© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Walt Whitman was born on Long Island and lived much of his life in Brooklyn. Though he had little formal education, he eventually worked as a journalist, teacher, and government clerk. But he is, of course, best known for his poetry, and especially for his volume Leaves of Grass, which he initially self-published in 1855, then repeatedly revised, expanded, and republished for the remainder of his life. An innovative poet who has often been described as the “father of free verse,” Whitman wrote some of the best-known and most influential poems in American literary history.
His long poem “Song of Myself,” first published in an untitled form in the first edition of Leaves of Grass and then revised several times for subsequent editions, is generally considered to express the core of his very American poetic vision—celebrating creativity and individuality in a way that looks back to the Romantic poets of Europe but in a style that is distinctively American. In its final form, the poem consists of 52 numbered sections, generally thought to reflect the fact that there are 52 weeks in a year. The first section sets the tone for the entire poem, establishing Whitman as a very American voice (“Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same”) but also announcing a very American determination to “sing” in his own voice:
I celebrate myself, and sing 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.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
“Song of Myself” was considered obscene by many at the time, largely because its declarations of self-acceptance include acceptance of the physical aspects of the body, including sexual ones. “If I worship one thing more than another,” he writes, “it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it.” But his acceptance of himself includes an acceptance of and sense of kinship with others as well. Indeed, the “self” of the poem often appears to be a sort of collective American self, and not simply Whitman. And this expression of camaraderie includes others of all sexes, professions, and races (though elsewhere Whitman sometimes fell victim to the prejudices of his time). Thus, in one stanza of the long tenth section, he imagines himself giving harbor to a runaway slave:
The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.
“Song of Myself” is, among other things, an extended celebration of nature, as is much Romantic poetry, but the poem expresses its admiration for the natural in an earthy, gritty way that has little in common with the lofty voices of the European Romantics. Whitman’s poem shows a strong influence of the American Transcendentalist movement of the 1820s and 1830s, which was itself influenced by European Romanticism and which was centrally informed by a faith in the innate goodness of both humans and nature. The opening stanza of the 31st section is typical [a “pismire” is an ant]:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
“Song of Myself” also includes some of American poetry’s most famous lines, with the most famous probably appearing in the penultimate section, especially in his expression of his own unbounded multiplicity in lines that would become an inspiration for Bob Dylan’s 2020 song “I Contain Multitudes”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The brief “O Captain! My Captain!” and the much longer “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” two of Whitman’s four poems in reaction to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom he much admired, have also become central to the canon of American poetry. The first of these is especially simple and straightforward, building on a single, central metaphor of America as a ship that has lost its captain:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Through such memorable poems, Whitman has become widely regarded as the central poet in the American tradition. The modernist poet Ezra Pound said that Whitman was “America’s poet … He is America.” The literary critic Harold Bloom argued that
“You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”
No one, in short, can doubt Whitman’s importance as one of the central figures who contributed to the building of a national cultural identity for an America that was still very much struggling, during his lifetime, to define itself.