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"Song of Myself" is a poem by Walt Whitman that is included in his work Leaves of Grass.

Publication history

The poem was first published without sections and appeared as the first of twelve untitled poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Today it is one of the best-known poems in the book. The first edition was published by Whitman at his own expense.

In the edition of 1856, Whitman used the title "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American", which was shortened to "Song of Myself" in the 1860 edition. The poem was divided into fifty-two numbered sections in the 1867 edition.

Walt Whitman hoped that his poem would reunite America, thereby avoiding the American Civil War.

Literary styles

There seems to be a strong Transcendentalist influence on the poem, a theory somewhat validated by Ralph Waldo Emerson's enthusiastic letter praising the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In addition to this romanticism, the poem seems to anticipate a kind of realism that would only come to the forefront of United Statesmarker literature after the Civil War.

In the following 1855 passage, for example, we can see Whitman's inclusion of the gritty details of everyday life :
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,

He will never sleep any more as he did it in the cot in his mother's bedroom;

The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,

He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;

The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,

What is removed drops horribly in a pail;

The quadroon girl is sold at the stand . . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove ... (section 15)

"Self"

In this poem Whitman seems to put himself in the center, but the "self" of the poem's speaker - the "I" of the poem - should not be limited to or confused with the person of the historical Walt Whitman. This is an expansive persona, one that has exploded the conventional boundaries of the self. "I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe .... and am not contained between my hat and boots" (section 7).

There are several other quotes from the poem that make it apparent that Whitman does not see himself as the voice of one individual. Rather, he seems to be speaking for all:

  • “in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (Section 20)
  • “it is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you” (Section 47)
  • “I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Section 51)
  • “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Section 1)


Two articles, Alice L. Cook's "A Note on Whitman's Symbolism in 'Song of Myself'" and John B. Mason's "Walt Whitman Catalogues: Rhetorical Means for Two Journeys in 'Song of Myself", give interpretations as to the meaning of the 'self' as well as its importance to the poem. Cook writes of the “concept of 'self' in its individual and universal aspects” while Mason discusses “the reader’s involvement in the poet’s movement from the singular to the cosmic.” The "self" serves as an ideal, yet, in contrast to traditional epic poetry, this identity is one of the common people rather than an elevated hero.

References

  1. Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0520226879. p. 181
  2. Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1962. p. 78.


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