In Section 15, we experienced a seemingly endless “catalog” of images, but Section 33 makes that catalog seem modest by comparison. In by far the longest section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman now reminds us of how, for him, the world was a kind of pre-electronic database. His early notebooks and notes are full of lists of particulars—sights and sounds and names and activities—that he dutifully enters into his personal record. In one of those early notebooks, he enjoins himself: “Data, all-comprehensive and to be pursued as far into details and to as full information as any one will.” He was an early practitioner of a genre we are increasingly familiar with: the database itself. As we read this catalog, we can see how it indicates and imitates an endless database, and how it suggests a process that could continue for a lifetime. These cascading lines hint at the massiveness of the database that would comprise all of our sights and hearings and touches, each of which could be entered as a separate line of the poem. “Song of Myself” keeps shifting from moments of narration to moments of what we might call data ingestion. In this section, we encounter pages of data entries that toward the end slow down when a narrative frame begins to take over again, but, throughout “Song of Myself,” we can always feel the unruly rhythms of this never-ending sensory catalog, incorporating the details of the world as they flow nonstop into the poet’s (and our) open and receptive senses.
As he begins this catalog, Whitman portrays his imaginative journey as the flight of a hot-air balloon: “My ties and ballasts leave me.” He rises above the earth and sees vast vistas. As his vision expands, he feels as if his body has become as vast as the distances that his imagination strides. His “elbows rest in sea-gaps,” and his “palms cover continents”—as if he is performing a kind of phrenological examination of the earth, examining its contours just as a phrenologist ran his palms over a patient’s skull to determine that person’s character (Whitman was proud of the robust qualities that his own phrenological exam had revealed just before he wrote this poem). “I am afoot with my vision,” Whitman announces, in a wonderful phrase that insists on the necessity of the whole body—from eyes to toes—to take part in this interpenetration of the self and world. The poet’s few verbs—usually participles like “hauling” or “walking” or “approaching”—each generates an extensive array of objects, events, and landscapes, captured in the rolling anaphoras of “over,” “where,” “at,” and “through.” His descriptions use the definite article “the” instead of the indefinite “a,” so we behold “the mocking-bird,” “the homely woman as well as the handsome,” “the cot in the hospital”—and the definite article seems to name both a specific bird or woman or cot as well as the generic or abstract version of these things as well: this homely woman is all homely women; this hospital cot is all hospital cots. We are at once in one place and all places, in an instantaneous present as well as in a timeless ongoing present.
Whitman both recognizes the power and admits the risk of his poetic vision here: he will “fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul,” gliding over, through, and into everything he encounters and consuming it with his voracious imagination, but he will also “anchor my ship for a little while only,” never dwelling for more than a moment on any one thing. The Whitmanian soul is forever traveling an open road, sailing an open sea, and to pause too long with anyone or anything is dangerous, because limited and lasting affection for any one thing stifles the ability to love democratically and indiscriminately. So he becomes the “free companion,” able to love all equally and quickly as his fluid soul travels the vastness of the world.
Toward the end of the catalog, death and suffering and pain begin to take over, as this traveling soul enters into the torture felt by those near death, felt by martyrs, felt by “the hounded slave,” the “mash’d fireman,” the dying soldier. “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,” the poet says: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” This section, which began with such a buoyant embrace of the ever-changing world, ends with the stuttered beginnings of dark narratives of death, pain, and loss. To embrace all is not—cannot ever be—easy or comforting.
Prudence Island, Narragansett Bay. After weeks of rain, the sun is out, and my cousin is guiding me through the woods, along a rock wall built nearly four centuries ago by our first ancestor in the New World, Roger Williams. He was a theologian whose quest for liberty of conscience transformed America: banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony for his view that government must be separate from religion, he spent the winter of 1636 in the wilderness, and then he settled in what would become the country’s smallest state, Rhode Island, to undertake an experiment in living in freedom, according to the dictates of individual conscience, which included outlawing slavery, welcoming people of different faiths, and preaching to Native Americans in their own tongue. On a sea voyage to London to secure a patent for this land he wrote an acclaimed book, A Key to the Language of America, a compendium of Indian customs, words, and phrases, which assumed that the original inhabitants of the land were equal to the colonists. Williams had a gift for languages, and he knew that any true exchange begins with listening. Thus he listened to his neighbors, whose intricate social system and intimate knowledge of their surroundings offered a model for a sustainable relationship between people, places, and things—a model that appears again, in much different form, in “Song of Myself.”
I am carrying a pocket-sized edition of Leaves of Grass, and as I follow my cousin over fallen trees and up a rise, where drifting sand has covered the wall, it occurs to me that I hold in my hand another key to the language of America. In the abundance of images, inflections, and sounds catalogued in the thirty-third section, the longest of the poem, Whitman celebrates the true wealth of the land: everything counts. “I am afoot with my vision,” he says. And what he takes in, “wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes under its ribs,” are emblems of the world’s diversity—panther and rattlesnake, corn and flax, newlyweds, white-topped mountains and the wreck of a steamship, an old artillerist, a dying general. To see the invisible through the visible is the essence of faith, which Williams thought would only flourish free of governmental interference (hence the political system he devised based on the biblical injunction to distinguish between what is owed to Caesar and what to God). It is also central to Whitman’s determination to honor everything—native and foreign, old and new. “I take part,” he declares, “I see and hear the whole”—a cultural order still coming into being, the outlines of which my ancestor may have glimpsed in the wilds of the New World. Now my cousin turns toward me, beaming.
In this section, Whitman records the escape of the passengers and crew from an 1853 shipwreck that took place off the coast of New York when the ship was caught in a gale, and everyone was given up for dead. Whitman describes the terror that the survivors went through, then he concludes: “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine, / I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” The twentieth-century poet James Wright called this final line “one of the noblest lines of poetry ever written.” Do you agree? Is the line an expression of the poet’s ability to fully empathize with the suffering of others, or does the quickness and ease with which the poet absorbs the suffering betray a kind of casualness that undermines empathy and allows the poet to promptly move on to the embracing of yet other experiences?