Section 15, Song of Myself

Foreword

Many aspects of Whitman’s poetic form struck nineteenth-century readers as radical, but few provoked more of an outrage than what quickly came to be called his “catalogues.” We saw catalogues earlier in “Song of Myself” (indeed, as early as Section 2), but nothing prepares the reader for the seemingly endless catalogue of Section 15, the second-longest section in the poem. Here Whitman offers nearly seventy-five lines of images of people engaging in various activities. One early reviewer of the first edition of Leaves of Grass claimed that Whitman “should have been bred to the business of an auctioneer” because he was “perpetually haunted by the delusion that he has a catalogue to make.” This reviewer went on to compare long sections of Whitman’s poetry to an actual auctioneer’s catalogue. Soon, everyone was talking about Whitman’s catalogue-technique, and Whitman himself even adopted the term, noting late in his life that “some cuss my long catalogues, some think them holy.” He occasionally expressed frustration with readers who “gagged” at his catalogues: “Oh God! how tired I get of hearing that said about the ‘catalogues’!” He believed reviewers simply could not get past the catalogues: “it is that catalogue business that wrecks them all—that hauls them up short, that determines their opposition: they shudder at it.” Even Whitman’s admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented that Whitman’s “catalogue-style of poetry is easy and leads nowhere.”

When we read the shifting, random series of images in Section 15, we have a choice: we can skim quickly, as if we were on a speeding train, quickly passing by an ever-changing sequence of scenes; or we can read slowly and deliberately, as the twentieth-century poet William Carlos Williams suggested we should, pausing to savor every moment as its own potential poem. Perhaps we also hear a cacophonous music, “America singing” (as Whitman called it in another poem), with the contralto singing, the foreplane whistling, the “musical rain,” the conductor beating time, the drove singing, the clock ticking, and “the jingling of loose change.” Whatever we hear and see, and however we absorb this massive series of activities, we are particularly struck by one scene that extends over three lines and slows the catalogue down: that is the scene of the prostitute who is laughed at by the crowd as “the men jeer and wink to each other.” At this point, the poet pauses and puts a line in parentheses, as if stalling the rush of images to express a moment of disgust at the crowd’s disdain for the unfortunate woman: “(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you).” It is as if Whitman, in this catalogue of American life, is absorbing everything, accepting the nation’s wild diversity, pausing to reject just one thing: discrimination itself. The single thing that gets excluded from the multitudinous acts out of which the poet will “weave the song of myself” is any act of rejection. Life moves into the poet, and the poet moves outward into the tumultuous life around him, and all that stands in the way of democracy are small and nagging acts of discrimination.

The final three lines of this section work to pull the chaos of this vast catalog of sensory impressions into a kind of unity, and that unity is the self that has perceived them. Any single “I” has one vantage point, one set of eyes and ears that is continually absorbing the welter of sense impressions around the “I.” From that vantage point, it feels as if the world is “tending inward to me,” inclining, moving, stretching in toward the self’s eyes and ears and nose and tongue. At the same time, the “I” feels something in the self that is extending out toward the world, toward that endless stream of sights and sounds and smells. “I tend outward to them”: our senses reach out to the things of the world, always; our eyes are hungry to see, and our ears are hungry to hear. But so many things pass in front of our eyes and ears that we miss or ignore or are oblivious to, so we need also to “attend” to them, to take care to register and record them (as Whitman has done in this section with such loving care). So it is always what Whitman calls an “influx” and an “efflux,” the world incessantly whirling toward our senses, and our senses reaching out to absorb that world. And that, more or less, is what we are: we are the things we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled: “such as it is to be of these more or less I am.” No idea we have, no word we use, no love we feel, did not originate “out there.” They all entered in through our open senses, our senses which extended out to embrace them and then tended to them as we absorbed them: and out of all those endless stimuli, we each weave the unique song of our self.

Section 15

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanks- giving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm'd case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bed-room;)
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco while his eyes blurr with the manu- script;
The malform'd limbs are tied to the surgeon's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand, the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove,
The machinist rolls up his sleeves, the policeman travels his beat, the gate-keeper marks who pass,
The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him;)
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee,
As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them from his saddle,
The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their part- ners, the dancers bow to each other,
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roof'd garret and harks to the musical rain,
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron,
The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemm'd cloth is offering moccasins and bead-bags for sale,
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways,
As the deck-hands make fast the steamboat the plank is thrown for the shore-going passengers,
The young sister holds out the skein while the elder sister winds it off in a ball, and stops now and then for the knots,
The one-year wife is recovering and happy having a week ago borne her first child,
The clean-hair'd Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill,
The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer, the reporter's
         lead flies swiftly over the note-book, the sign-painter is lettering with blue and gold,
The canal boy trots on the tow-path, the book-keeper counts at his desk, the shoemaker waxes his thread,
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove sings out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser hig- gling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open'd lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries,
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms,
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change,
The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gather'd,
         it is the fourth of Seventh-month, (what salutes of cannon and small arms!)
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe,
Flatboatmen make fast towards dusk near the cotton-wood or pecan-trees,
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river or through
         those drain'd by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw,
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grand- sons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

Afterword

A poet said that at bedtime when her daughter was young she liked to read to her from Homer’s catalogue of ships, in the second book of The Iliad. I felt a pang of sorrow for the child, thinking she must have been bored by the names and virtues of all the kings and warriors, the places they set sail from, their noble deeds—and then her mother recited lines from the poem, which even in translation can stir the hard-hearted. What a gift to receive at any age: a hymn to the abundance of the world—the multiplicity that Whitman celebrates in his first long catalogue.

The trick is to read slowly, to hear the music sounding in everyone and everything. The first line, the shortest in the catalogue, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” thus tunes our ears to the key of life. We belong to a choir, whether we know it or not, and we must listen closely to all the others, in order to find our place in the score, as the carpenter shaving a plank of wood hears in the smoothing movement of his fore plane the whistle of “its wild ascending lisp,” one voice calling out to another, weaving “the song of myself,” which belongs to everyone.

William Blake invites us “To see a world in a grain of sand,” and Whitman follows that advice to the letter, discovering infinity on what- and whomever his gaze alights—people from all walks of life, the highborn and the low, the passing seasons, the white sails of a regatta. There are no passers-by in Whitman’s field of vision, no missing persons: everyone is accounted for.

Question

Whitman’s “catalogue” of people and activities is very much a product of mid-nineteenth-century America. How would the catalogue be different for your time and your culture? What would be the most characteristic and representative activities of the common people that best define your nation today?

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