Section 7, Song of Myself

Foreword

Section 7 begins with one of Whitman’s most audacious boasts: if you think it’s “lucky to be born,” then, he is quick to let us know, “it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.” How does he know it is lucky to die? By this point in the poem, Whitman has convinced us that these atoms belonging to us, composing us, did not originate with us but in fact have been circulating through the universe from the beginning of time and will be circulating until the end of time. We are all, as he will say later in the poem, “the leavings of many deaths,” just as we all are the seedbeds of many births. Each of us is literally made up of “dead” matter, of the atoms of previous lives that have been recirculated to produce us. And as we go through life, we are never “contain’d between” our hats and our boots; we are instead a dynamic, ever-shifting group of atoms physically and a dynamic, ever-shifting group of perceptions mentally. As we “peruse” the “manifold objects” around us, the ever-shifting scenes and sounds that our senses absorb, we continually become an ever-changing person, “immortal and fathomless.” There is no end, Whitman suggests, to the ongoing life that continues to produce new bodies—new eyes and new ears—that will forever absorb the kaleidoscope of sensations around us. And how can we ever probe the depths of the oceans of experience our senses bring to each of us, every day and every minute of our lives?

Even when he makes what sounds like a discriminating statement (“Every kind for itself”), that statement immediately radiates out into a kind of indiscriminate love. What, after all, is one’s “kind”? For Whitman, his kind includes “male and female,” “children and the begetters of children,” because all are needed for the ongoing life we are the immortal part of, the life that only we who live in the present experience, just as those who have lived in the past experienced it and those who will live in the future will experience it. So now Whitman issues his first exclamatory command: “Undrape!” Like some proto-Superman with x-ray vision, he tells us that he sees through whatever disguise we put on our body. After all, the one great democratic thing that we know is that we all have a body; we experience the world only in and through our bodies. And our eyes and ears, our tongues and nose and fingertips, are always hungry for sensation. Whitman looks at us, and, since he had a body too, he sees ours and knows what it is like. The poem at this point reaches out to us, grabs us, claims us, and “cannot be shaken away.”

EF

Section 7

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and am not contain'd between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.

Afterword

The conjunction of “immortal” and “fathomless” in the seventh section marks a critical turning in “Song of Myself,” Whitman the seer proclaiming the limits of his knowledge, which are the depths of the individual soul. He knows what cannot be measured—the secrets of a life, the inscrutable forces that lead someone to take one path instead of another, the stirrings of desire, demands of the community, promptings of the unconscious, uncharted currents, instincts, ideas, imperatives of—what? It is impossible to map the terrain traditionally reserved for God, and yet the poet records the voices murmuring in the dark, guesses at what was left out of the confession, offers hosannas for the living and the dead. In Whitman’s democratic dispensation all is acknowledged, and absorbed, and absolved.

Hence the different levels of diction and registers of tone rubbing up against one another, forming a musical chord in which multiple languages (read: lives) are resolved: “Every kind for itself.” Note how he glides in the second line from the bureaucratic “I hasten to inform” to the colloquial “it is just as lucky,” the lawyerly giving way to the wisdom of the streets—and the ages. “Undrape!” he commands, “you are not guilty to me.” For this “mate and companion” of everyone, male and female, brother and sister, lover and mother “and the mothers of mothers,” sees all and forgives all, even the one who slighted him (a seemingly autobiographical moment.) He may not know what lies in the heart of the other but he will believe in it just the same.

CM

Question

When Whitman tells us he is “tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away,” he sounds on one level very much like a pest, like something that just will not leave us alone. And when he tells us that he can “see through” our clothes, he sounds like a voyeur. Why does Whitman portray himself in this way? How do you react to a poem that makes these kinds of claims on you?

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