The following essay analyzes this particular poem from the perspective of history and the tumultuous times of the middle 19th century America. In this time of great unrest and fight for civil rights, as well as for the basic rights of every human being, Walt Whitman chose to address this highly relevant issue in the development of America and its treatment of its citizens by writing a long poem in free verse in which he expressed his, what were considered radical democratic viewpoints. His belief was simple: treat others like you would like to be treated. He believed in egalitarianism, everyone’s right to be treated like a human being, not as a thing to be bought and sold and the brotherhood of all men. The fact that his first, self-published edition of poetry exemplified these very ideas was not met with the fervor he was expecting, he nonetheless, continued with his fight for equality not only through his poetry, but through his way of life.
Keywords: slavery, equality, abolition, civil war, democracy
“Song of Myself” was firstly published as only one of twelve poems in Whitman’s initial edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, under a different name. Its name varied from “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” in the 1856 edition and only “Walt Whitman” in the later three editions, to the one that struck the poet most piercingly “Song of Myself” in the final edition of Leaves of Grass in 1881. This way, in a long-lined free verse, he allowed his individual self of the poet to merge with that of his reader by shedding names and leaving just one human unity of self.
His first edition of poems was self-published and rather poorly acknowledged by the critical and wider reading audience. Some critics believe that was so due to the fact that he harbored radical political views by adhering to democracy. The birth of the poem took place in the tumultuous times of the 1850s, with the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law which constituted the obligated return of fugitive slaves to their owners. In his lifetime, Whitman was the witness of the Civil War and a fervent instigator of the abolition of slavery. His poetry, especially the “Song of Myself” centers on the undying ideas of democracy, egalitarianism and brotherhood of all men as the speaker takes in a runaway slave and treats him as his equal: “I had him sit next me at table” (Whitman, p. 72). It is questionable how many people at that time would help a runaway slave for fear of being punished as abetting runaway slaves. And, while other writers chose to neglect these groundbreaking events and focus their poetry on something else, Whitman was trying to portray the narrow-mindedness of such beliefs and the necessity of equality for the country to flourish into a powerful nation of united credence.
Whitman mentions ideas that crumble the American identity, such as “The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss/ or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,/ Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news,/ the fitful events” (p. 66), and that salvation should come from inside one’s mind, the “myself” of the nation, united by misery, not torn apart by it. Whitman’s “I” in the poem is not Whitman of his own time and era, but a speaker projected far into the future where the world reached a perfect democratic harmony. This Whitman of the future is teaching the Americans of the 1850s how to open their minds to a brighter, democratic future, how to think, speak and act freely, because he considers them a part of himself: “I am large, I contain multitudes” (p. 123). Even his poetic language moves away from the stiff, scholarly language so highly appraised in the poetry of the 19th century and offers numerous instances of slang and colloquialisms, bringing his poetry closer to the common man and to the common goal.
Whitman uses a multitude of “I” and it is this “I” that the readers come to identify as the model voice of the newly developed American democracy: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable” (p. 124). It is exactly because of this outspoken view of democracy that his contemporaries, with the exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought him irrelevant to the poetic circles of the time. Nonetheless, Whitman is not debased by this lack of appreciation, but continues to hold on firmly to the notion that beliefs such as his are changing America for the better: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,/ But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,/ And filter and fibre your blood” (p. 124). He seeks to liberate his readers from enslavement of all sorts, be it physical, moral, religious, social or political, on a “perpetual journey” (p. 118) of enlightenment.
For him, democracy was not just a system of political beliefs and convictions, but a way of experiencing the world, where this idea of democracy must include all individuals and treat them equally, which will be noticeable in the way an individual thinks, feels, speaks and creates. Today, many politicians speak about egalitarianism, equal rights and democracy on all levels of life, and this theme is very much present, though in a different way. In the past, people have fought to obtain these ideals, while today, we fight to keep them alive. It is up to us, individually, to do our share and make this happen, because “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,/ You must travel it for yourself” (p. 118).
Whitman, W. (2004). Walt Whitman: The Complete poems. F. Murphy, (Ed.). London: Penguin Books Ltd.