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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.