Section 23, Song of Myself


As Whitman contemplates the way that Time continues to unfold an ever-renewing present moment, he thinks too of how language itself unfolds through time, from humans’ first imitative utterances through rough proto-Indo-European languages to the endless series of vowel and consonant shifts, meldings, and borrowings that become the ever-changing set of languages we now recognize and speak. He is aware that when he speaks American English in the mid-nineteenth century, he is actually speaking a wondrous mix of languages. Today, we are used to the idea of etymologies—of the history of every word we speak, easily available in dictionaries—and to the ways that our words echo back to Greek and Latin and Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit roots, but for Whitman, etymology was one of the explosive new sciences that was changing the way humans viewed the past, and some of the first dictionaries that contained etymologies were published during his lifetime. He thus includes the “lexicographer”—the compiler of dictionaries—as one of the scientists he celebrates for bringing the poet “useful” facts that he can translate from dry truth into searing poetic insight. He also includes the linguists who “made a grammar of the old cartouches”—those hieroglyphic carvings on ancient Egyptian memorials that provided the key to unlocking the Egyptian language and giving humans in the nineteenth century access to a culture otherwise lost to time.

These word-scientists join the chemists and geologists and mathematicians and all the other scientists whose work was exploding open time and space, turning a small earth-centered universe created by God a few thousand years ago into a vast cosmos of tens of billions of galaxies created by an atomic “big bang” fifteen billion years ago. Suddenly, science had created time and space enough for miracles to occur—the formation of stars and solar systems and the earth itself, the slow and inexorable evolution of life into endless forms, eventually resulting in humans and in this poet, writing these words, that we (an equal result of the ongoing aftershock of that fifteen-billion-year-old explosion) now read. So this poet will “accept Reality and dare not question it” and will “accept Time absolutely,” since he knows Time and Reality are permeated with “Materialism,” defined in the dictionary that Whitman used as the doctrine that the human soul is not “a spiritual substance distinct from matter, but rather is the result or effect of the organization of matter in the body.” Reality is the way the atoms of the universe are organized and re-organized throughout Time, and Time “completes all,” Whitman says, because it contains all, accepts all, rejects nothing. Given infinite space and endless time, the possible becomes probable, the probable becomes fact, everything happens, and nothing is excluded. Masters become slaves; slaves become masters; kings become paupers; paupers become kings.

So Whitman’s words are not the “reminders” of whatever “properties” people and countries hold or possess today, because Time will change all that. His words are instead devoted to being “the reminders . . . of life untold, and of freedom and extrication,” because—given Time and given Space—everything imprisoned will be extricated. His words are dedicated not to what seems frozen in time but to what seems always possible in the malleable ever-changing Reality that Time guarantees. He is devoted to the unwritten histories of democracy to come, not to the histories that have already happened. So his poetry is dedicated not to “neuters and geldings,” to those who cannot generate new and ongoing life, but to the “fully equipt” men and women who produce new generations (and new ideas) that will continually “plot and conspire” to undo what may at the moment seem permanent and unchangeable. Whitman knows better: the “gong of revolt” is the very sound of Time, forever keeping Reality an altering, unpredictable state. This is the insight the new sciences have brought to him, and he sets out to translate those new insights into “a word of the modern,” and that word is “En-Masse”: the knowledge and faith that the living soul of the universe is operating through mass, through bodies, through materials that are ever-changing (every atom belonging to me as good belonging to you). The “gongs of revolt” sound forever through time, calling on bodies to rise en-masse to continue to undo the oppressive forms of the present.

Endless unfolding of words of ages!
And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.
A word of the faith that never balks,
Here or henceforward it is all the same to me, I accept Time abso- lutely.
It alone is without flaw, it alone rounds and completes all,
That mystic baffling wonder alone completes all.
I accept Reality and dare not question it,
Materialism first and last imbuing.
Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!
Fetch stonecrop mixt with cedar and branches of lilac,
This is the lexicographer, this the chemist, this made a grammar of the old cartouches,
These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas.
This is the geologist, this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.
Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!
Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.
Less the reminders of properties told my words,
And more the reminders they of life untold, and of freedom and extrication,
And make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipt,
And beat the gong of revolt, and stop with fugitives and them that plot and conspire.


Where is Whitman’s dwelling area—in language? In the facts of the new sciences redefining our relationship not only to Reality but Time? In the stories and reflections, individual and collective forms of grief and love, that govern the “life untold”? Language has a life of its own—“Endless unfolding of words of ages!”—which is told by this poet, whose cadences and coinages, imagery and inflections, in homage to “the faith that never balks,” the absolutes of Time and Reality, are always pointing to the “mystic baffling wonder” at the heart of existence.

Whitman praises the spirit of experimentation, the positing and testing of hypotheses; welcomes the discoveries of lexicographers, chemists, geologists, and mathematicians; identifies with mariners sailing into dangerous waters. But his heart is with the outcasts—the slaves and fugitives and plotters of rebellion, spirited men and women determined to secure their freedom at all costs. At the gate to his dwelling area “beats the gong of revolt,” which may be a single word spoken or sung at the right moment, in the right tone of voice.

Cartouches, for example, defined in Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp’s annotated edition of “Song of Myself” as “the oval ring[s] used in hieroglyphic writings to set off the characters of a royal or divine name.” They note that the study of cartouches “led to the deciphering of the hieroglyphics… [which was] one of the intellectual achievements of the age”; in this section of “Song of Myself,” one of the poetic achievements of the age, Whitman allows that he is creating a poetic system of democratic signs and reminders, another order of hieroglyphics, which each generation of readers, in America and abroad, will decode in its own fashion. His words, which tell “of freedom and extrication,” must be reinterpreted anew, sounded out tongue by tongue—a form of call and response marking the coordinates of a space where we can dwell together.


We usually think of modernism as a long battle between what C. P. Snow in the 1950s called the “two cultures”—the sciences and the humanities, each with different methodologies and different vocabularies that have hindered any real communication between them. Whitman, a hundred years earlier, seemed to be demonstrating a way the two cultures could merge: the humanist would take the scientist’s new discoveries and turn them into a meaningful human message. So Whitman shouts “Hurrah for positive science!” Have poets in your culture followed Whitman’s lead, or have they retreated from scientific discoveries and advancements? Which poets embrace scientific discovery and make poetry out of it? How successful are they?

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