“O Me! O Life!” is a free verse poem written in the traditional Walt Whitman style. It explores the old age question that has pre-occupied human existence for ages, the question of life and its meaning. Whitman manages to weave together his free verse form with a dark imagery that portray an individual at odds with their self and their purpose in life. This paper seeks to analyze how Whitman uses his free verse form and literary devices to create a vivid imagery of an individual on a quest to find satisfaction in their existence.
The title “O Me! O Life!” has an element of pain in it. There is lamentation and anguish in the persona. Whitman’s use of ‘O’ and exclamation marks in the title reflects the striking way individuals mourn their condition. It comes out more like a cry. ‘O’ is symbolic of pain and anguish. It is used to draw the reader to the persona’s internal struggles. ‘O’ is also symbolic of that individual effort at trying to draw their attention to never ending questions about existence is filled with pain and agony. It also has the effect of drawing the reader to the deep emotions that the persona tries to conjure.
The first two lines introduce the reader to the cause of the persona’s pain. The cause of the pain is this “the endless trains of the faithless” (“Life” 2). Cities are filled with people who are always crying for attention, answers and help. In this case, the persona uses hyperbole to point out that the city has a lot of individuals who are not willing to live life without worrying too much about its meaning. There are poor results of all and cities filled with the foolish. It is apparent that not everyone in the cities is foolish but Whitman employs this hyperbole to prove that people need to do more in their life than worry. The imagery Whitman uses is that of headless individuals walking in crowds, not sure of themselves and their purpose. These images are illuminated by the use of “Of” at the beginning of every line that discusses the persona’s despair. “Of” has the effect of proving how constant individual reproach can lead to more reproach in the end creating a never ending cycle of despair that leads to faithlessness. Every sad condition is built on “Of”.
Whitman depicts a picture of a crowd that is caught in a world without purpose and meaning. People in this crowd make no effort to review and analyze their condition. They expend little effort is figuring out that reproaching oneself is not the answer to some of their existential questions. The cities are made up of fools but the persona acknowledges that there is more foolishness in himself than in the crowd since he takes part in this sorrowful charade.
“Trains”, “cities” and “crowd” prove that the setting of the persona’s worries is the urban. The choice of urban setting reveals the kind of fast life in urban setting where individuals do not stop to consider why they do what they do yet they complain every day. The trains, cities and crowds are representative of both continuity and change. What makes the persona’s condition more painful is the fact that they can see that they are aware that there is no gain in reproaching themselves yet they do it anyway.
Besides creating vivid and strong imagery, the author also uses word play to create the dark atmosphere of individual inner pain. Words like “endless”, “useless” and “faithless” denotes the hopelessness that the persona sees in themselves and society. The choice of words in particular in the first part of the poem reveals the exploratory nature of the persona’s mind. It is on a quest to find something that makes the persona restless and “faithless”. We are also presented with words like “sordid”, “plodding,” “vainly” and “empty” which paint a clear picture of despair and emptiness. They all add to the mood of the poem. The words are used to reveal the lack of connection between the persona and that which is meaningful in their existence.
In addition, to the diction that portray an endless struggle, Whitman also creates images of never ending strife when he talks about the “struggle ever renew’d” (Life 5). In this struggle emerges “poor results” and “plodding and sordid crowds” (Life 6). Through alluding to the crowd, the persona proves that their condition is not a unique condition, it is a human condition. The rhetoric employed by Whitman has the intended effect of making the reader not only question the persona and the “sordid crowds” concerns but their concerns. It draws the reader and forces them to be part of this lamentation.
The imagery of sight and seeing dominates most of the imagery in the poem. The persona notes that individuals with for and want “eyes that vainly crave the light.” People are also on the quest to get meaning out of objects but all this yield nothing because the cycle of the struggles continues and never ends. What often comes out of that need to see light is often disappointment. Instead of finding meaning in objects people end up with “poor results” and in “plodding and sordid crowds” (“Life” 5).
The solution to all this probing and question is presented at the end of the first part of the poem. There is a feeling of resignation in the question; “O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?” (“Life” 7). This feeling is however defeated by the last three lines of the poem. They are last lines are sharp and edgy. The answer to the question of light and existence is presented as a simple. One just needs to “exist” and make their contribution to society. Instead of spending time whining and crying about their condition, individuals need to just live. The essence and meaning of life come from living rather than crying and whining. The persona’s solution to all the endless trains and sordid crowds is acknowledging that one is alive; “that you are here- that life exists, and identity; /that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse” (“Life” 10).
The use of free verse, gives Whitman more freedom to use writing elements brackets and exclamation marks in the poem. They all aid in enriching the effect and atmosphere created. They help in questioning the persona’s worry as well as in creating that wake up and cry effect. The freedom of free verse aids in preparing the last verses of the poem which consist of just two simple but effective lines. The “Answer” to all the raised questions and worries are indented and clear.
Although the answer comes off as simple, there is a questions as to why Whitman says life “exists and identity” (“Life” 9). The part that the answer to all the worrying questions is that life exists is clear but the word “identity” oddly hang on this line. What the author mean by identity is not clear but it can be deduced from the worries that this identity can come from the little satisfaction that one has “contributed a verse” (“Life” 10). The persona also shows the never ending part of such questions. They note that the powerful play goes on and it is impossible for an individual not to worry. All they can do is play their part.
The persona in Whitman’s “O Me! O Life” manages to explore the question of human existence with simple language and diction. Even though the language appears simple, Whitman’s treatment of his subject is serious and deep. The simple diction is woven together with a free flowing verse that gives the poem to make a unique treatment of the meaning of life.
The last part of the poem is presented in a way that it appears to be a totally new and caring with it a meaning totally different from the first part. There are no dark imageries or worries. There is only hope that an individual can contribute their own verse. They can shape their identity and become proud of it.
“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. It weaves a dark urban imagery with individual exploration of their own world to find answers to their worries. Whitman’s choice of words help in creating an atmosphere that draws the reader into the power and reveals the effects of lamentation and worry. Besides the imagery and diction, Whitman employs rhetoric devices that help in creating the dark mood of the poem. The use of hyperbole helps in putting across the point that what the persona and humanity needs is to live life and do their part rather than become part of the worried crowd. Without experimenting with sophisticated forms and styles, Whitman manages to portray and bring to the surface human concerns without the need for sophistication and experimentation.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original Edition. NY: Dover Publication Inc. 2007.
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