Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | Song of Myself | Summary

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Summary

Whitman's speaker introduces himself to the world and celebrates himself in this manifesto of his poetic vision. He begins by "observing a spear of summer grass." Despite all the perfume that surrounds him, he breathes in the fragrance of himself. He describes what nature means to him, and poems. He promises his audience that if they stick with him, they will be able to filter poems for themselves.

The speaker tells of how the people of the nation affect him and how he accepts them all. He offers lists of the multitudes of diverse people as well as anecdotes. The lists include a catalog of people about their daily business across the country as well as animals and places in nature. The anecdotes are varied as well. Some are intimate, like the tale in Section 10, of the runaway slave that the speaker takes in and cares for; and some are historical, such as the tale of a Revolutionary War sea battle in Section 35.

At the end of the poem, after describing his poetic vision, the speaker offers an invitation: "Who wishes to walk with me? Will you speak before I am gone?" He pauses, as if waiting for an answer, and then declares, "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

Analysis

"Song of Myself" is a very long celebration of the all-encompassing persona that Whitman creates in Leaves of Grass and his unconventional, democratic brand of poetry. In the first edition, this poem is not divided into numbered sections, and it ends with the word "you" and no punctuation. This is meant to allow the reader to circle endlessly back to the beginning "I" of the poem, a symbolic joining of Whitman's speaker with his audience into a collective entity. As he says in Section 3, "I do not talk of the beginning or the end." His poetry is timeless and there "will never be any more perfection than there is now."

Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass anonymously, but the attentive reader will notice that he states his name and introduces himself midway through this first poem in Section 24: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." He is a poet of a democratic American people, containing multitudes, and he can speak for the people because he knows them omnisciently, as he says in Section 1, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." This is part of his unifying message: people are like leaves of grass. They are individual spears, but they make up a collective whole. "What is the grass?" a child asks in Section 6. And in Section 31 Whitman's speaker answers, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars." All people are equal, and they carry eternity within them is a philosophy of transcendentalism, a 19th-century American movement concerned with the inherent goodness of the soul. "Every kind for itself and its own," he says in Section 7, "Who needs be afraid of the merge?" This is the basis of a collective democratic society where every individual expresses his or her own diversity.

One of the most dynamic and central themes in Leaves of Grass is the tension between the speaker's claims to unity and yet his tendency to also withdraw. In "Song of Myself" the speaker asserts unity but later states: "To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand." There is a deep and important conflict in the poem between unity and separateness.

As the speaker claims in Section 44, he is stripping away "what is known" and launching "all men and women forward with me into the unknown." That unknown includes free verse, Whitman's major innovation to poetry, which he introduces with this rambling epic of a poem. Whitman masters the rhythms of a country of pioneers. He catalogs with abandon, listing types of people and places found in America. He emphasizes certain sections with repetition and the literary technique anaphora, where the first word of a line is repeated in a stanza. Examples of anaphora occur throughout "Song of Myself," but the most noteworthy are in Section 15, where the speaker lists people and their occupations and 58 of the lines begin with the word "the," and in Section 33 the speaker has a vision of flying over animals and nature, and 35 lines begin with the word "where." A four-line excerpt from the 35 lines in Section 33 follows: "Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheatlot, / Where the bat flies in the July eve ... where the great goldbug drops through the dark; / Where the flails keep time on the barn floor, / Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the meadow ...".

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