This section contains Whitman’s plea to the reader to begin the work of responding to what the poet has proposed—to begin to argue, to talk, to co-create the poem. Some of Whitman’s most beautiful lines are here, as when he images the “past and present” as wilted plants, once alive and sentient but now withered and emptied of presence, of life. The moment of “Now” incessantly empties the past and present in order to open a new “fold of the future,” which becomes the ever-emerging moment of presence. In a later poem called “Unfolded Out of the Folds,” Whitman imagined all of life as a series of unfoldings, just as every new life and identity is “unfolded” out of “the folds of the woman.” Each and every moment is a new birth, a new world of Now unfolding before the awake senses of all those who are embodied in that moment.
As we read Whitman’s book, we are also aware of the “folds” of the pages, and, as we read each one and fold it over to confront the next, we are enacting in the process of reading the continual, literal unfolding of new moments, new ideas, new encounters, new sections of the poem. So Whitman reminds us of our relationship to the book as he exclaims, “Listener up there!” It’s as if the poet, now embodied in the ink and paper, is speaking to us off the page, looking up at us as we peer down at the book. We look into the poet’s “face” by looking onto the “face” of the page itself. The poet, Whitman reminds us, is, as we encounter him, now disembodied as a physical human being and instead embodied in the pages of the book. It is we, the living readers, who now have bodies and are thus able to see and hear these words on the page that would, without us, be simply silent ink and dead paper. As we glance forward to the final fold of this poem (only one more short section left to come), we realize that indeed the poet will “stay only a minute longer.” He will now “snuff the sidle of evening,” another beautiful image that suggests the end of a long day’s reading of “Song of Myself,” as the reader comes to the end of the poem just as the evening darkens to night, as the gloaming is snuffed like a flickering candle. Placing himself on the “door-slab,” awaiting anyone near enough to join him, Whitman offers a simple and effective invitation: “Who wishes to walk with me?” He encourages us to speak while we are still able.
What are arguably Whitman’s most famous lines appear here: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman is recasting one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s central ideas: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. . . . Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood.” For Whitman, as we have seen, the self is a continually evolving and expanding entity, and new experiences will always broaden and challenge and upset what a self believed earlier. We must learn to be grateful to arrive at contradictions and to cultivate a sense of a self open and aware enough to “speak against” (the root meaning of “contradict”) the self that existed yesterday. As “Song of Myself” has demonstrated throughout, a self that does not change is a stunted identity, dead to the transforming stimuli of the multitudinous world around us, stimuli that include the transforming words of this poem.
The air has turned colder, and the leaves on the oaks are yellowing. A friend once showed me a maple leaf with red veins radiating from its stem, like a blush spreading across someone’s face, and said, “If you can’t write poems in autumn, you’re not a poet.” Season of contradictions: the orange blaze of pumpkins in a patch of spent stalks; a farmer sowing winter wheat; a basket of tulip bulbs ready for planting. Death and renewal: these are the double doors through which we pass again and again, according to Whitman, inscribed and inscribing.
“Song of Myself” begins with a declaration of equality, at the atomic level, and the poet’s pledge to “speak at every hazard,” readying us for a journey propelled by the original unchecked energy of Nature, which will carry us beyond the trappings of “Creeds and schools.” Now as we near the end of our journey Whitman invites us to walk with him into all the contradictions of the wider world—which contend within his own soul: the democratic imagination.
How to square two ideas—contradiction as “a lever of transcendence” (Simone Weil) and as a function of the multitudes contained within each individual? Both are true, Whitman would argue: the self, like democracy, is inherently contradictory, since it is made up of the dreams and ideas and passions of everyone who has ever lived, our bodies and souls being a compound of men and women, hunters and gatherers, slaves and slave masters, the brilliant and the cruel, the living and the dead, all jostling for our attention. Their voices—contradictory, inspiring, buried sometimes so deep in our imagination that they remain muffled—can be a source of transcendent meaning, providing that we obey our better angels. Czeslaw Milosz warns poets to “hope/ that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.” What pain those voices clamoring inside us can cause! My heart tells me to do one thing, my head, another, as the song goes.
To counter death, the poet must find a form capacious enough to embody the essential contradiction of life: that from the moment of birth we begin to die. This terrifying fact is for Whitman a form of saving knowledge—a blessing bestowed anew by his spiritual descendant, A. R. Ammons, whose most famous poem, “Corsons Inlet,” concludes with the four-fold realization that “Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,/ that I have perceived nothing completely,/ that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”
Shall we go for a walk? Here are the lights of the city in which we first strolled together, here is the river where the boats rocked in the dark water, and here you are in all your finery.
“Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?” Whitman’s questions here are urgent, and yet we know the poet will not be “gone” when the poem ends, since we can open it again and read it as many times as we’d like. So what do you think Whitman means when he says we might be “too late” in our responses to the poem?