Section 32, Song of Myself

Foreword

Now the poet tests out the ability he claimed for himself in the previous section, the ability to “call back” any of the other forms of life that his evolved body has absorbed on its evolutionary journey. It is as if all those forms humans have moved through, when taken together, provide a sense of wholeness of being. So the poet thinks about turning and living with animals. Taking on the patient gaze of a predator, the poet simply looks “long and long” at his animal brethren, and draws some conclusions about their differences from humans. In their ability to live fully in the present moment, to be completely “self-contain’d,” to be free of the guilt that religion brings, to be free in fact of the conception of a “God,” to be free of material possessions, to be free from a sense of the past, to be free from the notion of “unhappiness” (and thus to be naturally happy), the poet sees them as teaching him something about human happiness and about contentment in the moment in which we live. These are all attitudes Whitman has been striving, throughout the poem, to achieve, and so he feels attached to the animals, related to them, as if they carry some “token” of himself back to him, some way of being that he must have experienced “huge times ago” on his own vast evolutionary journey. Humans have lost a sense of that unity that animals seem to take for granted, and we regain the wholeness only by recalling and re-collecting those lost “tokens” of our self that animals bring to us.

As he did in the previous section, Whitman once again puts into words his dynamic evolutionary experience (“Myself moving forward then and now and forever”), as he imagines gaining velocity through eons of time, careful not to care too much or dwell too long with any stage of his vast past (“not too exclusive toward the reachers of my remembrancers”—“remembrancers” are those who revive the remembrance of anything). Whitman feels himself reaching to recover those pre-verbal, pre-human memories, even as he reminds himself not to dwell there when he accesses them, for he is of the present, not the past. But he ends by pausing for a moment with a “stallion” that once responded to his “caresses.” It’s an image of animal/human union, sensual and close, a relationship where horse and rider seem one. But this vivid recollection of animalistic being is not where the poet wants to stop; he now outpaces even the galloping stallion as he prepares for his most expansive human encounter with the vast world around him.

Section 32

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
I wonder where they get those tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?
Myself moving forward then and now and forever,
Gathering and showing more always and with velocity,
Infinite and omnigenous, and the like of these among them,
Not too exclusive toward the reachers of my remembrancers,
Picking out here one that I love, and now go with him on brotherly terms.
A gigantic beauty of a stallion, fresh and responsive to my caresses,
Head high in the forehead, wide between the ears,
Limbs glossy and supple, tail dusting the ground,
Eyes full of sparkling wickedness, ears finely cut, flexibly moving.
His nostrils dilate as my heels embrace him,
His well-built limbs tremble with pleasure as we race around and return.
I but use you a minute, then I resign you, stallion,
Why do I need your paces when I myself out-gallop them?
Even as I stand or sit passing faster than you.

Afterword

Fragrance of sage and melting snow. A spotted towhee hops along a rock, in a grove of aspens. A pika bleats. I am running, just after daybreak, on a fire road in the Wasatch Range, weary of “the talk of the beginning and the end,” the “blab of the pave” peculiar to a writers’ conference, this one held in a ski lodge. The sky is turning blue, and on this Sunday morning I wish to be free of words. I also wish it was easier to breathe this thin mountain air; and when I stop to rest I see, at the next bend, a deer—a buck with a small rack of antlers—look up from its feeding, startled. We consider each other for some moments before it bounds far up the slope to resume feeding—“placid and self-contain’d,” I decide, and continue running, my heart pounding.

In this section, Whitman neatly illustrates the division between the mind and body, first defining animals through their apparent lack of anxiety about faith, wealth, social status, then querying his relationship to them, the tokens of himself “in their possession” perhaps from long, long ago, and then describing, in loving, “brotherly terms,” a magnificent stallion, on which he will race and return, galloping beyond and back into himself, together and then alone.

I stop again, this time at an overlook from which I gaze at the jagged peaks, the valley stretching westward, the patch of Indian paintbrush at my feet. If only I had half a day to look “long and long.” But I have another panel to attend, and as I start downhill, toward the Church of Our Lady of the Snows and the lodge, I recall tokens from the animal kingdom bestowed upon me—a red fox scavenging in a parking lot in Sun Valley, with a paper cup in its mouth; the flight of a sea eagle from a cliff above the Aegean; a sluggish cobra tugged by a snake-charmer, in a market in Morocco… Rounding a corner, I come upon a pair of yearling moose, their heads bobbing up and down, snorting in surprise. They are so beautiful! And when they lope down the road, veering from side to side, bumping into each other, carefree, it seems to me, I follow them without a second thought until they scamper up into the aspens, and disappear.

~CM

Question

Many of us project human qualities onto animals, particularly our pets. Whitman seems to reverse this inclination and to find in animals the absence of bothersome qualities he finds in humans. Meanwhile, the traditional boundaries between humans and animals continue to fade with the ongoing discovery of the ways various animals engage in activities like making tools or using language. Do you think animals are becoming perceived to be more like humans, or that humans are increasingly perceived to be more like animals? Is the distinction between “human” and “animal” a function merely of our language, or is there in fact an essential difference?

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