Now the “perpetual journey” that Whitman has taken us on through this poem—a journey that has extended to the vastest regions of the cosmos, from the origins of the universe billions of years ago to billions of years hence, a journey of a dynamic shifting life force that can never be measured—suddenly shrinks again to the seemingly smaller yet equally mysterious journeys of the poet and the reader. Once again embracing the “you” who reads the poem, the “I” leads us to a “knoll,” where we gain a perspective above all the knowledge that libraries hold, above religions and philosophies, and the poet points us to “the public road” that we each must travel for ourselves. This is Whitman’s “open road,” the journey with no end, the journey that exceeds all the maps and guides of past knowledge and faith, the journey we always make “publicly,” as an organic part of the world around us (given all that Whitman has demonstrated about our shared atoms, how could the journey ever really be private?). Whitman’s imagery makes the journey feel familiar and even routine: it’s a road we’ve been on before, maybe our whole lives; it is right there “within reach”; and we will travel it both alone and with the poet, who offers us support even as he begins now to release us from his tutelage.
Whitman moves once more to the astronomical immensity he has evoked so many times before and imagines a self that is insatiable for more experience, a self that could encompass the cosmos and still want to expand beyond it. As the poet is to his spirit, so are we to him: we are his spirit now contained in the living bodies of the present. The poet begins to remind us, as he will repeatedly in these final sections of the poem, that he is, after all, dead, and we are alive. But we’ve come this far together—dead poet and living reader—and he will be buried as a living presence in these leaves we are reading for as long as we read them, as long as we return to them and (like the child in Section 6) ask what they mean. The poet will be there for support (we can rest the “chuff” of our hand on his hip, just as we rest the heel of our hand on his book): he is emerging forever from this poem, just as we feel ourselves emerging into a new consciousness as we read it, intensely more aware of the present moment that Whitman knew we would someday inhabit.
Preparing us for our life’s journey, Whitman offers the comforting images of “biscuits to eat” and “milk to drink,” but we realize that the sustenance he is actually giving us is this poem itself, the words on the page, which have, over the past forty-six sections, truly awakened us, “washed the gum” from our eyes and made us cognizant of the “dazzle” and the mystery and the poetry “of every moment” of our lives. Now, perhaps, we are ready to become “a bold swimmer,” and, as the poem comes to an end, to let go of the supports the poet has given us as we immerse ourselves in the sea of our heightened present experience.
Whitman’s offer in this section to “wash the gum” from our eyes, to habituate us “to the dazzle of the light” shining through every moment of existence, comes with a catch: we must be bold enough to venture into the unknown, to meet the world stripped of our preconceptions and illusions, to measure the vast within and without; if we have the courage to take to the open road, alert to possibilities heretofore unimagined, mindful of the routines that blind us to what is there, our walk in the sun may lead to a deeper knowledge of the cosmos. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite,” William Blake wrote in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a signal event in the evolution of modern poetry. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Whitman proposes that we take this lesson to heart, applying to the whole of life the essence of creativity—which is to leave the cavern and see what has been right in front of us all along.
In the hills around the village where I grew up were abandoned mica mines, which once supplied Muscovy glass for windows and horse-drawn carriages; the entrances were boarded up, but outside in the slag were sheets of the mineral, which peeled apart in yellowish leaves. These I would hold over my eyes, casting the earth, trees, and sky in a sepia light, which intrigued me. The world would take on the tint of the photographs in our books about the Civil War, blurring for a moment the distinction between my experience and that of the soldiers whose sacrifice laid the groundwork for a new conception of America, in line with what Whitman invoked in “Song of Myself.” Years passed before this exercise in the woods raised questions in my mind about the nature of truth (what is real? what imagined?), which I could not answer; this unknowingness I came eventually to associate with the promise of the open road.
In his preface to a collection of miscellaneous writings, John Updike suggested that his critical work bore the same relation to his fiction as that of a sailor hugging the shore, unwilling to take his boat into open water. Just so, Whitman wants us “To jump off in the midst of the sea, to rise again,” to join him in the celebration of the endlessly unfolding drama of the cosmos, on every stage of which there is the possibility of vision and transformation.
In this section, the poet tells us he can hear us asking him questions, but he also tells us his only answer is that he “cannot answer,” that “you must find out for yourself.” Whitman senses that, at this point in the poem, readers will have many questions about the things the poet has claimed. What are your questions to the poet at this point? And how can you go about finding the answers for yourself?