Song of Myself

o g The equalization of reader and author is the primary point Whitman stresses [j] in the first poem (which gained its title "Song of Myself' in 1881).

3 Take a look at the first portion of "Song of Myself' on the facing page.

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I CELEBRATE myself;

And what I assume you shall assume;

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my Soul;

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes;

I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it; The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation—it is odorless;

It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it;

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked; I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath;

Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine; My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;

The sound of the belch'd words of my voice, words loos'd to the eddies of the wind;

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms; The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag; The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Most outrageous of all was his direct confrontation of the reader—the use of "you" that really meant "you." This personal advancement from writer to reader, this attempt to jump off the page into the audience's immediate space and time, was a new and startling literary technique.

The irregular length and randomness of the lines, along with the use of ellipses of various sizes, looks strange enough to the eye trained on Longfellow's neat verse or Tennyson's stately measures. But the idea of engaging in a conversation with this relaxed figure, who sensually melds with the natural landscape around him (to the point where one is uncertain of the definitions of "loveroot, silkthread, crotch, and vine"), puts a more cautious reader on the defensive.

In 1855, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne was appalled by the poet's position on the grass, claiming that he "abandons all personal dignity and reserve, and sprawls incontinently before us." One hundred fifty years later, one might still wonder at a man who unabashedly declares that he will "become undisguised and naked"—and what's more, celebrate every "atom" of himself.

Read the remainder of the poem. "Song of Myself (as the poem was finally titled in 1881) may begin with "I," but the poem's last word is "you."

In between "I" and "you," the poet does inject a great deal of ego; his posture is clearly that of the poet-prophet with instructions and predictions for his listeners. The most important part of his message, however, concerns the reader's intellectual and spiritual independence. Throughout the poems, Whitman encourages the reader's active participation and independent thinking with unpredictable breaks as well as provocative questions without "right" answers (many of them bear a resemblance to Buddhist "koans"). The sense that one is left with at the end of the poem is the poet's spirit not shining over but running under the boot soles of his protégés.

As part of his plan for a new democratic art, he questioned and disrupted many other long-standing cultural boundaries: between rich and poor, men and women, races and religion.

For example in the trapper's wedding:

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west—the bride was a red girl;

Her father and his friends sat near, cross-legged and dumbly smoking—they had moccasins to their feet, and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders;

On a bank lounged the trapper—he was drest mostly in skins—his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck—he held his bride by the hand ... (lines 177-182)

Or in the story of the swimmers (lines 193-210):

Which of the young men does she like the best?

Ah, the homeliest of them is beautiful to her." (lines 198-199)

"I am the man, I suffered, I was there"

—Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass

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He even blurred the line between one being and another, as in the fireman episode:

I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken; Tumbling walls buried me in their debris;

Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades;

I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;

They have clear'd the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth.

I lie in the night air in my red shirt—the pervading hush is for my sake; Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy; White and beautiful are the faces around me—the heads are bared of their fire-caps;

The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

Distant and dead resuscitate;

They show as the dial or move as the hands of me—I am the clock myself, (lines 843-852)

But Whitman wants to do more than sing the praises of American diversity; he wants to embody each of them. He writes in line 831, 7 am the man, I suffered, I was there." Part of this strong identification shows Whitman's journalist instinct at work; he had been writing about the great fires in New York City in 1842 and 1845. This section would often be posted on New York City fire-house doors after 9/11, a remarkable tribute to the men who gave their lives.

This sense of reverence that comes despite the moment of tragedy accounts for much of Whitman's popularity with regards to some of these passages. It is Whitman's glorification of the everyday, the sense that becoming a fireman is just as important as becoming a great poet. Every vocation is on the same plane for Whitman, and this distinguishes his work from the other writing of the time.

In the next lecture we'll discuss why Whitman thought a creation such as Leaves of Grass was actually necessary. He thought, "The United States needed poets!" How strange does that sound to us today?

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