As we enter the last one-fifth of the poem, Whitman summons up his voice for the climax, like an opera singer preparing for the final aria. It is “a call in the midst of the crowd,” a voice launched among the “folks around me.” Whitman is always concerned with the persistent democratic problem of the individual and the community, the one and the many, what he called “the simple separate person” and the “En-Masse.” The secret of democratic success is in the negotiation of the always shifting emphasis on one person’s rights and the rights of all, and this negotiation is closely tied to the problem of how we maintain our single separate identity when we fully empathize with all others. That is why Whitman is always emphasizing the empathic self, an “I” that can see in itself the potential to be everyone else in the culture, that can sense within the individual self the variety of selves visible in the nation. Each one of us, Whitman suggests, is a “United States,” an identity composed of many different identities, discordant voices, varied moods, conflicting ideas. So the poet imagines his voice rising above the chorus but in harmony with it, speaking to and for “the crowd,” who surround him and help define him: he is not just talking about his intimates but those who are strangers (those many “folks” who are “no household of mine”).
Whitman creates, with his repeated “Ever,” a sense of the eternal recurrence and change that he has observed and celebrated throughout the poem: life goes on, people are born and people die, and yet there are “ever” the same “eaters and drinkers,” the same “inexplicable” questions that generation after generation keeps asking and never answering, the same gnawing desires (“that breath of itches and thirsts”), the same wickedness and goodness, the same love, the same death: it’s all one flowing “liquid of life,” moving like a river that is from day to day an entirely different river (the waters have changed completely) and yet the same river. “My head slues on my neck,” the poet says, capturing the always shifting and turning perspective of this poem, its lines like eyes and ears that are continually changing focus and direction.
Reminding us again of how “Song of Myself” is primarily an urban poem, Whitman gives us the perfect lines about being a single self among many: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,” whose impressions and interests all intersect and overlap, potentially creating a democratic oneness of experience. The poet thus gives us his strongest protest against inequitable distribution of wealth in the society (his own times, especially in the years following the Civil War, created a disparity in wealth that has only recently been equaled in our own era of economic and social policies favoring Wall Street and the wealthy). His attack is not so much on economic injustice as on the harmful effects of the love of money on everyone, rich and poor. No one has access to the feast, to the pleasures of the world, because everyone (wealthy and impoverished) sees price tags and exchange values. Whitman gives us a proto-zombie scene of the city of the walking dead, with dimes on their eyes (coins were placed on the eyes of the dead to keep the eyes closed, but these walking dead seem to actually have coins for eyes, coins in their eyes). A money obsession creates a death-in-life, creates a wealthy few who feed their greed by “spooning” out their brains, who claim far more than they can use at the expense of the many who labor hard but get little in return as they turn their lives into dead routine. But the poet sees himself in even these “little plentiful manikins.” Just as, in his original notes for “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote that he would be “the poet of slaves and masters of slaves,” so will he be the poet of the poor and the rich, trying to open all eyes to the insanity of unjust power hierarchies like slave and master, rich person and pauper. The rich and poor, the masters and slaves, all have bodies; they all have desires; they all live this life, and the poet’s “omnivorous lines” will “fetch” them all “flush with myself.”
So Whitman ends this amazing section with a catalog of external forms—books, photographs, ships, houses—and powerfully reminds us that they are all external forms of living, breathing, embodied humans. We tend to focus on things, products, instead of on the living bodies that produced them. The poet reminds us of the way that every product points us, nudges us, back to the life and labor that made it. Too often, we focus on the signs, objects, re-presentations, but not on the life that gives every sign and representation meaning. We look up and away—to the sky, to the past (“saints and sages in history”), to the abstract (“sermons, creeds, theology”)—when we should be looking down and into the real and the actual. His poem, he promises, is not about becoming a beautiful thing but rather is about fetching what sits behind the words (the embodied poet) and what sits above them (the embodied reader) and creating a magical sense of bodies “flush” with each other: the poet and “you whoever you are.”
The poem as an extended articulation of questions that vex the individual: on the meaning of life, on the nature of love, on the prospect of the hereafter. “Not words of routine this song of mine,” Whitman explains in this section, “But abruptly to question.” He invites us to wonder what lies at the heart of a book, a photograph, a warship; what he finds are human beings whose motives, exertions, boredom, resentment, courage, and fear fuel every enterprise, for good or ill. Not for him the ivory tower. He looks into everything, because everything interests him: “politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools,/ The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.” Received opinion he interrogates as fiercely as the wisdom of the ages; what his gaze lights on he turns over in his mind until it can be translated into a language to plumb the depths of “the fathomless human brain.”
Near the end of his life, Whitman told admirers that his intent in Leaves of Grass was “to thoroughly equip, absorb, acquire, from all quarters, despising nothing, nothing being too small—no science, no observation, no detail—west, east, cities, ruins, the army, the war (through which I was)—and after all that consigning everything to the personal critter.” To his voice, that is, “orotund sweeping, and final,” which calls to us from the crowd, interrupting our routines, our ways of being, challenging us to see both near and far, what is at hand and what remains hidden from view, celebrating our achievements and our waywardness. He sings of our attempts to make sense of our lives, as well as our refusal to take responsibility for our actions; of persistence and failure; of the sea and the sky. Why are we here? Good question.
Take any product you have purchased in the past few weeks and try writing out what you imagine to be the lives—the living bodies—of those who produced it. What path did your money take after you handed it to the cashier? What lives did it help enhance or help destroy?