Song of Myself: by Walt Whitman - Critical Analysis

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      It will be apt to begin by quoting Hyatt H. Waggoner on Walt Whitman the poet: “Whitman is the poet of the self, but not merely of the self that loves and dies, the “naturalistic” self Whitman is our greatest exponent of the individual conceived as containing the possibility of self-transcendence, or growth beyond the determined and known. Like Emerson before him, he refuses to place a limit on the self’s possibilities. There is no known circumference, Emerson had said to the self-evolving circle that we are, not even death itself...” Walt Whitman as the major symbol in his own poems is the indestructible human individual, fully aware, as a modern man, of death, yet knowing himself in some sense “immortal” nonetheless, living in time but not contained by it, constituted by the chemistry of a particular place, a particular ancestry living in a particular place, yet not the creature of space either; a mystery of incarnation, not contained between his hat and his boots, a “body overflowed with life”, as Emerson, once again, had put it.

      Development of Self. Song of Myself in the various sections is the development of the “self” of the poet. It enlarges itself in the entire “cosmos”. The “self” oozes itself in the Universe. It identifies itself with everything in this Universe. It studies nature around. Step by step the ‘self’, of the poet transcends the physical limits and sets out on a mystical journey; Whitman deals with ‘self’, ‘love’, ‘nature’ ‘Death’ and transcendence in an appealing manner. His faith in reality and in presenting it as it is, is inherent throughout his poetry. “His affirmation minimizes the dichotomy between nature and Heaven, this life and the life to come, the real and the Real. He finds the Now significant because it is penetrated and permeated by the Eternal; which is only another way of saying that he was not a Puritan but a true Transcendentalist...” The ‘self’, ‘the modem man’ in the Song of Myself is not only “brave” and “American” but universal. At its deepest level of meaning and impact, this most provincial of poems, is as Whitman wanted it to be, timeless and placeless, composed of ‘’the thoughts of all men.....”

      Deep Meaning. The different sections of the Song of Myself are intense, original and packed with meaning.

      To quote James E. Miller. “Like no other poem in American literature, this long self-centred and prophetic chant, deliberately physical and aggressively spiritual, seemed designed to shock and startle, surprise and disturb. To the original audience, It must have seemed like the voice of one of the roughs, a ‘barbaric yawp’ sounding over the roofs of the world.”

      Song of Myself gives birth and original shape and identity to the New World Personality - a new conscious selfhood that provides a model for America and for modem man. The poet magnifies himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you (25)

      But the self-celebration is to serve as a signal for each man to discover his own divine selfhood. The poem represents an awakening of the self, a coming to consciousness for the first time of the real meaning of being alive and in the flesh, of seeing and hearing, of tasting and feeling. The awakening to consciousness penetrates beyond the senses. It dives deep within, and it soars far beyond; and it discovers secrets and uncovers mysteries - the eternity and infinity of the self, the glories of the body and soul, the completion of life through death.

      Element of Mysticism. When viewed in terms of the phases of the traditional mystical experience, Song of Myself takes on a comprehensive structural shape: 

Section 1-5: Entry into the mystical state.
Section 6-16: Awakening of self.
Section 17-32: Purification of self (but by glorifying, not mortifying, the senses)
Sections 33-37: Illumination of the dark night of the soul.
Sections 38-43: Union (emphasis on faith and love)
Sections 44-49: Union (emphasis on perception)
Sections 50-52: Emergence from mystical stage.

      The traditional mystic attempted to annihilate himself and mortify his senses in preparation for absorption into the transcendent. Whitman magnifies the self and glorifies the senses in his progress toward Union.

      Reality Presented. Whitman observes life and presents it in the poem, it is a profound sensual experience. He gives the inner quality of things he observes as they exist: the reality grasped by devoted concentration on its manifest being. The sections in total have an appealing quality. Yet there is an individuality about each section. Each section when read separately stands out with Whitman’s impression on it. Each section is complete in itself though read in separate parts. The various sections do reveal the poet as one who has traveled in both the physical and the metaphysical worlds. He very well mirrors the contraries present in the Universe. It shows “poetry in the closest and most intimate union with the positive realities and complexities of life.”

      Americanism plus Universality. The long poem reveals Whitman’s pleasure in the native scene. He mentions the rich variety in nature and life of America. He next elevates the citizen of America to a citizen of the world. His ‘self’ becomes all-inclusive. He also shows the strong bondage which he has with the Universe. He tries to establish a rapport with God through the soul. But it is impossible to express God in human terms. Hence he says that God is present everywhere, in every object and every form in the Universe. While he describes the acceptance of the existence of God, he describes the various creations of God, as evidence to it. Whitman is at home when describing nature in his poem; he mentions animals, animate and inanimate objects-all creations of God.

      Bard of Democracy. The poem also exhibits the poet as a Bard of Democracy. He considers all beings equal irrespective of their caste, sex, color, religion and status. To quote Dowden, “He is the comrade of every man high and low. His admiration of a strong, healthy and beautiful body, or strong healthy and beautiful soul, is great when he sees it in the plowman or the smith. Every variety of race and nation, every condition in society, every season of human life, is accepted by Whitman as admirable and best, each in its own place.... Every man is a divine miracle to him.... Science and democracy appear before Whitman as twin powers which bend over the modem world hand in hand, great and beneficent... He rather sees with extraordinary precision the realities of our Earth, but he sees them, in his mystical mood, as symbols of the impalpable and spiritual...”

      Whitman talks of the individual self no-doubt. But the ‘individual’ stands for a group of persons. The group symbolizes a multitude. His poem automatically becomes a catalog of persons, beings, of animate and inanimate objects.

      Thus the Song of Myself is not just the poet’s self-celebration, but it is a celebration of himself as a man, and an American; it is what he possesses in common with all others that he feels to be glorious and worthy of song; not that which differentiates him from others, but that which identifies him with fellow beings. Perhaps the words of D.H. Lawrence would aptly sums up Whitman the poet in Song of Myself: “This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time... All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the Universe. Walt becomes in his own person, the whole world, the whole universe, the whole eternity of time... Democracy, En Masse, one identity.”

      Song of Myself is the most essential of all the “leaves” for the study of the author, it shows what Whitman assumed for himself. What he assumed, he applied to the entire mankind. He honored mankind in doing so, his thoughts were the thoughts of all people of all ages. His timeless trust in the divinity of man, in the dignity of man - his body and soul is to be seen in his poems. His poems stand the test of time.

      Epic Value. Song of Myself though a group of lyrics, is epical in its value. The poet in singing of himself sings of America and its people. It is thus called by critics as “the Epic of America”, “the song of America”. It unfolds Whitman the poet. It gives an insight to Whitman’s approach to the mysteries of life, death and the Universe.

      Conclusion. It would be apt to conclude with D. Mirsky’s words that, “It would be more correct to say that its (Song of Myself) basic theme is unity, unity of all creation, both animate and inanimate. The poem is thus all-embracing in its sweep, cosmic and universal.

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