Section 33, Song of Myself

Foreword

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.

Section 33

Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess'd at,
What I guess'd when I loaf'd on the grass,
What I guess'd while I lay alone in my bed,
And again as I walk'd the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.
By the city's quadrangular houses—in log huts, camping with lumbermen,
Along the ruts of the turnpike, along the dry gulch and rivulet bed,
Weeding my onion-patch or hoeing rows of carrots and parsnips, crossing savannas, trailing in forests,
Prospecting, gold-digging, girdling the trees of a new purchase,
Scorch'd ankle-deep by the hot sand, hauling my boat down the shallow river,
Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the buck turns furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver patsthe mud with his paddle-shaped tail;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower'd cotton plant, over the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak'd farm house, with its scallop'd scum and slender shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav'd corn, over the delicate blue-flower flax,
Over the white and brown buckwheat, a hummer and buzzer there with the rest,
Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze;
Scaling mountains, pulling myself cautiously up, holding on by low scragged limbs,
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of the brush,
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh-month eve, where the great gold- bug drops through the dark,
Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the meadow,
Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous shud- dering of their hides,
Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, where andirons
         straddle the hearth-slab, where cobwebs fall in festoons from the rafters;
Where trip-hammers crash, where the press is whirling its cylinders,
Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes under its ribs,
Where the pear-shaped balloon is floating aloft, (floating in it my- self and looking composedly down,)
Where the life-car is drawn on the slip-noose, where the heat hatches pale-green eggs in the dented sand,
Where the she-whale swims with her calf and never forsakes it,
Where the steam-ship trails hind-ways its long pennant of smoke,
Where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water,
Where the half-burn'd brig is riding on unknown currents,
Where shells grow to her slimy deck, where the dead are corrupt- ing below;
Where the dense-starr'd flag is borne at the head of the regiments,
Approaching Manhattan up by the long-stretching island,
Under Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil over my countenance,
Upon a door-step, upon the horse-block of hard wood outside,
Upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs or a good game of base-ball,
At he-festivals, with blackguard gibes, ironical license, bull-dances, drinking, laughter,
At the cider-mill tasting the sweets of the brown mash, sucking the juice through a straw,
At apple-peelings wanting kisses for all the red fruit I find,
At musters, beach-parties, friendly bees, huskings, house-raisings;
Where the mocking-bird sounds his delicious gurgles, cackles, screams, weeps,
Where the hay-rick stands in the barn-yard, where the dry-stalks are scatter'd, where the brood-cow waits in the hovel,
Where the bull advances to do his masculine work, where the stud to the mare, where the cock is treading the hen,
Where the heifers browse, where geese nip their food with short jerks,
Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie,
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles far and near,
Where the humming-bird shimmers, where the neck of the long- lived swan is curving and winding,
Where the laughing-gull scoots by the shore, where she laughs her near-human laugh,
Where bee-hives range on a gray bench in the garden half hid by the high weeds,
Where band-neck'd partridges roost in a ring on the ground with their heads out,
Where burial coaches enter the arch'd gates of a cemetery,
Where winter wolves bark amid wastes of snow and icicled trees,
Where the yellow-crown'd heron comes to the edge of the marsh at night and feeds upon small crabs,
Where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon,
Where the katy-did works her chromatic reed on the walnut-tree over the well,
Through patches of citrons and cucumbers with silver-wired leaves,
Through the salt-lick or orange glade, or under conical firs,
Through the gymnasium, through the curtain'd saloon, through the office or public hall;
Pleas'd with the native and pleas'd with the foreign, pleas'd with the new and old,
Pleas'd with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas'd with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks melodiously,
Pleas'd with the tune of the choir of the whitewash'd church,
Pleas'd with the earnest words of the sweating Methodist preach- er, impress'd seriously at the camp-meeting;
Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass,
Wandering the same afternoon with my face turn'd up to the clouds, or down a lane or along the beach,
My right and left arms round the sides of two friends, and I in the middle;
Coming home with the silent and dark-cheek'd bush-boy, (behind me he rides at the drape of the day,)
Far from the settlements studying the print of animals' feet, or the moccasin print,
By the cot in the hospital reaching lemonade to a feverish patient,
Nigh the coffin'd corpse when all is still, examining with a candle;
Voyaging to every port to dicker and adventure,
Hurrying with the modern crowd as eager and fickle as any,
Hot toward one I hate, ready in my madness to knife him,
Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me a long while,
Walking the old hills of Judaea with the beautiful gentle God by my side,
Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars,
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and the diameter of eighty thousand miles,
Speeding with tail'd meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,
Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly,
Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I tread day and night such roads.
I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product,
And look at quintillions ripen'd and look at quintillions green.
I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul,
My course runs below the soundings of plummets.
I help myself to material and immaterial,
No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.
I anchor my ship for a little while only,
My messengers continually cruise away or bring their returns to me.
I go hunting polar furs and the seal, leaping chasms with a pike- pointed staff, clinging to topples of brittle and blue.
I ascend to the foretruck,
I take my place late at night in the crow's-nest,
We sail the arctic sea, it is plenty light enough,
Through the clear atmosphere I stretch around on the wonderful beauty,
The enormous masses of ice pass me and I pass them, the scenery is plain in all directions,
The white-topt mountains show in the distance, I fling out my fancies toward them,
We are approaching some great battle-field in which we are soon to be engaged,
We pass the colossal outposts of the encampment, we pass with still feet and caution,
Or we are entering by the suburbs some vast and ruin'd city,
The blocks and fallen architecture more than all the living cities of the globe.
I am a free companion, I bivouac by invading watchfires,
I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.
My voice is the wife's voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs,
They fetch my man's body up dripping and drown'd.
I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faith ful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk'd in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will
          not desert you;
How he follow'd with them and tack'd with them three days and would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown'd women look'd when boated from the side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp- lipp'd unshaved men;
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 disdain and calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blow- ing, cover'd with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the mur- derous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marks- men,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my com- rades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my sake,
Painless after all I lie exhausted but not so unhappy,
White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared of their fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.
Distant and dead resuscitate,
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me, I am the clock myself.
I am an old artillerist, I tell of my fort's bombardment,
I am there again.
Again the long roll of the drummers,
Again the attacking cannon, mortars,
Again to my listening ears the cannon responsive.
I take part, I see and hear the whole,
The cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aim'd shots,
The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip,
Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs,
The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explo- sion,
The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.
Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,
He gasps through the clot Mind not me—mind—the entrench-
          ments.

Afterword

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.

Question

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?

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