Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
One hundred fifty years ago, Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a collection of twelve poems that shattered existing notions of poetry and broke all existing conventions in terms of subject matter, language, and style. During Victorian times, Whitman broke taboos: he wrote about slaves, prisoners, prostitutes, sexuality, his love for men, and his vision for a utopian America.
“Walt Whitman: Song of Myself” explores how a 36-year old freelance journalist and part-time house-builder living in Brooklyn created his outrageous, groundbreaking work that irrevocably altered the development of poetry—and literature—that followed. One of the nation’s first media hounds, he styled his image and his persona throughout his lifetime in search of fame and the broadest possible audience. He even hoped to heal a divided nation with this poetry, a lofty goal he would not reach. Despite never reaching a mass public during Whitman’s lifetime, his work’s tremendous impact is being felt a century and a half later.
“Song of Myself” is a sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic meditation. It is not nearly as heavy-handed in its pronouncements as “Starting at Paumanok”; rather, Whitman uses symbols and sly commentary to get at important issues. “Song of Myself” is composed more of vignettes than lists: Whitman uses small, precisely drawn scenes to do his work here. This poem did not take on the title “Song of Myself” until the 1881 edition. Previous to that it had been titled “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” and, in the 1860, 1867, and 1871 editions, simply “Walt Whitman.” The poem’s shifting title suggests something of what Whitman was about in this piece. As Walt Whitman, the specific individual, melts away into the abstract “Myself,” the poem explores the possibilities for communion between individuals. Starting from the premise that...