“I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” — Walt Whitman
“Song of Myself” is a poem from the collection “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Even though it is different from Whitman’s other works, it represents the core of Whitman’s visions.
Written in a free verse style, the poem is easily approachable to the audience and can be readily understood.
The Celebration of Individualism in “Song of Myself”
Individualism and unity seem to be contrary terms, but both are important American ideas. In order to achieve unity in a community, however, people often compromise by sacrificing individualism and conforming. While patriotic voices that celebrated unity were prevalent, there were also people who believed in the power of individuality. As critics of the people and society that practiced conformity, the transcendentalists urged that each individual find “an original relation to the universe” (Emerson) through nature and literature. While not defined as a typical transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, a poet born in 1819, explores important transcendentalism ideas in his poem “Song of Myself”, including the divinity of Nature and attitudes toward death. More importantly, he intertwines such ideas with the strength of the Self, supporting the transcendentalists’ beliefs about independence and self-reliance. In “Song of Myself”, Whitman celebrates the beauty of individualism through expressing the comfort each of us finds in Nature, honoring the diversity of the American society made up of each unique individual, and praising the Self’s fearlessness in the face of death.
In the beginning of “Song of Myself”, Whitman honors individualism by portraying the goodness the Self finds in Nature; Whitman strengthens the connection between Self and Nature through the use of various literary devices that include symbolism. Starting with the line “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”, Whitman introduces the main idea of the poem. The speaker values the time alone in Nature: the Self relaxes and “loafe[s] at [his] ease” in natural environments. In the following lines, the speaker expresses its sense of belonging in Nature through narrating that “my tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air” and through the repetition of “parents the same.” From praising the beauty of Nature, Whitman also celebrates individualism as the feelings of relaxation and belonging are different for and unique to each individual as they experience Nature in various ways. Likewise, in the second section of the poem, Whitman communicates the love of individualism through being able to “breathe the fragrance myself” and knowing that “[the smell] is for my mouth forever.” Only through an independent process can the Self enjoy the feeling of comfort in nature, which is something the Self can cherish permanently. Whitman implies that the Self has the power to distillate the essence of the smell in Nature, celebrating individualism through every line. The poet expresses the passion the individual finds in Nature, where Self can be “undisguised and naked” and taste “the feeling of health.” In the final stanza of the section, Whitman makes the argument that it is in Nature where individuals can start to learn and understand; in order to do this, people have to “listen to all sides and filter them from [themselves].”
Besides praising individualism in terms of its relationship with Nature, Whitman also honors the uniqueness of individuals and the diversity they make up, especially in the case of the American society. In section 16 and 17 of “Song of Myself”, the poet praises different individuals for being unique and for making the country of the United States unique. Whitman juxtaposes varying traits like “old and young”, “foolish as much as the wise”, “maternal as well as paternal”, different occupations, and diverse origins, ranging from a Kentuckian to Californians. He appreciates the beauty of individualism by describing individuals as “regardless of others”; the poet also connects individuality with the community by writing that they are “ever regardful of others.” Using the straightforward language and the parallel structure of describing different origins of Americans, Whitman is able to celebrate diversity of America, which “resist any thing better than my[America’s] own diversity”. The juxtaposition of the detailed hometowns of people as well as the first-person speaker that represents America demonstrate that without the differences among individuals and individualism, diversity would not exist; by honoring diversity, Whitman also celebrates individualism.
While Whitman celebrates Self throughout the poem, he admits that death is part of individualism; instead of avoiding the topic, he uses each individual’s fearless spirit in the face of death to honor individualism. In the poem, Whitman glorifies the life cycles of each us, including birth and death to celebrate individualism because the life of every individual is immortal and there is no fear for death. In section 49, Whitman characterizes Death and considers it “idle to try to alarm me.” Instead of constantly fearing Death, the end of life, Whitman believes that the Self finds “relief and escape”; similarly, Whitman personifies the Corpse and associates it with pleasant olfactory experiences like “white roses sweet-scented and growing”, demonstrating that in the face of Death, individuals are completely intrepid. To the speaker of the poem, which represent the voice of an individual, death is “form, union, plan- it is eternal life- it is Happiness.” The dauntless attitude of the Self is also reflected in the final section of the poem, where the speaker shifts and narrates to the individuals that “you will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good heath to you nevertheless.” With that being said, Whitman ends the poem with him honoring individualism as it has the strength of fearlessly facing death.
In the collection “Leaves of Grass”, the poem “Song of Myself” pertains to the element grass. Throughout the poem, Whitman uses grass as a symbol of the cycle of life to reinforce his arguments of the celebration of individualism in terms of nature, diversity and Death. Using grass as a symbol of different elements, Whitman is able to communicate messages that celebrate individualism. In section 6, Whitman describes grass as a symbol of a child as “the produced babe of the vegetation”, further intertwining the concept of Self and Nature with one another. By expressing the goodness of the grass, which “transpire form the breasts of young men”, Whitman communicates his love for individualism as grass represents each unique Self under this context. In addition, Whitman uses grass to appreciate diversity. In the same section, Whitman imagines grass “growing among black folks as among white / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff”, appreciating the experience of living as an individual while experiencing the diversity of race, origin and occupation: from individualism, people understand diversity. In section 17, Whitman describes the plant as “the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is”, celebrating the American land while honoring the flexibility of individuals. In the last several sections, however, Whitman gives grass another layer of meaning: it starts to represent the life cycle of human beings. Whitman uses the phrase “grass of graves” and writes that “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” From doing so, he connects the idea of Death with Nature, and at the same time celebrates the endless cycle of the Self, whose life starts and ends in Nature. Finally, Whitman ends the poem with the famous line “I stop somewhere waiting for you”, urging each one of us to find the visceral connection between Nature, Death and ourselves.
While individualism seems to conflict with unity, Whitman does not deny the value of the larger community when celebrating individualism in the poem, where he includes Nature, diversity and Death to honor the merits of Self. Like the transcendentalist ideas, these ideas connect closely with individuality, and they help us understand our “original relation to the universe.”
information: Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” from “Leaves of Grass”.