What is the meaning of life? This question has pre-occupied human existence for ages. This quest for meaning is reflected in scientific expeditions, art, and in most religious gatherings. In “O Me! O Life!” Walt Whitman mocks this human pre-occupation with finding meaning. The fear of not knowing what life is and of being dissatisfied with one’s contribution cripples the spirit of life. Not only does he see human folly in people around him but also in himself. Life has become a “recurring” and “endless” lamentation on sorrow, sorrow that is induced by constant self-flagellation. This paper seeks to analyze how Walt Whitman uses rhetoric in the poem to make his point across about human existence.
Whitman’s use of ‘O’ and exclamation marks in the title reflects the striking way individuals mourn their condition. ‘O’ is symbolic of pain and anguish. It is used to draw the reader to the persona’s internal struggles. According to Burke, a symbol is a physical or abstract element like a statue or monument that represents something through resemblance or association. ‘O’ is symbolic of that individual effort at trying to draw their attention to never ending questions about existence is filled with pain and agony. Whitman calls this “the endless trains of the faithless” (“Life” 2). Cities are filled with foolish people who are always crying for attention, answers and help. No one stops to marvel at the fact that there is more to life than “reproaching oneself” (“Life” 3). The city is inhabited by fools but Whitman sees more foolishness in himself since he is taking part in this play of reproach and sorrow. Trains, cities and crowd are representative of the endlessness of life. They are representative of continuity and change.
Whitman takes a critical question and subject matter and successfully compresses and manages to appeal to the reader through the chosen medium of poem. The style he adopts makes the poem more powerful. The last two lines are full of life and hope and some reassurance that no matter the circumstances, life does go on and everyone has a role to play no matter how small that role is. Whitman’s treatment of the subject of the meaning of life is a recurring motif in his seminal work Leaves of Grass. In “Song of Myself, Section 32” he admires the carefree way animals live. He thinks he could, “turn and live with animals,” because “they are so placid and /self-contain’d” (1-2). He does not see contentment visible in animals in himself or people around him.
What is it that people do and wish for? Whitman observes that they have “eyes that vainly crave the light,” they are always seeking the meaning of ‘objects’ and the struggle is always renewed (“Life” 4). There is no end to this struggle. The persona sees “poor results” in this endeavor and sees “plodding and sordid crowds” (“Life” 5). This is his reproach to all those around him, they are unimaginative and shameful. The result is “empty and useless years” spent asking O me! O life! (Life” 6).
The question about life comes explicitly at the end of the first stanza. The persona asks the most powerful and critical question in the poem, “O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?” (“Life” 7). Then comes a sharp one word stanza – “Answer” (“Life” 8). The last stanza provides the answer to all these recurring and endless questions. Unlike the first stanza, the last stanza is only two sentences long. This shows that to the persona the answer is much simpler that people make it. People take too much time “whining over their conditions” when the answer lies in the fact that life is meaning is life. Living all there is to life. The answer is; “that you are here- that life exists, and identity; /that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse” (“Life” 9-10). The persona believes that all there is to life is living and that the sorrow and yearning for meaning never stops. What then is important is that one will leave their mark. They will “contribute a verse” (“Life” 10).
“Oh Me! O Life!” is a dark free verse poem that has light illuminating at the end. It is an individual as well as human soul searching and exploration. His conclusion is that despite the negatives and difficulties one must continue leaving. According to Whitman, the answer to some of life’s difficult questions is simple. The answer is to stop saying O me O life but to embrace reality. The answer lies in the fact that one is alive and has a particular identity no matter how undesirable that identity can be. What matters is making one’s contribution. That contribution might in the end have an impact on the world. This conclusion is neatly laid out and is made short to draw the reader to the intended reaction the persona seeks. The reaction is that of relief, of realizing that one can stop living in the “sordid crowds” and live their lives freely.
There is the use of the images of the city, the rhetoric of display. Cities and crowds are symbolic of the ways in which people move on heedlessly without taking much time to think about why they are not happy with their lives. Cities are filled with foolish individuals who do not make it their task to see what exactly make them who they are. There is vanity and darkness. This darkness can be removed by simply acknowledging that one exists and might do their part in the continuation of the human species.
Bitzer argues that rhetoric is a way of changing reality. This change is achieved not by applying energy to the target but by creating a discourse that is capable of effecting change through thoughts and actions (3). He goes on to say that there exists three elements that make a rhetoric situation rhetorical. These elements are exigence, an audience and constraints. These elements though a bit difficult to decipher are apparent in Whitman’s depiction of the human condition and the never ending search of purpose and meaning. The author sounds like he is talking about himself. The initial reading and understanding will make the reader believe that the writer is talking about himself and is directing their pain at themselves. But upon close reading we get the sense that “O Me Oh Life” has more than the persona in mind as the target. The reader can take up in the pining and anguish. They see themselves in the cities and crowds, thinking about their own condition. The advantage of a poem in addressing a rhetorical situation is its ability to alter language and mold it in a way to fit the writer’s intentions.
O Me! O Life! is a poem that deals with some of life’s most difficult abstract questions. Whitman manages to give an answer to that question by a few lines packed with drama and meaning. The poem is rhetoric in display. The poem takes the reader on a self-exploratory journey. The reader is no longer asking the persona questions, he becomes part of the poem. The reader is slowly drawn to the dark world of an unfulfilled life. After this journey, Whitman ends on a positive note; he offers the reader relief and hope. To address the question of rhetoric, one has to figure out what the writer is addressing, their purpose, their audience and individual factors that forced the writer to address their subject the way they did. Whitman is a writer who went through painful phases in life and through his poems he found a voice to talk about those problems not as necessarily unique problems that applied to him only but as universal problems that could affect any human being. He manages to convince the reader that they are not on their own. Even writers face these problems too and they move forward by accepting their fate and mission.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric 1. 1 (1968): 1-14.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original Edition. NY: Dover Publication Inc. 2007.
---. “Song of Myself.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 2. Apr. 2015.