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Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ is one of the most important poems in the American canon, important for both its use of language and its vision of equality. This lesson looks at the poem’s structure, themes and interpretations.

Introduction to the Poem

‘I celebrate myself,’ declares Walt Whitman’s sprawling poem ‘Song of Myself.

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‘ First published in 1855 in Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass, ‘Song of Myself’ is one of the best known and most influential poems ever written by an American. Running to somewhere around 70 pages and divided into 52 sections, ‘Song of Myself’ takes the reader on an epic journey through many settings, time periods, viewpoints and personas. Walt Whitman had some radical ideas about America, democracy, spirituality, sexuality, nature and identity. He used ‘Song of Myself’ to explore those ideas while preaching self-knowledge, liberty and acceptance for all.

With its free-form and loose structure, its compelling rhythms, multiple themes and shifting narrators, ‘Song of Myself’ is widely considered one of the first truly modern poems. No one had ever read anything quite like it before, and it wielded a heavy influence on 20th century poets like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, some of Whitman’s passages are so steamy (more on that soon) that they shocked contemporary readers. Emily Dickinson, who wrote poetry around the same time as Whitman, once said of old Walt, ‘I have never read his book, but I was told that he was disgraceful.’ Let’s dive into the poem and take a look at what makes it so unique and enduring.

Poem Summary

‘Song of Myself’ is not a poem with a clear plotline or single point to make. Although Whitman has some distinct themes that come up over and over again, he’s juggling so many ideas, characters, images and symbols all at once that reading this poem is like holding on to a runaway horse. You just have to let it take you where it will. That’s part of what makes it so appealing to so many different types of people – you can keep going back to it again and again and finding something new.Sometimes Whitman feels like he’s preaching, and some of the sections contain direct explanations of his philosophy.

For example, one of Whitman’s favorite ideas is that we’re all equal, and he tells us so in lines like:Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.He’s also obsessed with how good life is. In lines like:Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?I hasten to tell him or her it is just as lucky to die.He’s trying to teach the reader that everything is okay. Even the nasty parts of existence are all part of a great, intelligent pattern.Other times, Whitman backs away from the teacherly voice to tell us a story or set a scene.

In the famous Section 11, Whitman takes on the persona of a young woman watching 28 beautiful young men bathe in a river.Whitman’s ability to jump in and out of other people’s points of view is part of the poem’s overall commitment to democracy and equality. ‘I can appreciate anybody,’ Whitman seems to be saying, ‘because at the heart of it, we’re all alike.’ Whitman is particularly interested in telling stories about ‘regular people,’ and he often portrays slaves, workmen, the poverty-stricken and even prostitutes.

He wants us to know that no matter what our life situation is, no one is inherently better or worse than anyone else.On the most basic level, we can think of ‘Song of Myself’ as an invitation from Walt Whitman, the poet from Long Island, to jump inside his head and take a look at the world through his eyes. As we do that, we discover with Walt just how expansive and complicated – and wonderful – it is to be a human being in mid-19th century America.

Poem Structure

As we’ve already mentioned, this poem is long – somewhere over 70 pages and hundreds of lines. It’s divided into 52 sections, but those sections aren’t arranged in any regular way. They’re varying lengths, and they aren’t contained by a regular rhyme or meter.

Whitman went back to this poem later in his life and edited it somewhat, taking out some sections here and there and smoothing others over. You may find references to more than one edition of the poem in your studies.Whitman uses poetic techniques to bring unity to what is otherwise a pretty sprawling and free-form poem. Here are a few key things to remember about the structure of ‘Song of Myself’:

  • Free Verse: A poem without a regular rhyme or meter, which feels almost like regular speech, is said to be written in free verse.

  • Long Lines: Excess is one of Whitman’s main characteristics. The lines in ‘Song of Myself’ spill over the page, sometimes filling up two or three text lines before he takes a break.
  • Lists: Whitman loves to use lists to underscore his ideals of universality, as he does in this excerpt from Section 16:
    • A farmer, mechanic or artist.

      . . a gentleman, sailor, lover or Quaker,A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.

  • Anaphora: This is a fancy poetry term that basically just means repetition at the beginning of a line. Whitman uses this device to give some energy to his long poem, keeping the rhythm going forward. Check out this example from Section 33:
    • Over the growing sugar. .

      . over the cotton plant. .

      . over the rice in its low moist field;Over the sharp-peaked farmhouse with its scalloped scum and slender shoots from the gutters.

Poem Themes

American Democracy

‘Song of Myself’ was first published in 1855. You’ll remember from history class that this was a tumultuous period in America.

A lot of things were looking great – the railroads were starting to connect people and goods from all around the country, commerce and technology were booming and new waves of immigration were bringing never-before-seen religious and ethnic diversity. At the same time, the country was already sharply divided on the issue of slavery, and the Civil War was looming. Like many people, Whitman was excited about what the U.S. could be – a place of freedom for all – and concerned about what was actually happening – a lot of injustice and internal division. ‘Song of Myself’ is part vision, part plea, for a democratic society where all are equal.

Spirituality and Self-Knowledge

Whitman can get lost in the grandeur of space or the tiniest details on a blade of grass, and he meditates on these with a passion that feels deeply spiritual. His democratic vision of the inherent equality and goodness of all life is more than just a party line – it’s a worldview in which he’s deeply invested.At the same time, Whitman is a real do-it-yourself kind of guy. He doesn’t believe you need a priest or a professor or a book to understand the world. In fact, he’s skeptical of organized religion and of so-called ‘experts’ who claim they know more than the little guy. ‘Song of Myself’ explores the ways in which everyday life can be just as profound – even as holy – as stepping inside a church. He’s riffing on ideas put forth by transcendentalism, a 19th century movement, which stressed the inherent goodness of life and believed that direct experience was the path to spiritual knowledge.

Whitman is also deeply focused on the body, in direct contrast to mainstream Christianity, which exhorts its followers to forget their physical urges in order to focus on spiritual concerns. ‘Go ahead,’ Whitman entices us, ‘be human!’ According to him, enjoying the body, not denying it, brings one closer to the divine.

Sexuality

We’ve started to touch on the theme of sexuality in our exploration of Whitman’s spiritual sense. The body is a huge part of ‘Song of Myself,’ which takes frank, direct pleasure in all matters physical. We’ve already mentioned Section 11, where Whitman assumes the voice of a woman watching beautiful men bathing naked in a river. The passage is full of longing, and such blatant recognition of desire coupled with the lusty descriptions of the men’s bodies shocked some contemporary readers.Whitman is, of course, interested in universality and democracy, and he acknowledges that women have sexual desires just like men do.

Still, Whitman is known for his intimations of homosexual relationships and feelings, and he really gets into his depictions of maleness and male bodies. Some critics have suggested that the female voice in this passage is simply a convenient mask for the fact that it’s Whitman himself who desires the bathers.

Identity

We’ve already considered the lasting impact that ‘Song of Myself’ has had on the course of American poetry. Part of what makes this poem feel so deeply modern is its presentation of an unstable identity. When the poem begins with the word ‘I’, we feel pretty comfortable with that, right? The poem’s written by Walt Whitman, so ‘I’ must be Walt, right? Not so fast. A few sections later, Walt takes on a different persona.

Then, he’s addressing an entity he calls ‘my soul,’ or another aspect he refers to as ‘me myself.’ What seems to be one person in fact turns out to be quite a complicated cast of characters. ‘What does it mean to be an individual, anyway?’ Whitman seems to be asking.This instability, as well as the desire to complicate the concept of ‘I’, became a huge part of 20th century literature.

Like Whitman, many modern authors have used their writing to explore the idea that as humans, our idea of who we are may be much more vast than we think. Most of us have a lot of voices inside us, competing for attention at different times.

Lesson Summary

Gutsy, sprawling, visionary, grand – that’s Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem ‘Song of Myself’, which takes us on a wild tour of life, popping in and out of characters, places and time periods. Whitman’s ability to see the beauty in all things, great and small, reflects his deep passion for American democracy.

‘Song of Myself’ is a radical celebration of, and plea for, equality, liberty, and joy.

Learning Outcomes

When you’ve finished watching the video, you should have the ability to:

  • Explain who Walt Whitman was
  • Discuss the structure of the poem ‘Song of Myself’
  • Consider some of the themes of ‘Song of Myself’

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