In this, one of the shortest sections of “Song of Myself” (only two other sections have eight lines, as this section does, and only one section has fewer lines), Whitman turns from the city to the country, from the urban to the rural, as he perhaps recalls his own early childhood memories on his family’s Long Island farm (his family moved from the farm to Brooklyn just days before Whitman turned four) and his later visits to his grandparents’ farm nearby. In his autobiography, Specimen Days, Whitman recalls as a boy how he had “often been out on the edges of these [Long Island] plains toward sundown, and can yet recall in fancy the interminable cow-processions, and hear the music of the tin or copper bells clanking far or near, and breathe the cool of the sweet and slightly aromatic evening air, and note the sunset.” In this section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman offers a closely observed visual poem, a kind of pre-imagist intensely focused moment, as he imagines or recalls riding on a hay wagon toward the open doors of “the country barn,” feeling the jolt of the wagon, and then jumping down into “the clover and timothy” (the grass with flower spikes cultivated for hay), immersing himself in the fall grass, feeling himself in a tangle with it. Whitman here captures not only a different aspect of life in America, but a different pace in the rural areas of the country, more leisurely and peaceful than the noisy staccato urban catalog that came just before.
The revisions that Whitman made to “Song of Myself” between its first publication in 1855 and the deathbed edition of 1891 continue to unsettle some readers. Galway Kinnell, for example, argues that the poet’s creative and critical faculties weakened as he grew older, and “the more he searched for perfection, the farther away it went.” But who can blame Whitman for such a quest? Like a scientist who makes a discovery, which alters our understanding of the universe, and then spends the rest of his life refining the implications of his breakthrough, the poet tinkered with his work. “I come again and again,” the original ending of the eighth section, was thus transformed into “I come and I depart,” and readers are left to wonder about the wisdom of the change, which brings to mind Auden’s controversial decision to revise “We must love one another or die,” in “September 1, 1939,” to “We must love one another and die.” Should an aging poet leave his or her early work alone? What to do with different versions of a poem? Is perfection even possible? “Song of Myself” raises such questions again and again.
Whitman made one change in the ninth section, dividing the single eight-line stanza into two end-stopped quatrains, which “look like the poetry of the past,” in Kinnell’s phrase. But that is the point: the poet invokes a moment from his rural childhood in an unrhymed variation on the ballad form. The folk tradition lives anew in the white space between stanzas, a static scene that will come to life in the speaker’s declaration that he is there, “stretched atop of the load.” Now he recalls his journey into the past, “the soft jolts” of memory, and jumps into the hay, and seizes his golden harvest—the music of clover and timothy, of a body in motion, of tangled hair.
What is the effect of devoting one whole section of the poem to this single simple experience of riding on a hay wagon and jumping into the clover and hay? Why do you think Whitman does not give us a catalog of the various aspects of rural life as he did with his previous catalog of city life?