on the fast train to Samarkand, fabled city of silks and turquoise domes and the tomb of Tamerlane, whose empire stretched from India to Egypt and beyond. Abandoned factories, orchards and olive trees, families planting cotton. A horse gallops down the road. Men squat by the river flowing under the bridge. The blind storyteller seated at the window praises a love poem recited in Tashkent the night before, in the museum of Sergei Yesenin, who wrote his last poem in blood: Goodbye, my friend, goodbye...
“Parting track’d by arriving,” is how Whitman remembers the climax of his lovemaking, that blessed state of union and dispersion, which he prolongs throughout this short section with metaphors drawn first from the world of finance (“perpetual payment of perpetual loan”) and then from the abundance of nature: rain, sprouts, a field at harvest time, all offering recompense for the wound of consciousness. He knew a thing or two about the intimate connection between departures and arrivals, endings and beginnings, which he tracked with a lover’s eye.
Three couplets, three stanzas. A question (unanswered), white space, and then a sentence fragment, a stanza in the form of exquisitely balanced phrases concluding with a word that lends an elegiac air to the poem: afterward. Then more white space and the only declarative statement: ripeness is the key to this masculine landscape. But in spring, on the Silk Road, the soul may also thrill to the sight of cotton seedlings, fringed with red poppies, stretching to the horizon.
What are the most sensual landscapes you have seen, and what made them seem sensual to you?