Weekends with Whitman – Song of Myself (1 of 2)

Song of Myself is easily the best known of Whitman’s poems, though in reality it’s 52 poems compiled under one title. I’d like to share my thoughts on the first 26 of them.

Song of Myself reads simply and smoothly. In the first section he describes himself relaxing, thinking about the experiences of his life and his place in the world and the universe. He invites the reader to join him, encouraging the reader to “loafe” with him in the grass. He invites himself to join, though in Whitman’s metaphysics inviting oneself is the same as inviting every other person on the planet. In this way he invites the reader to become him, to relax and be him, to share his feelings, senses, and assumptions. There’s no advertising here, no effort to convince, no attempt to gain dominance over the reader. It’s an invitation that can be accepted or not.

Throughout the first part of Song of Myself, Whitman returns to a theme of experiencing himself through the lives of others. In section 15, he specifically invokes the image of weaving the lives of others into himself. He describes surgery, suicide, labor as a farmer, slave, blacksmith, and soldier and says they are also the experiences of his own life. This is probably a reflection of his journalistic attitude–he may have felt that writing about the events and people around him made them part of himself. He does this also with images of nature (section 14) and sound (section 26).

In section 11 he addresses his own sexuality using the metaphor of a horny woman living alone near a beach. As 28 young men bathe in the water she sneaks up to watch from a hidden position. He imagines her touching each of them with her gaze, and describes their appealing masculinity in detail. If he were writing this today he could title this section “I’m a horndogging creeper”. The detailed images and the specificity of the number 28 make me think he’s talking about a specific incident in his life, though I couldn’t find any confirmation.

In sections 13 and 15 he describes black slaves, specifically using the word “negro” and “wooly headed”. The images are non-judgemental, and I get the feeling he doesn’t want to provoke his readers. It may be because he needed to sell copies of the book. However, at the end of section 10 he describes giving aid for a full week to a runaway slave. When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, this put him firmly in the camp of radical abolitionism. In assisting this fugitive slave he violated the Fugitive Slave Act, and at the time, this felony could have resulted in serious prison time and confiscation of property. He tells of himself and the slave eating together at the table while his hunting rifle sits far off in the corner, to make the point that he felt no fear being alone with the man. By having a firearm within reach of the escaped slave he could also have been charged with arming the slave. So far this is the only place I’ve seen where Whitman advocates for human rights, and he deserves proportionate recognition for it.

Throughout the first 26 sections, Whitman’s belief in his own divinity and that of humanity around him continues to be an overriding theme. It’s not argued effortlessly; in fact it’s not argued at all. He makes his metaphysics clear in section 6, when he attempts to describe a couple fistfuls of grass for a child and finds himself unable to do it. He moves from the image of the child carrying hands to an image of death at the end, betraying no discontinuity. In some ways the section is similar to the first stanza of Auden’s Lullaby: “…/Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / Proves the child ephemeral”. But Whitman also uses the imagery of the grass to describe his idea of eternity and return to life itself. By carrying the grass the child is carrying eternity in his hands.

Next week I’ll attempt to discuss sections 27 through 52.

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Elena Kristensen

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