Section 25, Song of Myself


Section 24 ended with the poet beholding the “day-break,” discerning the faint “libidinous prongs” of light that were beginning to penetrate the darkness and bring light and perception once again. Who knows, at the dawn of every day, what the day will bring? Now, in Section 25, he confronts the actual “dazzling and tremendous . . . sun-rise” itself, and he wonders how he can manage to confront this daily miracle. Whitman was always fascinated with what he called in the preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass “the curious mystery of the eyesight.” He was amazed by how, every time we open our eyes, we experience a rush of visual sensations, how every minute of the day we see endless thousands of things that we never touch but nonetheless absorb into the self. “The other senses corroborate themselves,” Whitman noted, but eyesight, he said, is “removed from any proof but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world.” We see things we will never touch, but we nonetheless know they are real, because our eyes tell us so. The eyeball is a wondrous organ: we open what Whitman called “the space of a peachpit” and suddenly things far and near, what is at our feet and in the sky, all “enter with electric swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.” Why aren’t we confused—driven mad—by the welter of images that confront us every second of the day? Whitman senses the “sun-rise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.” It is the sun within the self, the imagination, that takes in what the world offers and turns it into words or painted images or music or sculpture.

Like the inhalation and exhalation of breath, the process of perception and response is what sustains life. So, Whitman says here, “Speech is the twin of my vision,” as his words (“my voice” and “the twirl of my tongue”) reach out from him toward the world around and beyond him. Just as the sunrise brings light to all, shining equally on the large and the small, the important and the insignificant, so do the poet’s words radiate out to encompass everything, to include it all in this democratic song. We can only absorb so much through our open senses before we have to “let it out” again in whatever expression of the self we find appropriate. The eyes behold the world, but the voice re-creates it, partaking in the divine. Whitman reminds us, however, that we “can conceive too much of articulation,” for words themselves have sources even deeper within us: every self has endless buds folded within, protected from the frost, waiting to burst forth. Words can only ever reveal a small fraction of the worlds within us: we can never get the vast and mysterious self down in words, and so even this long “Song of Myself” will “refuse” to yield the poet’s “final merit,” his full worth, the vast mysteries within him—within all of us—that can never be fully explained and can only be glimpsed in the faces we encounter every day, each face a map of unexplored continents within.

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day- break.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation,
Do you not know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?
Waiting in gloom, protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things,
Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.)
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.


With the repetition of one word, O, separated in this section by six lines and three stanzas breaks, Whitman places the link between the soul and speech at the center of his project, employing a visual rhyme and his new poetic measure to reconfigure for his age and ages to come an ancient philosophical idea, equating the “worlds and volumes of worlds” on the tip of his tongue with the contours of his soul and the task of soul-making integral to the human condition. The word itself is a world encompassing worlds of experience—a sigh, a sharp intake of breath, “prophetical screams,” “the plenum of proof,” what can and cannot be articulated: O my heart!
Think how often you might say O during the course of a day—at sunrise or sunset, in the presence of great beauty or ugliness. O, we exclaim in the grip of desire, in the depths of despair, in pleasure and pain. It is a word that says everything; its reserves of meanings are inexhaustible: O, we coo and cry, sing and shout. And if one word, one letter, can say this much, think what is contained in all the words in the language—and all the languages in the world.
O yes. O no. O my.
Look at what the poet yokes together with the excision of a comma: “My knowledge my live parts.” No need to quell your curiosity: “for living things there’s no deferment,” wrote the Greek poet George Seferis. Knowledge is alive, budding and growing and flowering, creating meanings fated to be supplanted in another season of rebirth and renewal. O, I said in wonder and confusion; and when she did not respond I tallied my losses: this future or that, happiness, life. I wrote and talked, talked and wrote. Nothing raised my spirits, nothing proved me.
What did I see in your expression? What did you see in mine? O, O, O…


In this section, Whitman evokes “Happiness” as the word that comes close to “the meaning of all things,” and he encourages us to “set out in search” of it immediately. This part of the poem seems to echo one of the strangest phrases in the United States “Declaration of Independence,” where Thomas Jefferson wrote that among humans’ “inalienable rights” were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Why do Jefferson and Whitman emphasize the need to search for or pursue happiness? What does “happiness” mean in the “Declaration of Independence” and “Song of Myself”? “Happiness” is not something we are promised or guaranteed; rather, we are promised the right to “pursue” or “search” for it. Why?

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