In this section, Whitman tells us what all the “talkers” he has heard over the years have always said. These talkers—whether philosophers or politicians or pundits or preachers—always “talk of the beginning and the end,” birth and death, how all of life should be categorized and partitioned into separate and exclusive areas. All the words Whitman uses in this section (and the previous one) to characterize this kind of speech—“talk” and “discuss” and “reckon”—have in their etymological roots the sense of splitting, carving up, putting in columns, breaking up. Whitman distinguishes himself from these talkers: “I do not talk of the beginning or end.” The speaker of “Song of Myself” is out to celebrate “now,” the fragile moment of life, of the present, always the only moment in which we live. His fourfold repetition of “now” emphasizes the “here and now,” the moment Whitman wrote the poem and the moment we read it.
Whitman rejects division, separation, and hierarchy and instead celebrates “the knit of identity,” the ways we are literally comprised of differences, born of mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers before them, who were themselves composed of the atoms of the world in continual flux, a flux that now produces each of us. Our “distinction” is always a result of this knitting, this “breed of life,” this “procreant urge” of “sex” that brings together individuals again and again to produce new individuals—individuals who should never forget the endless knitting of the world that produced them. Even the apparent division between body and soul is an illusion, Whitman says, for only in the knit of body and soul is identity formed: “Lack one lacks both.” Today we have material bodies and are the “seen,” but someday we will not have bodies and will become “the unseen.” When we are “unseen,” we will still receive “proof” of our existence by the new bodies that have emerged from the “procreant urge” of “now.” We the living are the “proof” of the generations of the dead who produced us. There is no “beginning” and “end”: birth and death are just misleading words that divert us from realizing the ongoing nature of life, the endless process of composting that does not distinguish birth from death. In the ongoing moment of “now,” everything exists and nothing ends.
So Whitman rejects all the attempts to divide the world into “beginnings” and “ends,” into “the best” and “the worst,” into good and evil. Instead, he mutes all the talking and discussing and decides to “go bathe and admire myself,” to celebrate the brief but eternal moment of “now” that he inhabits (there will always and only be a “now”). The “hugging and loving bed-fellow” that sleeps at Whitman’s side was, in the original version of “Song of Myself,” identified as “God.” God is, for Whitman, an affectionate companion who, each morning, leaves him baskets of surprise, pregnant with possibilities. Every day, every “now,” is a basket of possibility, yet so many of us “scream at [our] eyes” not to see this gift and to waste our moments of “now” by “ciphering” and dividing and accounting and chasing false value, mistaking money for happiness, mistaking accounting for living.
“I and this mystery here we stand,” Whitman declares exactly midway through the third section. The line serves as a hinge between his discovery of the force of desire, “the procreant urge of the world,” and his delight in a lover, who leaves at dawn. What is this mystery? The eternal now, “a knit of identity,” which unites self and other, the past and the future, words and worlds. Consider what the poet achieves with one small word, here, which functions in this line as a noun (this place), an adjective (modifying mystery, which is beside and all around him), and an adverb (in this particular case). Even different parts of speech can bind one thing to another, according to Whitman, for the mystery of existence, at once solid and fluid, incorporating here and there, the living and the dead, the unborn and the unrealized, is an essay in connecting. He stands here with all that is and all that is not: an unpunctuated phrase containing the sum of everything.
“Lack one lacks both,” another unpunctuated phrase lodged in the aural memory of many poets, enacts in four stressed syllables the wedding of two souls, like and unlike, which governs the shape, the dream, of “Song of Myself.” What he experiences in the dark, in the presence of God or the beloved, is the underlying unity of existence—a vision of eternity vaster than heaven and hell. The lover leaving at dawn is thus a figure not of fleeting pleasure but of the mysterious ways in which emptiness leads to plenitude: baskets covered with white towels.
Who are the “talkers” and “discussers” who want to divert our attention from the fullness of the present moment? Is it ever possible to shut them out so that we can fully focus on the moment of “now”?