Whitman begins this section with two verbs—“flaunt” and “bask”—that he characteristically turns into nouns. This poet loves to create such deverbal nouns because they indicate how all things are actually processes, continual actions. No object in the world is static and unchanging; everything grows and decays, and the atoms that make any one thing are continually in flux and ultimately will transfer into other things. Our bodies, then, are processes, not objects, always shifting and altering. The cosmos itself is a verb, an endless process of change. So the poet is not impressed with the way the “sunshine” flaunts its heat and light on the world, illuminating only surfaces. The poet does not need to “bask” in the sunlight, because he himself will illuminate more than the sun ever can by penetrating deep beneath the surface of whatever and whomever he encounters, where he can see movement and change, despair and hope. With his brash confidence restored, the poet challenges the sun and the earth, ready to match his own powers with theirs: the earth seems to want something “at the hands” of the poet, and so he composes this earth-poem, as indiscriminate as the earth itself, welcoming of everything that basks in the light of the sun. And, charged up again with his soul, he is ready now to embrace everyone, including the most debased, depressed, and depraved.
The “friendly and flowing savage” of Section 39 therefore transmutes here into the poet’s “I,” as the “I” claims the power of legendary figures of tall tales and the magnetic force of a healer and savior. This “I,” which a few sections ago seemed drained of its expansive and absorptive powers, now is more potent than ever. It visits the “impotent” and “blows grit” in them; it plants “the family kiss” on the slaves of the cotton-field and the “cleaners of privies”; it “jets” its semen into “women fit for conception”; it replaces the “physician and the priest” at the bedside of the dying; it “seizes” anyone who feels himself falling and “raises him with resistless will”; it promises to “dilate” all of us with “tremendous breath” and to “buoy” us up; it offers to stand guard as we sleep. This re-energized “I” will not “give lectures or a little charity,” but rather, like Henry David Thoreau, will “give myself” (Thoreau in Walden chastised people for admiring “philanthropy” and demanded that “if you give money, spend yourself with it”). Looking to the earth for guidance, the poet’s “I” knows that his hands are meant to do something vital and important, and so, like the hands of a healer and a lover (as well as a poet), his hands now reach out to all men and women, as he strains to “tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days.” There’s an unspoken need here for the poet to connect to his fellow citizens and to us, his readers, and literally to inspire us—breathe into us love and hope and the power of new life.
What remains unsaid inflames the imagination, according to the laws of poetry. “Man or woman, I might tell how I like you, but cannot,” Whitman writes in this section, “And might tell what it is in me and what it is in you, but cannot,/ And might tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days.” What is it? Poets are in the business of seeking words to describe the force that animates the interior lives of every man and woman. Whitman’s reticence before the mystery of desire is intriguing: mindful of the limits of language, he seems to suggest that the real meaning of his words, what he says between the lines, in white space, will become clear only ages hence, when his radically inclusive vision of democracy has been translated into many tongues.
Meanwhile he embraces cotton pickers and privy cleaners, and conceives children fit for “arrogant republics,” and raises the dying, guarding one man through the night. He is joined in spirit by his lovers, the “bafflers of graves” who billet in the house, like a militia. (No one is left defenseless in Whitman’s scheme of things.) And when in the morning the man rises from his deathbed the poet tells him a truth, which the reader cannot hear.
In the woods by the reservoir, on a mild summer afternoon, I find winter’s leaf fall, trees downed by the spring storms, and patches of Queen Anne’s lace blossoming along the trail to the bridge. I like it in the shade, where voices reach me from invisible boats anchored just offshore. My thoughts turn from the complications of work and travel to other possibilities, and now I know that pining and its pulse are what form my life and writings. Henry Miller called Whitman that “rude hieroglyphic,” which I take to mean the furnisher of signs of what was most ancient in our bodies and souls—and of what lies always beyond our field of vision. A voice calls from the water, another answers, and laughter rises from afar.
Whitman sometimes seems to tap into old folk epics and tall tales to create the enormous power of his “I.” Davy Crockett, one of the heroes of the Texas Revolution and a man known as “king of the wild frontier,” had many tall tales told of his exploits. One legend seems related to this section of “Song of Myself”: “One January morning,” Crockett relates, “it was so all screwen cold that the forest trees were stiff and they couldn't shake, and the very daybreak froze fast as it was trying to dawn. … Well, arter I had walked about twenty miles up the Peak o' Day and Daybreak Hill I soon discovered what war the matter. The airth had actually friz fast on her axes, and couldn't turn round; the sun had got jammed between two cakes o' ice under the wheels, an’ thar he had been shinin’ an' workin’ to get loose till he friz fast in his cold sweat. C-r-e-a-t-i-o-n! thought I, this ar the toughest sort of suspension, an’ it mustn’t be endured. Somethin’ must be done, or human creation is done for.… I took a fresh twenty-pound bear off my back that I’d picked up on my road, and beat the animal agin the ice till the hot ile [oil] began to walk out on him at all sides. I then took an’ held him over the airth’s axes an’ squeezed him till I'd thawed 'em loose, poured about a ton on’t over the sun's face, give the airth’s cog-wheel one kick backward till I got the sun loose—whistled ‘Push along, keep movin’!’ an’ in about fifteen seconds the airth gave a grunt, an’ began movin’. The sun waked up beautiful, salutin’ me with sich a wind o’ gratitude that it made me sneeze. I lit my pipe by the blaze o’ his top-knot, shouldered my bear, an’ walked home, introducin’ people to the fresh daylight with a piece of sunrise in my pocket.”
In this tall tale, we get Crockett handling the sun and getting a light from the sun’s “top-knot” (a term for a decorative knot of ribbons or a tuft of hair on the top of one’s head). Whitman, too, seems to be handling the sun in the opening lines and interacting with the Earth, whom the poet calls “old top-knot” (a comic term once used to refer to American Indians, some of whom wore their hair in knots). What is the effect of Whitman’s including elements of tall tales in his poetry? Is this section comic in its bravado, in its hyperbolic claims of power? Or do the comic elements help sustain the seriousness of the poet’s claim of interpenetrating power?