Section 3, Song of Myself

Foreword

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.

–EF

Section 3

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through
         the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover'd with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?

Afterword

“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.

—CM

Question

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”?

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