Concept of Self & Individualism in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Practically the most important feature of Whitman’s poetry is the glorification of the Self. To his concept of self is related all the other features of his poetry-treatment of love and death, his mysticism, and the democratic impulse.

      The Constant “I”: the Egotism in Whitman’s Poetry. An egotist is a person who perpetually talks about himself. The perpetual use of “I” in Whitman’s poetry certainly indicates the egotist. Whitman constantly refers to himself, “celebrates” himself, “sings” himself. Song of Myself is the most prominent evidence of this, but other poems, too, indicate it. All experience, all thought, all belief, all appearances in Whitman’s poetry are referred back to the ego:

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of My own...

      “Self” not Always Personal. However, Whitman’s poetry is not dominated by a narrow view of “I” or a restricted kind of egotism. The “I” in his poetry is not only the individual, but the collective ego of humanity, for Whitman attempts an imaginative and sympathetic identification of himself with every other individual self:

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you...

      He claims nothing for himself which he does not concede to all. We may call Whitman’s egotism “objective”. He sings of universal qualities through himself. As A.E. Briggs puts it, “he sings of himself; but his imaginative self is composed of the selves of the exhaustless variety of mankind-from the great, the average, to the degraded.”

      Self not Passive or static. The “Self” in Whitman’s poems is not passive or static. It enjoys free movement; it is a voyager and “to know the universe itself as a road, as many roads for traveling souls”. The vision of self is unlimited: as R. V. Chase observes: “There is no place where at any moment it may not be, no thing or person with whom it may merge, no act in which it may not participate”.

I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.

      Ambiguous Status of Self in Whitman’s Poetry. Self or “I” in Whitman's poems may stand for the poet, or it may stand for any other person, in the first place, the “I” is autobiographical:

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man.

      And the man is the poet himself. Indeed as B. Marinacci points out, he and his Leaves of Grass are so intertwined that they cannot readily be separated. H. S. Canby too remarks on this aspect: “There seems to be no instance in literary history where an author has tried so consistently, from middle age to death, to identify his life with his book.” Leaves of Grass is certainly a spiritual autobiography of the poet.

      In the second sense, “Self” in Whitman’s poetry relates, not to actual happenings, but to imagined activities as well. In this shadowy region, fact and fancy freely mingle. On this plane, the “I” takes universal significance.

      In the third sense, the “Self “may stand for the American Everyman, a figure embodying the heroism of the Civil War hero, the rugged strength and individualism of the pioneer going westward, the slave, the planter, the convict, the judge, the prostitute, in one word, everybody.

      Whitman’s “Self” identifies itself with other-selves; it also identifies with Nature or the physical world. The “I” finds oneness with ants and mossy scabs, with all living and even non-living beings, as is evident in There was a Child Went Forth.

      Self and Soul, Self and Death. The “I” is seen as separate from the soul. The union between the two can give birth to a new vision which brings one closer to others, including God. This “vision of love leading to a realization of universal brotherhood is the theme of Song of Myself. Self is, furthermore, immortal and thus unaffected by death, as self is more than the physical body. In this sense, the Self has grown into a cosmic figure going beyond individual, nation, and human history. The basic theme in Leaves of Grass is the symbolic identification of regeneration in nature with the deathless self. And Whitman was untroubled by that philosophical problem of reconciling the individual and the collective. His “I” assumes myriad identities with ease. Individualism, Nationalism and the Democratic Impulse

      Unity, equality and human dignity are basic themes in Whitman’s poetry and are of course related to his concept of Self. The “I” of Whitman’s poetry is a fusion of several characters. Through celebrating himself, he celebrates all. Leaves of Grass, he said, was in its intentions the song of a great democratic individual, male or female. For the first time, poetry gave equal status to all men as well as women, poor, rich, Negro slave, and deckhand. He is so emphatic on equality that he cannot resist the cataloging technique in his poems, apparently to avoid selection which implies inequality. For Whitman, each individual personality should be developed so that all these personalities may produce a harmonious picture.

      Glorification of the Common Man, an inevitable aspect of the cult of individualism, finds ample place in Whitman’s poetry. “Trust thyself,” said Emerson, “Reverence thyself. Whitman declared that “everything comes out of the people as you find them”. Whitman had faith in the inherent dignity and nobility of the common man, and this is the root and basis of his concept of democracy. He sang of the everyday American - the carpenter, the mason, the boatman. In Song of the Open Road, he asks a variety of people including the Negro, the beggar, the felon, to accompany him on the voyage towards self-discovery.

      Walt Whitman was a poet who never tired of asserting the common bonds of humanity, and yet, surprisingly, he has been called one of the greatest egotists in literary history. An egotist, of course, is a person who continually talks about himself, using the first-person singular “I”. There is no doubt that Whitman’s poetry in general echoes with the personal pronoun. It is prominent in Song of Myself - the title itself having egotistical implications. Certainly, ‘Self’ is the most significant aspect of his poetry, constituting the central consciousness of his poetic universe. It will be seen, however, that the concept of ‘Self’ in Whitman’s poetry transcends the narrow limits of egotism.

      Revelation of Self in Whitman’s Poetry. Leaves of Grass, Whitman said, was an attempt “to put a person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in America) freely, fully, and truly on record.” throughout many of his poems he talks of himself. In Section 24 of Song of Myself, he talks of “Walt Whitman”

....a Kosmos, of mighty Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking, breeding;....

      We need no biographical details other than what we get from the poem itself to formulate a description of the protagonist-

No sentimentalist-no stander above men and women, or apart from them
No more modest than immodest.
He celebrates himself, setting the tone in the very first section:
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health....

      He is a poet who is going to ignore “creeds and schools” and speak for “Nature without check with original energy”. In Section 21, he says that he has equal love for man and woman, for body and soul. He finds everything “dear and sweet” (Section 3) for,

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, of any man hearty and clean.

      He admires himself, and is mad for contact with “the bank by the wood (Section 2, Song of Myself). In Section 20, he declares his independence:

I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out....
He sees himself in all people, he is confident of being deathless.
I exist as I am-that is enough.

      He is aware of the universe being a unity in which good and bad have their place and purpose. Thus he is going to be a poet of wickedness also. He is sensitive; as he says in Section 25:

Mine is no callous shell;
I have instant conductors all over me, whether I pass or stop;
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

      The protagonist of Song of Myself emerges as a lover, of democracy — “Whoever degrades another degrades me”, he is a complete lover of the universe; he expresses faith in the flesh and the appetites and has mystical insight:

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own. (section 5, Song of Myself)

      Copulation has no more rank to the protagonist of the work than death is. He has knowledge of the divinity inherent in him,

Divine am I inside and our make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from.

      In the fifth section of Song of Myself, the world is described as it exists apart from the poet; yet its aspects are seen in relation to the poet. His objectivity is that of an impressionist and so finally an aspect of his subjectivity.

      Universal Aspect of “I”: Assumption of a variety of identities. A narrow view of the use of “I” is, however, to be avoided, for there is a universal aspect to this personal pronoun. Whitman’s poetry. The “I” in Laves of Grass may mean any one of several existences in time, or eternity. In The Sleepers, he identifies himself with all kinds of people:

I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician
The emigrant and the exile, the criminal.

      Whitman attempts an imaginative and sympathetic identification of himself with every other individual self. In the very opening section of Song of Myself, he says—

.... every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

And in another poem he begins:

One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.

      The very term “One’s-Self” is as significant as it is unusual The “Self” in this sense assumes a universal identity. In singing of himself, Whitman sings of “En-masse”. The “I” is undoubtedly on one level, autobiographical:

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man.

      But the “man” may easily be, not Whitman alone, but the “great American”, a figure symbolizing the heroism of those who fought the Civil War, those who toiled westward with the pioneers, and wandered southward with slave and planter. This “I” could be the American Everyman. Furthermore, it is possible that Whitman extended the range of his actual experiences and memories and identified himself with a number of imagined activities. In this shadowy region where fact and fancy mingle, the riddle of Whitman’s sexual history is hidden. The ecstasy of perfect sexual union so well described by Whitman may easily be an imagined experience rather than a real one, according to his biographers.

      Whitman does not always look inward like introspective versifiers. Through celebrating “self”, he celebrates universal qualities. It is noticeable that wherever the “I” occurs, there follows a reference to others,

In all people I see myself....

      The “I” is the collective ego of humanity. “He sings of himself”, points out A.E. Briggs, “but his imaginative self is composed of the selves of the exhaustless variety of mankind-from the great, the average, to the degraded.” Often, the poet’s identity is fused with others. Thus the “I” in Leaves of Grass is and is not Whitman.

      Self has a fine power of empathy which unites it with others. Self can feel like a blade of grass, a hounded slave, a mocking-bird, or any of the many objects around it. And part of this process of identification is to be found in the exposition of sexual love as well as “manly” love.

      Exploration of the Destiny of Self. Having understood that the self in Whitman’s poems is not only the poet but a collective ego, we can see the path and destiny of Self as visualized by Whitman. In the
attempt for a mystical union with God, the Absolute Self—the destiny of the human self we can see another universal aspect of Whitman’s “I” Whitman’s intuition is that -

....the hand of God is the promise of my own,
....the spirit of God is the brother of my own. (Section 5, Song of Myself)

      The destiny of Self is to continually find oneness with Nature and everything around - as the child does in There Was a Child Went Forth. Throughout life, the Self continues to seek union through love for it is in this Union through love that a knowledge of universal brotherhood is born. Death poses no threat to self for it is immortal in its union with the soul. Self can cross the barriers of space and time, as Crossing Brooklyn Ferry exemplifies. But the ultimate goal is God, the comrade and “true lover” who, the poet is sure, will be there at the appointed rendezvous, as, he says in Song of Myself. The union of self and God is paralleled in the union of man and woman, and in the union of man and man (brotherly love).

      Conclusion. Leaves of Grass, and especially Song of Myself, presents a drama of the self. Certainly a “Person, a human being” is put freely, fully and truly on record. We get a clear impression of a person - an American with strong democratic impulses, mystical tendencies and equalitarian feelings. But this “person” is more than Walt Whitman in particular, though he is also that. To some extent, the work is a self-revelation. But then self goes on to search others for its fulfillment. It finds identity with others and the universe, transcending narrow boundaries. Finally, it grows into a cosmic figure embarked on a passage to more than America and human history. It seeks and achieves unity with the Absolute Self. Leaves of Grass has as its central theme a symbolic identification of regeneration in nature with the deathless self. In developing this theme, Whitman is unaffected by that philosophical conflict between the individual and the collective. He very easily and confidently sings of “One’s self” and “En Masse”. I and You, as points and counterpoints of the same Divine Self, must invariably remain linked to each other. Thus Whitman was not an “egoist” in any ordinary sense of the word; he went beyond the individual self to seek identification with the Universal, the divine.

University Questions

“Whitman is the poet of the self, but not merely of the self that loves and dies, the naturalistic self.” Discuss.
“The motif of Song of Myself is the self taking to a bewildering variety of identities and with a truly virtuoso ability extricating itself from each one.” Elucidate and illustrate.
How does the relationship between the self .....and “body” contribute to Whitman’s arguments in Song of Myself. Illustrate. Or
Comment on the concept of self in Whitman’s poetry, especially in Song of Myself.
Analyse Song of Myself as the profound drama of the Self.
The speaker of Song of Myself (“I”) is something more than the historical Walt Whitman. Write a description of the poem’s protagonist without reference to Whitman’s biography.
Walt Whitman’s real subject is the condition and destiny of the self. Discuss.
Whitman said that Leaves of Grass was an attempt “to put a person, a human being... freely, fully and truly on record”. Discuss the significance of this statement, with reference to his poetry.

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