Song of Myself: Walt Whitman (1819-1892): A Personal Perspective
Historically, as nations around the world searched for the right to freely choose their sovereignty without interference from external forces; Whitman described a similar desire for independence through a renewed “American democratic self” to be found in every American. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is a great American epic poem that has been read as the poem that best describes America’s search for self –determination during the romantic period of literature.
Whitman questioned the main things that influenced the thinking of people as he went out into the world and recorded and noted the diversity of people’s voices. His research found a renewed personal spirit in himself, that he expressed in his poem. He wrote of an enlightened perspective of self as he sang to one and all in “Songs of Myself.” He exemplified in his writing a reality of assumptions based upon a set philosophical, psychic, and aesthetic truths that contradicted many of the truths held by his fellow Americans. The core of these truths were to be found in every the heart and mind of every American. Whitman wanted a spiritual awakening for his country. He loved America and its oneness with him.
Stanzas 1&2 were examined for evidence of how the poem exemplified and contradicted the philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic assumptions of the romantic period.
Philosophically, as Whitman probed the nation’s new democratic- self, the country’s democracy was ever changing. How would it change?
Would it be dissolved into atomic particles caused by mankind’s contradictory rhetoric? “My tongue, every atom of my blood…and …Creeds and schools in abeyance” were expressed as issues… He gained the attention of his reader by being including them in his poem. He spoke face to face, man to man, American to American. His poem gained acceptance from the reader with an all- inclusive invitation of everything from nature to the universe. Whitman saw us communicating ideas, emotions, and affections as we shared the universe with all living things.
In American of the 1850’s pollsters and scholars found evidence that the majority of the country continued to believe in supernatural forces, identify themselves in religious terms, and desired for a spiritually enhanced life. By contrast, religious leaders of various denominations gave way to a wave of nationalism and became more distinct in their religious groups. Prevailing theological narratives of the day used psychological and religious dogma to gain and maintain their church membership.
Politics was influenced by printed texts and newspapers that shaped intellectual views, national myths. This media influenced elected officials who created and enacted immoral, unjust laws. These laws adversely affected Americans as a result of their regionalism, ethnic heritage, or social class.
These restrictive laws divided America’s young democratic nation into polarized factions.
Whitman hoped to re-unite the country. Whitman’s god voiced to him, not what we labeled ourselves, but what were, and what we did. The Quaker religion influenced his early childhood life and his poem. Whitman stressed the practical lessons learned from his Biblical lessons; while he gave less importance to the theoretical meaning of such lessons. He stressed the importance of living in the moment and in knowing the truth in all things, rather than, just blindly following obligations of belief from scripture. “Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,” reminded us of his heritage. As a result, his teaching freed mankind from holding onto fixed conceptions, obstructions, and immovable frames of thought.
Whitman pondered the importance of truth around questions of slavery, education,
Temperance, immigration, prostitution and democratic representation for his fledging new nation.
In the middle of the issues, he mediated and inspired his reader to look inward and discover an awakened self. Whitman may have asked, “Can America be awakened from itself?’
Whitman’s voice whispered and bellowed as he persuaded and romanticized the ego of Americans. In an aesthetic sense, Whitman created a cosmic breathe, a common heartbeat, and a shared impulse in poetic verse, as he orated ideological differences of the day. He wrote the poem his way, and not as those of his time expected and decreed that he should write. As an aside, did Whitman write the poem or did the poem write itself? His message– united we stand and divided we fall as a nation.
History has told of Whitman’s emotional and psychological crisis in nearly every biography written about him (1857-1859). Briefly, he lost his job, his lover, and his self –respect as became depressed and fell into an emotional state of mind, self- described, as a “slough.”
He attempted to find his inner peace during America’s chaotic, historical period, as he reduced the complexity of his life into something authentic. In these chaotic times, people were stuck in the mud. Whitman had a plan to free them and himself from a muddy reality—it was with his shared recognition that the truth had been suppressed and that a realization of the real truth would set everyone free… In another lesson in his poem; he learned acceptance of himself from his new found spirituality, he invited the reader to share his awakened mind and consciousness. Whitman lived in the now; he breathed in the air of intoxicating, artificial perfumes while he attempted to avoid being corrupted by their fragrance. He had a new identity at age thirty-seven; he saw himself in everything; nature, mankind, and the cosmos with a relaxed oneness of self. Whitman viewed his new world through visual imagery and investigation, as did some future pioneers of human psychology.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) used a technique for investigating the connection between the conscious and the unconscious mind. This method of therapy encouraged the patient to talk freely, in such a way that his repressed fears and conflicted feelings became an awareness for a changed conscious mind. Whitman’s psychological investigative efforts were somewhat ahead of their time.
Whitman conducted an informal, poetic psychoanalysis of the individual’s conscious and unconscious mind. He was trying to raise a conscious awareness in America to create a mindful democratic system of government to serve all the people. Whitman assumed the role of mediator or analyst as he encouraged the resolution of moral, spiritual, and religious questions.
His approach to his audience was very different from conventional poetry of the day. Whitman ignored customary etiquette, in that, he made the reader apart of his poem, and reached out with an erotic message personifying every part of his being to seek spiritual enlightenment for all. What is the grass? Whitman empathized with the reader as they joined in the question about the grass. He avoided being the answer; “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me.” The reader is left to question alone, but, as the same time, to stand in a kinship with him–a brotherhood. Whitman wanted the reader to look inside of his inner-self to find a spiritual answer.
Whitman used the imagery of grass on various levels; physical and natural in meaning, the pages of his book, the form of his poetry, and the physical piece of grass that grew on the earth. He said that his creativity is unexplainable, just a representation of his hopes, dreams, fears, and spirit.
Whitman put himself; his being, his soul onto paper and into words. Here he used visual imagery, “I celebrate myself’ “…I assume, you assume, every atom” …. Belongs to you.” Whitman told us who he was while at the same time he showed us who he was. Whitman’s goal was a natural, relaxed freedom, with less compulsiveness and a lowered stress level for all Americans.
His psychological belief in the supernatural inspired a shaman like spirituality in his poem. He called on the supernatural powers of the cosmos to evolve the nation into one with an authentic self-image.
Aesthetic and cultural values in America were changing like an anthill of activity in the 1850’s. The Puritan work ethic prevailed, people working long hours and six days per week. The average adult saw leisure and games as a waste of time. In the 1850’s a boom in railroad development across the North changed business models, influenced a rise in real estate values, increased regional concentrations of industry, and stimulated growth in investment banking and agriculture.
Health care was still largely in a state of ignorance regarding the treatment of disease and sickness. Although in the North there was some optimism, with predictions that electricity and machinery would be transforming life and relieving mankind from drudgery. This period of history found the Puritan values in America in conflict with American Romantics like Whitman.
The Romantic Movement and its aesthetic quality was characterized by the belief in imagination, individualism, emotion, and freedom. Such romantic ideals attempted to change the boundaries, rules, and societal structure of America. Whitman supported these ideals; as he challenged the country’s religion and religious morals. He saw the country’s corrupted government; ruled by immoral, wicked men, criminals elected by the populace, supported by the populace, and shielded from punishment by their political allies.
Whitman sermonized that the natural world was beautiful, while human society was filled with corruption (Rousseau). Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary, dark romanticist, whose many works were inspired by Puritan New England, suggested that guilt, sin, and evil were the most inherent natural qualities of humanity. Hawthorne described his aesthetic style to romance writing as using “atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.” Whitman and Hawthorne’s visual imagery expressed the needed change. Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” stitched a quilt of random imagination with patches of beauty to enrich man’s perception of self-worth and self-image. This poetic quilt covered the reader’s suffering and pain; as he found comfort in the words of Whitman. Once comforted, as a literary artist, Whitman used the beauty of the earth, sun, fields and hillsides in his verse; as he influenced and deepened the reader’s search for freedom from traditional thinking.
Whitman implied an aesthetic quality in the naturalness of self. Whitman described a meeting between his body and soul. He invited his soul to relax and “loaf with me on the grass” where he celebrated self and all parts of him with the reader. Whitman saw the inherent beauty in the hearts and minds of the American people, as he discovered a new self-identity with them.
Uniting in harmony with the oneness of man, and God; Whitman created a metaphorical holy trinity with a supernatural beauty.
Whitman wrote with his natural voice as he encouraged the reader and the country to come closer to a voice that was developed by personal choice. He wanted the country to have made a shift of consciousness; to where they were not dominated by compulsive, unconscious thinking. His poetic shift of consciousness had the effect of a spiritual awakening for the country. Whitman believed that living in the moment gave one the power of life itself, that which has traditionally been called God. Whitman believed the fate of America depended on their conscious awakening. Whitman’s message– oneness of all. You are the song of myself.
A descriptive passage lifted from a newspaper obituary of March 1894 expressed an epitaph to Whitman:
“The trees and the flowers talked to him, the sunshine held philosophy for him, the voices of children and twittering of birds were music in his ears till those organs were hopelessly dulled.”
Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass