Weekends with Whitman — Song of Myself (2 of 2)

The 52 sections of Song of Myself can rightly be described as stand-alone vignettes. The first 32 maintain a crescendo–a narrative of the author’s self-creation. After that the narrative begins to break down, and the sections have a less deterministic feel. In the first part the author is describing his experiences and beliefs in the context of experiences he sought out. From section 33 onward it feels like Whitman describes events over which he has no control.

Perhaps the most profound is section 34, where Whitman describes his recollection of the Goliad Massacre during the Texas War for Independence. When Leaves of Grass was initially published the incident was almost two decades in the past, and Goliad is nearly 1500 miles from Paumanok where Whitman grew up. While the massacre was atrocious, hundreds of atrocities were reported annually at the time. So why would this incident warrant mention by Whitman? The following lines offer a clue:

 Whitman himself was 17 years old at the time of the massacre, and the story of the same-aged boy fighting back against his killers clearly impacted Whitman. There’s a good chance that the particular detail was contrived, either by reporting at the time or by Whitman’s mind itself. Nevertheless, it was clearly a formative experience for him and he never forgot it.

Throughout the rest of Song of Myself, Whitman describes images and scenes of war and battle. In sections 35 and 36 he describes sea battles. Section 33 ends with a call to battle from “my dying general”, and section 41 describes a battlefield hospital.

Whitman also confronts his own mortality, and it’s likely this reflects late-life revisions to the work. Section 43 discusses his embrace of all religions and his certainty that he will return in 5,000 years. In section 48 he lays out his belief that his soul is not more than his body, and that even God cannot be greater than the self. While he doesn’t refer to the New Testament, this is a reflection of Christian morality–that the highest measure of morality is the Self. In 49 he speaks to the personage of death. In 51 he speaks to his readers about his mortality, and employs his famous stanza “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”. In the final section, 52, Whitman describes the natural world beckoning him toward death. The spotted hawk complains of his loitering. The sunset throws his shadow across the ground, and pulls him “to the vapor and the dusk”. He tells the reader “if you want me again look for me under your bootsoles”. Whitman’s metaphysics served him well in the latter part of his life when he was grievously disabled, since it led him to embrace and welcome death.

In section 37 Whitman expresses empathy with those who suffer. He describes the terminally ill, abused children, convicts, and beggars. He describes himself begging and suffering with them. It made me think of Johnny Cash’s Man in Black. What’s unfortunate in this is that he fails to mention the suffering of black Americans living in chains and indigenous people who were being continually displaced and slaughtered.

The last section I want to mention is section 32. In this part he discusses his love of nature, noting that he could live with animals, and how he admires their minds–how they aren’t greedy, jealous, or guilty. He discusses his wonderment at seeing himself in them. He ends by describing a powerful homosexual experience using the metaphor of himself riding and, in the process, being ridden by a stallion. Once the experience is over he tells the stallion he’s done with him. While many at the time, and in this time, were calling homosexuality immoral and unnatural, Whitman embraced the naturalness and beauty of it.

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Elena Kristensen

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