Song of The Open Road: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction: The poem Song of the Open Road was published in 1856. It was first named ‘Poem of the Road’ which mingled excellent pictorial imagery of a wandering vagabond with the idea of the spiritual journey. The vagabond is none other than the New World Personality going on his journey, listening, observing, absorbing, discovering himself and the soul, and finally the travel of the soul in this universe.

      Summary: Song of the Open Road launches the vagabond poet on his journey. The poet jogs along observing what life has to offer first hand. There is gaiety in the steps of the vagabond as he trots along the open road. He is healthy, free, strong and content as he travels. There is no hindrance to his enjoying what the open road has to offer. He is content with observing what the Earth has to provide. He associates himself with the people he sees on the road irrespective of their status. The mutual recognition of his ‘self’ in others is already reached by the end of Section 1 when he says:

I am fill'd with them; and I will fill them in return

      James Miller aptly says: “The poem elaborates two aspects of the vagabond’s life: (i) the wandering, the sheer joy of movement and diversity of experience; (ii) the direct involvement with nature in the innocence and validity of its naturalness, its original and uncorrupted forms”.

      In Section 2, the road assumes deep symbolic significance. The poet feels that the open road is broadminded. It has no bias towards anyone. All are equal on the road-irrespective of caste, color, religion, sex, education, or wealth or poverty. This indirectly throws light on the democratic ideals which Whitman held. All are equal in a democracy. The road also becomes symbolic of the world which becomes receptive of all people-rich or poor, black or white, sick or healthy, literate or illiterate. The open road symbolizing the world is not only contained in the present. It is the eternal link of the past, the present and the future. The open road embraces everyone that comes to it, be it:

The escaped youth, the rich person's
carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early marketman, the hearse, the moving
of furniture into the town ...
All that pass on the road are dear to him.

      In Section 3, the poet says that he likes to take a new path, a new way, with a whiff of fresh air which the open road in the wide world provides. The open road, as Miller puts it, becomes “the symbol of the new way, of a fresh and joyous way of encountering experience whatever it brings, of stepping forth free of custom and tradition and living life fully in accord with instinct and intuitive insight”. The poet visualizes

flagged walk of the cities! You strong curbs at the edges! You ferries! row of houses!

      He talks of what he sees on the open road and also tells of those unseen things which make the way of life interesting. As a poet he hears and sees more than what is there is to be seen. He discovers a kinship with various objects ferries, wharves, ships, houses, roofs, etc., and wants them to impart to him what has been imparted to them by people who had lived there or passed through.

      In Section 4, the poet feels that the open road has a message for him the voice of the people. It seems as if the road whispers to him:

Do not leave me....
...I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me ....

      It tells mankind to be courageous, to grow strong and as hard beaten as the road to face the problems in life. If mankind does not follow the open road, it may feel helpless and lost. The open road is there to remind man to be as strong as ever. The poet emphasizes that it is only by taking to the open road that both heroic deeds and happiness can be achieved:

... heroic deeds were all conceive in the open air and all free poems also...

      The poet is emphatic of the basic consideration and goodness present in a human being.

      In Section 5, he feels that trotting along the open road, a feeling of freshness and liveliness with no limitations, overpowers him. He feels his own self expanding as he inhales “great draughts of space”, he becomes larger when he tries to conceive the whole world around him within himself. He is surprised at his own capacity for goodness. The entire life around him seemed to have been bathed in beauty. The grandeur that permeates the external world synchronizes with the beautiful mind of the poet.

      In Section 6, the poet elaborates on the virtues of the open road. A man becomes a perfect human being according to the poet: “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth”. He realizes that wisdom is not the result of studying in schools and colleges, but it is the test which a human being undergoes on the road of life. Experiences on the road prove the worth and wisdom of a person. Philosophies and religions may have value in the lecture halls, but the real test of a person’s wisdom is on the open road. The road also makes strangers into comrades. Friendship is established. Whitman once again stresses the point that man can never survive alone.

      In Section 7, the poet tries to probe the nature of the happiness he feels on the open road. Whether he meets a man or a woman, a driver or a fisherman, the poet establishes affinity and identity with them as he walks on the open road. Though the passers-by on the road are strangers to him, the poet feels that there is a common link between them. The poet experiences this exhilaration as he goes on the open road in the fresh air. He feels himself charged with a certain feeling of joy. This joy he recognizes in the strangers passing by.

      Continuing his exploration into the nature of happiness on the open road, the poet says in Section 8

The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times
Now it flows to us, we are rightly charged.

      Love and sympathy and freshness flow out, of all men and women leading to friendship and attachment. The poet asserts that whatever happens, a person must forever go on and on. On the open road” he should never stop.

      In Section 9, the poet invites every individual to recognize his individual self, enjoy life and go on in life. There are good things and bad things in life. A little of both form the essence of life. A taste of both molds the individual personality of a human being. Too much of anything will not suit a person’s constitution. Hence the poet, comparing the world to a open road, advises the human beings:

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid up stores,
However convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here....

      The poet thus shows the transitory phase of a man’s life. He must not become stagnant, stopping somewhere. He must be full of zest and nerve and on the move like a vagabond tasting the good and the bad in life. No man is a permanent customer of this Earth.

      Rejecting the rigid formulae of the semi-blind and materialistic priests, hackneyed religions and doctrines, the poet in Section 10 calls for courage and endurance in the travelers wishing to accompany him, for the journey is a difficult one. He does not like the weak, the infirm, or the sick to be his companions on the open road. He wants every passerby to be bubbling with zest for life. He wants everyone to follow his example.

      Whitman mentions in Section 11 the transitory aspect of life. He tells the people not to hoard riches, or be tempted to settle luxuriously in a beautiful place. People should be ready for “rough prizes” and not care for the mocks and jeers of those left behind, nor should they be detained by love. He repeats that the passerby on road meets a wide range of people - the healthy, the sick, the virtuous, the sinners, men, women, sailors, dancers, soldiers, the young and the old:

      In Section 12, the poem is raised to a philosophic level, when the world is compared to a road, with all the people passing through it to reach the ultimate goal of self-realization or freedom from death.

      In Section 13, is described the different experiences to be undergone by the traveler along the open road. The road has no beginning or end. It is beyond time and space. Many people have passed on it. Many traverse it. Posterity also will use it. Many are the experiences which they may like and enjoy but these must be inevitably left behind.

      The poet then uplifts the road to a universal plane. He compares the entire universe to the Open Road, through which all souls pass without any differentiation. He finally expresses himself in the following words:

To know the universe itself as a road as many roads, as roads for traveling souls....

      As the procession of souls travels along the road of the universe, all religions, politics, philosophies etc. become meaningless. The soul expands to freedom. Laughing, dancing and smart dresses are all superficialities. Reality lies on the open road.

      The poet adds that only those who have self-realization, the dauntless spirit, will be able to comprehend the poet’s philosophy of the open road. In Section 14, he calls for active battle and rebellion. He appeals to the readers to be strong on the open road. It is an endless trek, fraught with the difficulties of starvation, poverty, enemies and desertions.

      In the 15th and last Section, the poet tells the people not to delay, tempted by lectures, or money, or books. He readily offers to give a helping hand:

Camera do, I give you my hand;
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law; Will you give me yourself? Will you travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?...

      The poet sets out to free himself and his society from all age-old dogmas. He shows a-new path full of the breath of fresh air.


      The Song of the Open Road is on the theme of a journey along the open road which is given the symbolic significance of exploration on the physical as well as the spiritual plane.

      The poet takes his readers into confidence. He presents a panoramic view of the sights and scenes as he goes on the open road. He eulogizes the Open Road. He calls on mankind to become as hard as the road in facing adversities in life. He takes the readers on to a higher level of thinking when he calls the universe the open road on which the souls are the voyagers.

      New ideals: The poem also reflects the poet Whitman opening new vistas of ideals before mankind. According to him, the poet here is seen singing in praise of the democratic ideals and reality that all are equal on this open road-be it a beggar, or an illiterate person, a sick person or rich, the elite, educated or healthy.

      The main qualities of the new poetry according to Whitman were suggestiveness, comradeship and its sign-posts were good cheer, content and hope - which also find a place in this poem.

      The poem is very earthly in the sense that it deals with the description of the external world, as it is. Whitman lived a natural and unsophisticated life. He was a poet of the people. He considered all Americans - men, women, children, high and low, belonging to any profession, the gentlemen and the vagabond, the virtuous and the wicked, the generous and the mean - his brethren as they belonged to the common humanity. He made them all part of his poems. The poem shows Whitman’s felicity of phrasing and his mastery over free verse.

      In the poem he sings of humanity and its hopes; he sings of animate and inanimate things. He is a friend of the natural elements and becomes one with the wind, rain, ocean, water, mountains and soil. His vision becomes cosmic when it embraces the entire universe. The catalog technique suggests effectively the variety of life.

      Symbol of new way of life: The poem assumes deep symbolic value. The open road is the symbol of the new way of life - of experiencing everything with joy and freshness, of discarding custom and obsolete traditions in favor of enthusiastic, intuitive approach to life. To travel the open road means to be self-reliant and close to achievement of divine selfhood. And in this discovery the poet invites all readers to participate.


1. I believe that much unseen is also here
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial...

      These lines from Song of The Open Road are very suggestive. The poet like a vagabond takes to the open road. He likes the fresh air he breathes. He likes everyone and everything belonging to the road. People pass by, animals pass on. The road has no method of gauging people by their status in society. It welcomes everyone on equal terms. The rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, the black, the weak, the strong, the white, the animate and inanimate things are all equal to the road. There is a timelessness about the road. Generations have crossed it; the present generation uses it and the future generations will also tread it. The road has an ‘unseen’ history of its own. By and large, the road symbolizes this world itself which people pass through. It symbolically means the Universe here the souls trek.

2. O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you, You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem...

      These words of Whitman show that he has a certain affinity for the road. He admires it. It has a lesson for every man. It teaches man to become strong, hard-beaten, to face the struggles in this life. The poet is not afraid of the road, he feels sad to go away from it. He conveys the idea that the road is more full of buzzing life and it expresses itself better than the poet. He considers it to be more valuable to him than his poem.

3. Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its one proof....

      These lines show that classrooms are not the places where wisdom is imparted. Wisdom can never be hereditary, nor can a fool be made wise by mere teaching. Yet the poet says the open road can test one’s wisdom. A man is susceptible to so many things on the open road. He learns many things. Whatever he learns, has to go ‘within’, that is, ‘the soul’. Then the reaction of the soul shows the true worth, wisdom, and character of that man.

4. The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

      The poet in the beginning deals with the physical movement of the people on the open road. A man can nourish his soul and body as he goes on the open road. He has plenty of questions. The replies are eternally present in the open air. He becomes charged with those replies. His soul is enriched with the knowledge, and happiness is the result. This happiness pervades the entire atmosphere. There is a deep underlying meaning in the words of the poet. A human being learns about the mysteries of life in the course of his journey on the open road which symbolizes the world. He is filled with happiness and as his soul charges him with happiness, with the awareness of the facts of life, hence, ‘the efflux of the soul is happiness.’

5. To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls,
All parts away for the progress of souls.

      The poet has taken the reader on to a higher strata of thinking in these lines. It is not a mere reference to the plain open road. The poet calls the universe itself the open road. Everyone has got to take that road of the Universe. But only those who have self-realization and awareness of the soul will be able to understand the trek of the souls towards the ultimate. The souls will progress well on the road of the Universe to merge in the ultimate soul as they become free of all the hampering aspects of life such as religion, politics, material attachments, etc.

6. ...My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion, He going with me must go well arm'd,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions....

      The poet seems to be on a war footing in infusing the inspiration of dauntless spirit in Man. He likes no coward to accompany him on the open road. A man robust in health, carefree, with an extra store of energy is welcome as a companion to him. He does not mind if the companion is poor, or has enemies or has to desert somebody. He should possess a strong will power. It reflects the idea that a person has got to be dauntless on the journey of this life, not caring for any obstacles that may block the way.

7. Camerado. I give you my hand;
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

      Whitman believes in companionship in society. A man can never survive alone. Whitman infuses the feeling of comradeship in the reader here. But it is a message to mankind. He is ever ready to lend a hand to one and all. He is always eager to distribute his love among fellow human beings, the love which he says is definitely more precious than money. He finally offers himself to help mankind. The words of the poet, he feels, will be more effective than any law, regulation or any preaching. After offering his open heart of friendliness and love, he says everything has got to be reciprocal. He wants a mutual understanding and exchange of love, faith, affection and companionship amongst people.

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