Section 50, Song of Myself


As “Song of Myself” draws to a close, the poet is emerging from the intense imaginative journey that has taken him to the far reaches of the cosmos as well as to the inner workings of his body, has revealed to him the unity of the stars with the dung beetle—of God with the pokeweed—and has opened up to him how “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Now, awakening from this vast vision, he is “wrench’d and sweaty,” wrung out from the effort, and he feels a bodily calm, a sleep coming on, and his powers of articulation are attenuated as he searches for the words that will summarize what his visionary journey has taught him. The sleep—the “long” sleep—that Whitman feels approaching may of course be the sleep of death, as this section picks up on the powerful evocation of death in the previous section. If so, the unspecified “it” of this section—“I do not know it—it is without name”—may be death itself, the state where language fails, the place out of which no words emanate. Or, more likely, “it” is the inexpressible something that includes and transcends death. But Whitman struggles to name it nonetheless: “it” is not tied to the earth as we are; “it” is vaster than that, a force of the universe that is experienced at the most microscopic level every bit as much as at the most macroscopic. “It” is a force that is felt in the embrace of a “friend” just as in the mutual attraction of planets and stars.
As Whitman struggles to name this force that permeates what we humans call life and death, that extends from the tiniest specks to the vastest realms, he assures us that “it is not chaos or death” but rather “form, union, plan.” He does not deny chaos and death; instead, he tells us that what appear to us to be chaos and death are just parts of a larger plan, a vast union that we may fail to see from our limited perspective. And we, the living, of any size or shape, are the “outlines” of “it”: we are the current material shapes of whatever nameless creative spirit is moving continually in and through matter and forming it into ever-shifting unions, ever-evolving plans.
And so Whitman lands on one of the most resonant American words, a word that rests mysteriously at the heart of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson revised John Locke’s democratic guarantee of “life, liberty, and property” to the far more evocative “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans are not guaranteed happiness, only the right to pursue it, to try to define it. We should not mistake property for happiness but rather should use our life and liberty to pursue something less certain, less definable, less graspable. Happiness, after all, can come from understanding things more than it can come from owning things. And if we can sense how our lives are essential parts of the vast plan of the universe, we can rest easy in the “happiness” of knowing our place in the universal weave of existence. “Happiness,” of course, comes from roots meaning “chance” or “luck,” and Whitman understands that the formation of each and every self is purely the luck, the hap (or happening) of the endless circulation of atoms that may over time as easily be a part of a star as a part of your lip: the resultant knowledge—that we are all so intimately tied to each other and to the cosmos—can release us from fear and bathe us in something we might call, for lack of a better word, happiness.

There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me.
Wrench'd and sweaty—calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep—I sleep long.
I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.
Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.


The fireworks were dazzling, and from a rock outcropping on a sacred mountain I saw bursts of silver and red and blue, launched from the Han River, fall over the lights of Seoul, in the shapes of spiders and palms and peonies; many seconds passed before their report arrived—a sound, as of artillery, which brought back memories of wars that I had covered, as well as a trip made long ago to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, where gunners on both sides of the border were firing practice rounds. But I was so tired from my travels that I could not keep my eyes open, despite the pyrotechnic spectacle; and as I drifted off to sleep the distant thudding mixed in dream with what I had heard on the hike up the mountain—voices murmuring in the dark, above the candlelit spring of the mythological Dragon King, ruler of the waters, the one responsible for floods and droughts. I could not see anyone (my guide speculated that we had chanced upon a shamanic healing ceremony), but their voices lodged in my imagination as I continued up the trail. Now I woke with a start. The sky was ablaze with signs.
Whitman sleeps and wakes in this section, conscious of something inside him—a current, a ghostly sensation, an unsaid word not found “in any dictionary, utterance, symbol”—that inspires his longing for a poetic form equal to his democratic vision, the outlines of which are all around him: in people, places, and things; in the geological and historical record; in memory and imagination. He may not know exactly what this creative spirit is, but he does know that it will keep his song alive long after he has stopped singing in the flesh.
Container, vessel, plant, magnetic field, machine: the figures for poetry are legion. Threshold and door, wave and sea, wind and light. Employing traditional and open forms, poets discern the meaning of experience, reveal structures of the mind, and suggest the beauty of the universe. “I will try,” said the American poet A. R. Ammons, “to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening/ scope”—a project worthy of Whitman, who declared in his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass that “The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet.” He is “the equable man,” who finds in the speech and manners of common people, his brothers and sisters, an unrhymed poetry (“form, union, plan”) to balance chaos and the inescapable fact of our mortality: a vision of eternal life. This is what constitutes happiness.


In an early notebook in which Whitman recorded various ideas for “Song of Myself,” he wrote: “We know that sympathy or love is the law over all laws,” because “nothing else but love” can make “the soul conscious of pure happiness, which appears to be the ultimate resting place and point of all things.” Is Whitman naively optimistic when he claims in this section that “happiness” is the source and end of existence? What other words might he have chosen to hint at this thing “without name” that is “not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol” and that “appears to be the ultimate resting place and point of all things”?

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