There are several places in Whitman’s notebooks from the early 1850s where we can see the original stirrings of “Song of Myself.” One particularly evocative place is in the so-called Talbot Wilson notebook, where Whitman hesitatingly inscribes a whole new kind of speaking. Breaking into the kind of free-verse lines in which he would cast Leaves of Grass, he offers a wild attempt to voice the full range of selves in his contradictory nation: “I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves,” he writes; “I am the poet of the body /And I am.” Whitman pauses at this point, then starts again: “I am the poet of the body / And I am the poet of the soul / I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters /And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, / Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.” This amazing originating moment of Leaves of Grass reveals that at its inception Leaves was not an “abolitionist” work, at least not in the conventional sense of that term, for in abolitionist works the slave is pitted against the demonized slavemaster, and the irresolvable dichotomies of the nation are intensified. Whitman instead probes for a voice that reconciles the dichotomies, a voice inclusive enough to speak for slave and slavemaster—or that negotiates the distance between the two.
This is the beginning of Whitman’s attempt to become that impossible representative American voice—the fully representative voice—that speaks not for parties or factions but for everyone in the nation, a voice fluid enough to inhabit the subjectivities of all individuals in the culture. So Whitman in these early notes identifies the poles of human possibility—the spectrum his capacious poetic voice would have to cover—as it appeared to him at mid-nineteenth century: from slave to master of slaves. His dawning insight had to do with a belief that each and every democratic self was vast and contradictory, as variegated as the nation itself, and so the poet had to awaken the nation, to bring Americans out of their lethargy of discrimination and hierarchy to understand that, within themselves, they potentially contained—in fact potentially were—everyone else. The end of slavery would come, Whitman believed, when the slave-owner and the slave could both be represented by the same voice, could both hear themselves present in the “I” and the “you” of the democratic poet, when the slavemaster could experience the potential slave within himself, and the slave could know the slavemaster within himself, at which moment of illumination slavery would end. By the time Whitman first put this voice into print in 1855, though, the nation was only five years away from discovering how fully the forces of division and violence would overpower the fading hopes of unity and absorption of difference.
It is a powerful passage, but what is perhaps most striking about it is that Whitman cancels out the first part of it in his notebook, drawing a diagonal line through it, and the only lines from the passage that finally make their way into “Song of Myself” are “I am the poet of the body / And I am the poet of the soul.” Whitman’s radical evocation of a joining of slave and slavemaster is erased, though it appears to be the very source of the key statement of “Song of Myself.” It is as if claiming the power to voice the extreme subject positions of American society—the slave and slave owner, black and white—somehow opened for him the way to speak both the body and the soul in a single unifying voice. Whitman originally learned to absorb dichotomies by confronting and speaking for America’s most troubling bifurcation: black and white. America’s tortured racial history, then, stands at the very conception of “Song of Myself,” and here allows him to collapse all the other distinctions—heaven and hell, male and female—that divide and categorize humans. And this mystical sense of a self larger than all attempts to divide it now frees the poet to “dilate,” to widen himself to the point that he can imagine making love to the entire world, to the earth and sea and the night that holds them. Once released from the old discriminations, nothing is too large for the “unspeakable passionate” desires of this democratic poet.
The poet of the body, hailed in the previous section as “hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” now promises to “translate into a new tongue” not only the pleasures and pains of the afterlife but the experience and wisdom of women as well as men. Union is the theme—of lovers, of earth and sea, of darkness and light—and in the magnetic field of this poem attraction is everything. Night draws near, nourishing the imagination, and the slumbering earth wakens to clarify for the poet the idea that we are in a race not against time but toward the recognition that we live in an eternal present, in which one thing calls out to another. There are no winners or losers in this jumble of activity, this union of like and unlike, only increase and affect. Everyone will arrive at the finish line, which is also the starting line, at his or her appointed time—which is now.
Enter the Prodigal Son. In a reversal of the New Testament parable he bestows his love on the God-like poet, who responds in kind; their “unspeakable passionate love” reminds us that in Whitman’s conception of the universe nothing is forbidden—even if in later editions of the poem he excised the explicit couplet with which the first version concluded: “Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!/ We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.” This painful knowledge is the prerequisite for the poet becoming a vessel, three sections hence, of all “the long dumb voices,” past, present, and future, which he will summon onto the stage of his democratic imagination—which in time will become ours. Listen up.
What does Whitman mean when he says “I show that size is only development”? In this section, the poet wants to “dilate,” to expand, until he is large enough to imagine the earth itself as a lover. What goes into the “development” that is necessary for this kind of dilation of the self to take place? Does it help to know that “develop” comes from etymological roots meaning to “unveil,” “unwrap,” or “reveal”?