This book offers the most comprehensive and detailed reading to date of Song of Myself. One of the most distinguished critics in Whitman Studies, Ed Folsom, and one of the nation’s most prominent writers and literary figures, Christopher Merrill, carry on a dialog with Whitman, and with each other, section by section, as they invite readers to enter into the conversation about how the poem develops, moves, improvises, and surprises. Instead of picking and choosing particular passages to support a reading of the poem, Folsom and Merrill take Whitman at his word and interact with “every atom” of his work. The book presents Whitman’s final version of the poem, arranged in fifty-two sections; each section is followed by Folsom’s detailed critical examination of the passage, and then Merrill offers a poet’s perspective, suggesting broader contexts for thinking about both the passage in question and the entire poem.
About the Author
Ed Folsom, the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa, is the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, codirector of the online Whitman Archive, and editor of the Whitman Series at the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
Christopher Merrill has published numerous collections of poetry, edited volumes, books of translations, and nonfiction, including Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War. He is the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
Read an Excerpt
Song of Myself
With a Complete Commentary
By Walt Whitman
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 1881 Walt Whitman
All rights reserved.
Song of Myself
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
* * *
Whitman opens his poem with a conventional iambic pentameter line, as if to suggest the formal openings of the classic epics, before abandoning metrics for a free-flowing line with rhythms that shift and respond to the moment. Instead of invoking the muse to allow him to sing the epic song of war, rage, and distant journeys, Whitman becomes his own muse, singing himself and announcing that the subject of his epic will be himself. He "celebrates" that self, and the etymology of the word celebrate indicates "to return to" or "to frequent." The whole poem will be Whitman's record of the self expanding out into the world, absorbing more and more experience, then contracting back into the self, coming home to the body, discovering that he can contain and hold the wild diversity of experience that he keeps encountering on his journeys through the world. He sets out to expand the boundaries of the self to include, first, all fellow Americans, then the entire world, and ultimately the cosmos. When we come to see just how vast the self can be, what can we do but celebrate it by returning to it again and again?
Throughout the poem, Whitman probes the question of how large the new democratic self can become before it dissipates into contradiction and fragmentation, and each time he seems to reach the limit, he dilates even more. In the first three lines, he abandons the two main things that have separated people throughout history, that have created animosity, jealousy, and war — beliefs and possessions: "And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." At every level of our being, we are incessantly transferring and exchanging materials, ideas, emotions, affections. The atoms that yesterday composed a living cow or a growing plant today are part of us, as the eternal atoms of the universe continue their nonstop interaction and rearrangement.
It is in this way that Whitman introduces us to his two main characters, "I" and "you." This section begins with "I" and ends with "you," just as the entire Song of Myself does the same: we experience the transfer of energy from Whitman's "I" to the "you," the pronoun that we as readers learn to inhabit in this poem. It is possible to hear the "you" in Song as addressed to the entire nation or the entire world, and it is also possible to hear it as intimately addressed only to the individual reader in this particular moment of encounter. It is one of the most difficult words in the poem to translate, because the second-person pronoun in English is quite promiscuous: "you" is the word we use to address our most intimate lover as well as a total stranger, a single person alone with us in a room or a vast crowd. Whitman teases out all the implications of this promiscuous English pronoun that signals at once only you, a "simple separate person," and also you, the "en masse," the world of potentially intimate strangers who always hover around us. Translators must decide in each case whether the "you" is informal or formal, singular or plural, and each time they make that decision, a bit of Whitman's wildly suggestive ambiguity disappears.
The speaker of the poem "loafes" and observes "a spear of summer grass," and the entire poem is generated in that act. Thinking of the land he grew up in and of his ancestors, he realizes that every leaf of grass is a sign of transference, like the grass that grows from graves, as the atoms of the dead arise again out of the earth and now give voice to him, forming the very tongue that will sing of his past (his organ of vocalization is literally made up of the atoms of the land he sings on and sings about). So Song of Myself starts us out on what the poet will call "a perpetual journey," one that turns into an escape narrative for all readers of the poem, who need to liberate themselves from all the enslaving beliefs and possessions that prevent individual growth, who need to put "Creeds and schools in abeyance" and risk a journey that will take us beyond preconceived notions of "good" and "bad," a journey that will allow us to confront the "original energy" of nature unchecked, nature freed of the restraints that we have all been taught to put on it.
It is said that a poem is an act of attention — to someone, something, some experience or portion of existence, grasped, imagined, or remembered — and in the first section of Song of Myself Whitman offers an image of the poet attending to the world, loafing, leaning, opening his soul up to the universe. What he observes could not be simpler, a spear of grass, and that is the point: a poem seeking nothing less than to tell the story of the universe, within and without, will begin at the atomic level, in the blood, the soil, the air, and circulate everywhere. This is the testament of a man determined to enlarge our imaginative capacities.
The influence of Song of Myself on American poetry is incalculable. The poet insists that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" — words that have inspired countless poets to map new worlds. Indeed it is hard to imagine William Carlos Williams discovering "the pure products of America," Theodore Roethke undertaking "the long journey out of the self," or Allen Ginsberg writing "Howl" absent Whitman, not to mention the work of contemporary poets like C. K. Williams and Pattiann Rogers. We all live under the gaze of that pioneer who counsels us, in the final lines of Song of Myself, to look for him under our boot-soles.
A word about Whitman's prosody: the movement from iambic pentameter in the first line to cadenced free verse in the manner of the Psalms signals his departure from traditional English versification, propelling him from the known into the unknown. He is ever traveling toward the future, from a spear of grass to the farthest star and back again, and for this journey he will need a more versatile music than he could muster in blank verse. The line that he discovered, versets of variable lengths, could accommodate an extraordinary range of subject, diction, tone, imagery, and ideas: "Nature without check with original energy." This energy fuels his song.CHAPTER 2
Song of Myself
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
* * *
In this section, Whitman breaks out of enclosures, whether they be physical enclosures or mental ones. In one of his early notebooks, Whitman had drafted the line "Literature is full of perfumes," a recognition that books and philosophies and religions all offer filtered versions of how to view the world. They are all "intoxicating" — alluring, to be sure, but also toxic. We are always tempted to live our lives according to the views of those who came before us, but Whitman urges us to escape such enclosures, to open up the senses fully, and to breathe the undistilled atmosphere itself. It is in this literal act of breathing that we gain our "inspiration," the actual breathing in of the world. In this section, Whitman records the physicality of singing, of speaking a poem: a poem, he reminds us, does not derive from the mind or the soul but from the body. Our inspiration comes from our respiration, and the poem is "the smoke of my own breath," the breathing of the atoms of the air back out into the world again as song. Poems are written, Whitman indicates here, with the lungs and the heart and the hands and the genitals — with the air oxygenating our blood in the lungs and pumping it to our brain and every part of our body. We write (just as we read) with our bodies as much as our minds.
The poet in this section allows the world to be in naked contact with him, until he can feel at one with what before had seemed separate — the roots and vines now are experienced as part of the same erotic flow that he feels in his own naked body ("love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine"), and he is aware of contact and exchange, as he breathes the world in only to breathe it back out again as an undistilled poem. All the senses are evoked here — smell ("sniff of green leaves"), hearing ("The sound of the belch'd words of my voice"), touch ("A few light kisses"), sight ("The play of shine and shade"), and taste ("The smoke of my own breath," that "smoke" the sign of a newly found fire within).
Now Whitman gently mocks those who feel they have mastered the arts of reading and interpretation. As we read this poem, Whitman wonders if we have "felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems," and he invites us now to spend a "day and night" with him as we read Song of Myself, a poem that does not hide its meanings and require occult hermeneutics to understand it. Rather, he offers up his poem as one that emerges from the undistilled and unfiltered sources of nature, the words "belch'd" (uttered, cried out, violently ejected, bellowed) instead of manicured and shaped. This is a poem, Whitman suggests, that does not want to become a guide or a "creed," but wants to make you experience the world with your own eyes and ears and fingertips. We take in this poet's words, and then "filter them" from our selves, just as we do with the atmosphere and all the floating, mingling atoms of the world.
What poet can resist the temptation to "possess the origin of all poems," to drink continuously from the source of inspiration? This is what Whitman offers in the second section of Song of Myself, and much more — "the good of the earth and sun" and all the stars, not to mention learning how to take experience at first hand: to see what is truly there, to establish, as Emerson wrote, "an original relationship with the universe." To forge such a relationship the poet leaves behind the intoxicating perfume of human society and sets out on his own to breathe the odorless, inspiriting atmosphere of nature: a state of freedom, of readiness, in which the poet opens himself — and in flows the world. He invokes all of his senses — taste, touch, sound, smell, sight — in the long sentence fragment with which the second stanza concludes, for he is alert now to what is there: "The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea rocks, and of hay in the barn." He takes it all in, he makes song out of his meeting with the sun, he extends his hand to anyone willing to stop with him for a day and a night. He promises to teach us to see and sing for ourselves, free of every influence, including that of the teacher. Here are the keys to a kingdom stretching to the very limits of the imagination. And here is how to take the measure of the universe — the grid within which the poems of the future will be written.CHAPTER 3
Song of Myself
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 any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied — I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover'd with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?
* * *
In this section, Whitman tells us what all the "talkers" he has heard over the years have always said. These talkers — whether philosophers or politicians or pundits or preachers — always "talk of the beginning and the end," birth and death, how all of life should be categorized and partitioned into separate and exclusive areas. All the words Whitman uses in this section (and the previous one) to characterize this kind of speech — "talk" and "discuss" and "reckon" — have in their etymological roots the sense of splitting, carving up, putting in columns, breaking apart. Whitman distinguishes himself from these talkers: "I do not talk of the beginning or the end." The speaker of Song of Myself is out to celebrate "now," the fragile but eternal moment of life, of the present, always the only moment in which we live, in which all of life lives. His fourfold repetition of "now" emphasizes the "here and now," the moment Whitman wrote the poem and the moment we read it.
Whitman rejects division, separation, and hierarchy and instead celebrates the "knit of identity," the ways we are literally comprised of differences, born of mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers before them, who were themselves composed of the atoms of the world in continual flux, a flux that now produces each of us. Our "distinction" is always a result of this knitting, this "breed of life," this "procreant urge" of "sex" that brings together individuals again and again to produce new individuals — individuals who should never forget the endless knitting of the world that produced them. Even the apparent division between body and soul is an illusion, Whitman says, for only in the knit of body and soul is identity formed: "Lack one lacks both." Today we have material bodies and are the "seen," but someday we will not have bodies and will become "the unseen." When we are "unseen," we will still receive "proof" of our existence by the new bodies that have emerged from the "procreant urge" of "now." We the living are the "proof" of the generations of the dead who produced us: they live in us, just as we will live in the bodies that have yet to be produced. There is, then, no "beginning" and "end": birth and death are just misleading words that divert us from realizing the ongoing nature of life, the endless process of composting that does not distinguish birth from death. In the ongoing moment of "now," everything exists and nothing ends.
So Whitman rejects all the attempts to divide the world into "beginnings" and "ends," into "the best" and "the worst," into good and evil. Instead, he mutes all the talking and discussing and decides to "go bathe and admire myself," to celebrate the brief but eternal moment of "now" that he inhabits (there will always and only be a "now"). The "hugging and loving bed-fellow" that sleeps at Whitman's side was, in the original version of Song of Myself, identified as "God." God is, for Whitman, an affectionate companion who, each morning, leaves him baskets of surprise, pregnant with possibilities. Every day, every "now," is a basket of possibility, yet so many of us "scream at [our] eyes" not to see this gift and to waste our moments of "now" by "ciphering" and dividing and accounting and chasing false value, mistaking money for happiness, mistaking accounting for living.
"I and this mystery here we stand," Whitman declares exactly midway through the third section. The line serves as a hinge between his discovery of the force of desire, "the procreant urge of the world," and his delight in a lover, who leaves at dawn. What is this mystery? The eternal now, "a knit of identity," which unites self and other, the past and the future, words and worlds. Consider what the poet achieves with one small word, "here," which functions in this line as a noun (this place), an adjective (modifying mystery, which is beside and all around him), and an adverb (in this particular case). Even different parts of speech can bind one thing to another, according to Whitman, for the mystery of existence, at once solid and fluid, incorporating here and there, the living and the dead, the unborn and the unrealized, is an essay in connecting. He stands here with all that is and all that is not: an unpunctuated phrase containing the sum of everything.
"Lack one lacks both," another unpunctuated phrase lodged in the aural memory of many poets, enacts in four stressed syllables the wedding of two souls, like and unlike, which governs the shape, the dream, of Song of Myself. What he experiences in the dark, in the presence of God or the beloved, is the underlying unity of existence — a vision of eternity vaster than heaven and hell. The lover leaving at dawn is thus a figure not of fleeting pleasure but of the mysterious ways in which emptiness leads to plenitude: baskets covered with white towels.
Excerpted from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. Copyright © 1881 Walt Whitman. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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