Now, twenty-four sections into “Song of Myself,” Whitman finally introduces himself by name. For readers of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), where Whitman’s name did not appear on the cover or title page, this would have been the first indication of the who the author was. The effect is that this nameless voice—this “I”—that has absorbed so much in the first twenty-three sections, can now take on an actual identity, since it has accumulated a sensory past. The “I” can be given a name. And the name comes with an immediate emphasis on its local and universal connections—Walt Whitman is the “son” of New York but is in fact, like all of us, a “kosmos,” a self harmonious with the vast universe of which he knows he is an eternal part. He emphasizes his materiality, his body that eats and drinks and breeds, carrying on from previous sections his insistence that soul and voice exist only when embodied, when given mass. In this section, he sings a wondrous catalog of “the spread of my own body,” in which he evokes his sexual organs in terms of nature itself, as the natural world and the entire universe seem to be an endless set of metaphors for sexuality, desire, and the urge for procreation—from the phallic “timorous pond-snipe” with its long neck and bill, rising from its nest of “duplicate eggs,” to the “libidinous prongs” that seem to penetrate the heavens and release “seas of bright juice” in the form of constellations and nebulae. This body does indeed “spread,” not only from head to toe, but also from earth to heaven, and from self to others.
So Whitman’s voice can now speak for the local and the distant, the life around him and the life far from him. He will now “give the sign of democracy,” and his “pass-word primeval”—giving access to his voice—is a claim worthy of the democratic God, whom he invokes: “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” Calling for the tearing down of walls, even doors, barriers of all kinds, he will now invite repressed and “forbidden” and “indecent” voices to finally enter in and speak through his democratically charged voice. It is a voice that speaks for the weak and the mighty, the small and the large, the foolish and the wise, the obscene and the exalted. A cosmos is large enough to contain them all, and giving voice to the unvoiced is what “Song of Myself,” finally, is all about—finding the miraculous in dung-beetles, finding sacred renewal in sex and death, finding the holy in the body itself, where the difficult and sweaty work of the embodied flesh produces an “aroma finer than prayer,” because physical work (including the writing of this poem) brings about change in this world. Victorian morality and orthodox religion are turned on their head: the body (with its embodied soul) is what matters, not the disembodied soul. The codes of decency and morality are stripped off here, and what is revealed is pulsing, desirous, libidinous Reality itself, daring the poet to open his imagination to it.
Because it is a commonplace in literary circles to praise writers for giving voice to the voiceless, summoning in their work the timbre and inflections of the forbidden, the disenfranchised, even flora and fauna, it may be instructive to return to one origin of this impulse—Whitman’s attempt to broaden our powers of empathy, connecting one thing to another, clarifying and transfiguring the raw vitality of what is indecent, fugitive, lost. He finally names himself in this section, as an individual and a kosmos, son and lover, equal to all and inspired by all: “the afflatus surging and surging, through me the current and index”—the drift of conversation, the contents of a book, the conduit of water and electricity. Everything in the universe, from dung beetles to the stars, has a voice for which he is a vessel, “each part and tag of [which] is a miracle.” Everything he touches or is touched by is holy—and the same holds for you and me.
What is “the pass-word primeval, the sign of democracy”? Desire, which binds us to one other, and to the world. The centerpiece of his argument is thus an erotic hymn to the self, the other, and all of creation—sweet-flag and pond-snipe and sun. “It shall be you,” he cries fourteen times in a single stanza, his urgency overcoming any sense of decorum, his exclamation points arriving line by line, a little breathlessly, as if to prolong his joy in the moment—and ours…
The taste of the air after a night of love is enough for the poet returning to his house at daybreak to know that there is more to metaphysics than what may be found in any text or creed, including “Song of Myself.” His tongue will turn that taste into a voice, which summons us.
Which poets in your culture have used their voice to give voice to “forbidden voices”? What has made those voices forbidden? Has such poetry had an impact on your culture?