Section 10, Song of Myself

Foreword

After Section 8 took us on a cacophonous urban journey—with omnibuses and snow-sleighs and ambulances and carts—and Section 9 took us on a peaceful rural hayride, Section 10 takes us on a series of imaginative journeys to America’s western wilds, to the sea, and, eventually, to a stop on the underground railroad that formed a pathway to freedom for escaped slaves. The “I” of the poem is now moving beyond the actual experiences of Walt Whitman, who at the time he wrote “Song of Myself” never had gone hunting in the “wilds and mountains,” never had been on a “Yankee clipper,” never had experienced the “marriage of a trapper . . . in the far west” to an American Indian woman, and never had housed a runaway slave. But Whitman wants his poetic “I” to have experienced the breadth of the continent, so he uses stories he has heard and paintings he has seen (like Alfred Jacob Miller’s “The Trapper’s Bride”) to expand the range of his experiences. Imaginative expansion, after all, is not less real than actual experience: fantasy is, in fact, one way we allow ourselves to experience what it would be like to escape rules and expected behavior, and Whitman provides us with the means to join him in widening the scope of our experiences and broadening our beliefs. As he describes looking from the sailing vessel (the “clipper”) through the wind-blown mist (the “scud”), Whitman says “My eyes settle the land.” His eyes at this point are trying to make out the distant land through the mist and motion, and thus to steady his vision, but all through this section he is also using his eyes to “settle the land” in another sense—to occupy the continent from city to country, from the east to the west, from the south to the north, to put the land in democratic order by stretching its boundaries.

Whitman thus begins in this section to record the crossing of social and cultural boundaries in the United States. Social commentators like the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840s had observed that there were “three races in America”—the white, red, and black—and that they had distinctly different qualities that kept them separate from each other. But Whitman offers here two scenes of racial mixing, as the white trapper marries a Native Indian woman, who is described as “voluptuous,” and then the “I” welcomes a “runaway slave” into his house, gives him clothes, bathes him and nurses him, and has “him sit next me at table,” keeping his gun nearby to protect the slave from slave-catchers. The intimacy of both scenes emphasizes the physical nature of the joining, an interracial touching, that goes beyond the mere stating of respect for the racial “other.” We can feel in these scenes the redemptive qualities of transgressing social boundaries, as Whitman continues to emphasize the need to absorb diversity, to overcome discriminations that we may have been taught, to recognize the deep identities we all share: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Just as the “big doors” of the barn in Section 9 stood open to accept the fall harvest of leaves of grass, so now does the narrator’s “half-door of the kitchen” swing open to reveal its interior to the escaped slave as both men discover the rich harvest of overcoming bias and discrimination, even as the gun in the corner serves as a reminder that such crossings and joinings are always potentially dangerous.

EF

Section 10

Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-kill'd game,
Falling asleep on the gather'd leaves with my dog and gun by my side.
The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud,
My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout joyously from the deck.
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck'd my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly
         smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his
         luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight
         locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach'd to her feet.
The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and bruis'd feet,
And gave him a room that enter'd from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass'd north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean'd in the corner.

Afterword

Invention comes to the fore in this section, the poet creating a series of fictions to tell a difficult truth—that his celebration of the self includes everyone, regardless of race, identity, or place in society. The novelist Ron Carlson has remarked that he always writes from personal experience, whether he has had it or not, and this fiction-making guides Whitman’s imaginings of a hunting party, a sea voyage, a clam dig, a trapper’s marriage to an Indian girl, a drama with an escaped slave. His vignettes are not less powerful than the testimony of his senses, because he chooses to highlight details that seem to come straight from life—“the sparkle and scud” of the Yankee clipper at sail, the trowser-ends tucked into his boots, the “coarse clean locks” of the Indian girl and the “coarse clean clothes” (marvelous echo!) of the fugitive slave. The more dazzling the invention, the more it must be grounded in believable particularity.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” said Emily Dickinson. “Success in circuit lies.” Poetic invention is a circular form of truth-telling, which Whitman employs at critical moments in the poem, often to extend his democratic self into new political terrain. Behind a mask the poet may speak more plainly. (It is no accident that among the heteronyms devised by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was a Whitman-like character, Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd, “a mystic, but only of the body,” who sang Nature in the same full-throated voice as the American bard.) In poetic monologues and portraits of real and imaginary historical characters we discover what Dickinson called “the truth’s superb surprise.” But danger lurks when the poet is inventing. No wonder Whitman keeps his fire-lock nearby. There is always someone at the door.

~ CM

Question

Whitman gives us three lines about going out to look for clams and then sharing clam chowder with the group of men. What is the effect of Whitman’s invoking the reader at the end of this short scene and telling us: “You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle”?

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