Section 17, Song of Myself

Foreword

In this very brief section, Whitman continues the contraction of his poem from the long catalogue two sections earlier. Now he offers a simple and straightforward claim: everything he has said in the poem up to this point is “not original with me” but rather has been thought by “all men in all ages and lands.” What is original with him is the articulation of these commonplace thoughts: we all have thought these things, but only the poet expresses them. That is the nature of poetry—to make us suddenly aware of something we knew at some level before but only now have experienced it in language. . Whitman goes on to insist that, if “Song of Myself” is to be successful, it has to actually and fully enter your mind, to read as if you yourself are thinking the thoughts that the poet is expressing. The magic of any powerful poem is that the distance between the reader and the author evaporates: the Walt Whitman who wrote this poem may be 150 years removed from us, and we may be reading him thousands of miles from where he wrote these words, but—in the act of reading—the thoughts come to seem “just as close as they are distant.” We all inhabit bodies, form minds, and the poet’s body and mind, though physically gone, are palpable in the words that his body put on paper and that our bodies ingest through the hands and eyes and ears, carrying mind to mind. Without that confluence, there are only dead words, ink on an unread page; with it, things literally come to mind.

The final two lines of this section continue Whitman’s answer to the child’s question that he began in Section 6: What is the grass? Here, it is that which grows everywhere and equally, like the “common air that bathes the globe.” Breathe in these thoughts, these images, the poet whispers; they are your experience as much as mine. They are the grass; they are the air.

Section 17

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

Afterword

Prophets in the Old Testament were said to be vessels for the divine, God-fearing individuals who recorded imperatives and wisdom delivered from on high; in this short section Whitman aligns his work with the wisdom tradition at the heart of Western civilization, declaring himself to be a medium for the “thoughts of all men in all ages and lands.” There is nothing original in his poem, he insists, beyond his having made himself available to “the riddle and the untying of the riddle” of existence—open, that is, to receiving from the grass underfoot and “the common air that bathes the globe” enduring messages about our place in the universe. If Wordsworth’s Prelude begins with the proposition that an account of the growth of one poet’s mind will yield universal meaning, Whitman takes the opposite view: what he finds everywhere may be found by each and every reader—indeed depends upon the reader’s active relationship to the text: the reader is his fellow explorer, now and in ages to come.

“The proof of a poet,” Whitman wrote in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His regret in his last years that his countrymen did not fully appreciate his catalogues, his calls to their better selves, reflects not only vanity (though vanity played a role) but another truth: “no prophet is accepted in his own country,” Jesus said—and Whitman’s blurring of poetic and prophetic discourses complicated his reception. He wanted to have it both ways. But the readership he yearned for lay in the future, as it always will, and now some readers find in his poem the same mixture of aesthetic pleasure, political insight, and spiritual instruction that others seek in the Psalms of David, the suras of the Qur’an, and prayers in every religious tradition: “this is the true sustenance…”

Question

Whitman says all the thoughts in his poem are “the riddle and the untying of the riddle.” What riddles has Whitman offered us so far, and what solutions has he suggested?

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