Whitman's Celebration - Thoughts on "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman

May 2023

With his opening line in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman ushers in a new era of American poetry that was free from the bounds of rhyme scheme or precise meter. The poem almost reads as if Whitman wrote it while galloping through an American field without the slightest temporal constraint. He exclaims his love for life with an unfettered passion. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman gives light to new themes that previously did not permeate American literature. Throughout the poem, he expounds on the beauty of existence, the excellency of humanity, and the duality of life and America.

“Song of Myself” is a celebration of life. Whitman celebrates the beauty of his own existence and the opportunity he has been given to breathe. He writes on line fourteen, “My respiration and inspiration.” Whitman’s life is inspiration. With every breath, he is inspired to take another and relish more of the beauty of his own existence. He writes how he is almost mad with his passion for life and the beauty that surrounds him. Through lines sixty to sixty-five, Whitman explains how negatives like sickness and loss of love or unrequited love come and go, but they do not make up his experience of life. His life is freedom. He is the ultimate expression of freedom. He cannot be shackled by unfortunate circumstances or occurrences that all people must experience. He is making the conscious, or even unconscious, choice to be free and embrace the beauty of life and his own existence. Before writing “Song of Myself,” Whitman gave up the traditional pursuit of riches and power to be a poet. It is through “Song of Myself” that he expresses his nature as a freed man, a man free not only in the American sense but also freed from those things that shackle even the most free Americans.

Along with the beauty of human life, Walt Whitman makes clear in “Song of Myself” his belief in human excellence. Whitman writes throughout the poem about the agency of humankind and how humans have the ability to achieve the same freedom that he has achieved for himself, truly only through changing their minds. He paints this as an almost divine quality. Whitman writes later in the poem, “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from” (Whitman Line 526). Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman suggests an unorthodox conception of God that emphasizes the ability God has given to humanity: humans have the power to shape their lives as the God they look to to do so. Whitman suggests that he, as a human who embraces his humanity, can be not only an intercessor between man and God but act as a divine being himself. He writes, “I believe in flesh and the appetites, Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle” (Whitman Line 524-525). Whitman has embraced himself and his humanity as the true divine force. He takes his own agency as ruler of his own destiny. He has embraced his own “Manifest Destiny” to rule himself and be free to do so. God became man, so that man may become God; Whitman embraces this to the fullest extent in “Song of Myself.”

However, freedom and beauty of life are not the totality of the themes expressed in “Song of Myself.” Whitman also makes direct references to the duality of life and life in America, especially. Whitman is writing in a post-Revolutionary-War but pre-Civil-war America. This period was a time when states were unifying but also on the brink of war with one another. The dual nature of mid-nineteenth America shapes themes of “Song of Myself.” Early in the poem, Whitman writes, “I have heard what the talkers were talking .... the talk of the beginning and the end, But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. There was never more inception than there is now” (Whitman Lines 30-31). This is the end of the old America and the beginning of something new. However, for Whitman, this is a time of so much birth and creation that he cannot focus on what once was.

Whitman understands, nevertheless, that through the beauty of creation, there is ugliness as well. In lines 274-305, Whitman describes American scenes. He writes of the opium addict and then the prostitute who is laughed and jeered at and then the President, holding a cabinet meeting. These scenes make clear the contrast between the honor and horror of a new nation and how the two can become superposed. Directly after these comparisons, Whitman suggests how he feels home in every state. He is “free and enveloped” (Whitman 325). How can this compare to the America experienced by slaves like Frederick Douglass who also wrote their life experiences during this time? Even in free states, Douglass was judged horribly and treated still as a free slave as opposed to a free man. However, Whitman writes how he is “the hounded slave” (Whitman 838). Whitman, here, connects himself with Frederick Douglass and others like him. He seeks not to escape from the other brutal realities occurring around him but rather to attempt to be one with them.

In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman expresses a new vision of one’s self that is uniquely American while calling back to classic Humanist ideals. He refuses to be limited to set structures or preoccupations. By celebrating himself, Whitman frees himself and, thus, offers the ability for all humanity to be freed from the constant struggle to conform to the ways of old.