Four exclamation marks open this section as the poet suddenly regains the energy and desire to rise up from the humiliating position of the beggar that he found himself in at the end of the previous section. In one of the most rousing moments of the poem, he shouts a threefold reprimand to himself: “Enough! enough! enough!” Yes, he realizes, we must recognize the death, suffering, sickness, pain, and abjection in the world, but we must also realize that, horrific as it may at times seem, that dark side of life is never the whole story. We may be momentarily stunned by the terrors we encounter, the pain we witness, but we must rise again from it and carry on into the future. It is a pledge that he would once again make during and after the Civil War, when he and the nation needed to absorb 800,000 deaths and find a way to build a future out of the carnage instead of seeing the carnage itself as the definition of what the country had become .
In this section, the poet finds himself “on the verge of a usual mistake,” the error of mistaking the mockery and insults and tears and blows as the essential meaning of life. “I resume the overstaid fraction,” the poet says, indicating that when we encounter the most painful parts of experience, they can come to seem all-consuming, as we forget the generative and loving and developing aspects of life. Those sunnier aspects form the majority of life’s moments, even if, during bleak times, that larger fraction can be eclipsed and lost for awhile. The poet now reclaims this fraction that has stayed away too long. And, as he does so, he evokes the story of Christ’s resurrection but does so in a remarkably secular way: we all experience a “crucifixion and bloody crowning.” We all bear a cross, wear a crown of thorns, and we must all learn—as Whitman has been instructing us in this poem—to take on the suffering and pain of others. And then we must all resurrect ourselves, heal our gashes, rise again to do the work of building a wide-ranging democracy. In his notes for this section, Whitman made the association of the poet with an American Christ even more explicit: “In vain were nails driven through my hands, / I remember my crucifixion and bloody coronation /. . . I am alive in New York and San Francisco / Again I tread the streets after two thousand years.” American history has been full of bloodshed and loss, but the country has to depend on its abilities to absorb the loss and rise up with renewed purpose, resurrecting a future for itself that might be worthy of the sacrifices of its past. We must become a nation that does not so much believe in one particular resurrection but rather in the endless possibility of resurrection, life out of death—a nation of democratic Christs from New York to San Francisco.
So the poet is now ready to “troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average unending procession”: he is not a divine figure in the sense of being more pure or closer to God than anyone else. The nature of democracy is that we are all equally close to God in that we are all part of one ongoing democratic development, recognizing the divine in each and every individual, average and unending as we proceed to the future: “Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines.” It’s the uneasy call of manifest destiny, the call for all to rise from the death and defeat of history to build together a future in yet uncharted lands. So he calls us together—his “eleves,” his pupils (Whitman uses the French perhaps as a nod to the active role of students who stood up to and helped topple antidemocratic forces in the 1848 French Revolution)—to continue with him on this poetic journey, to take notes, and, most of all, as we go forward, to question, always question.
Whitman’s ministry begins in this section, with his rise from the depths of shame, recognition that everyone bears a cross, and resumption of “the overstaid fraction,” a mysterious phrase that points in many directions—mathematical, physical, religious. What is broken will be healed in this poem, this consecration, and from the “grave of rock” that contained the corpse of Jesus until his ascent into heaven the poet leads “an average unending procession” of people, who will fan out around the world, crossing borders like the disciples sent by Christ, “as lambs in the midst of wolves,” to bring the good news that God’s rein was at hand. Another cosmology is in the offing, according to the poet, governed by ordinances issued in his lines, edicts connecting everyone and everything in a vision larger than anyone had yet imagined.
One source of this revelation was literary. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” he said; “Emerson brought me to a boil.” “Song of Myself” answers the essayist’s question—“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”—with a vigorous yes, its lists and catalogues affirming the idea that the individual is the true measure of society, the body politic, and the universe: each one of us has a separate identity and separate relation to the whole.
“Eleves, I salute you! come forward!” Whitman summons us with the French word for students, with the same levity as his poetic descendant, Wallace Stevens, a Frenchman manqué who also sought to create his own system of belief, searching for figures that would suffice in the absence of God. “We are part of a fraicheur,” Stevens wrote in “Nuns Painting Water-Lilies,” a freshness “inaccessible/ Or accessible only in the most furtive fiction.” Whitman teaches us to look for this spring, which may lie in a forest of dreams, furtive or not, and drink deep from what endures beyond our slumbering: the desire to annotate, to question, to say, “Enough!”
Early in “Song of Myself,” Whitman mocked those who “felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems,” and he promised that if you stayed with him in this poem, “you shall possess the origin of all poems.” But now, at the end of Section 38, Whitman refers to us as “Eleves,” French for pupils or disciples, and he tells us to “continue your annotations, continue your questionings.” What has changed from that earlier promise? Is getting at the meaning of “Song of Myself” more difficult in these later sections than in the earlier ones? What kinds of “annotations” do you think Whitman is imagining his reader will make?