One of the remarkable features of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is its adaptation of the epic poem genre. But, while classics of this genre have at their center a heroic figure, Whitman introduces a new vision of the heroic. Instead of glorifying acts of great courage and feats of tenacity and will power, the heroic in Whitman is to be found in the qualities of the ‘common man’. This term was not in currency during Whitman’s era but fits the description perfectly in retrospect. In this sense, we can claim that the Song of Myself is an avant-garde venture to democratize heroism. In the place of Greek and Roman super-human heroes, as Whitman notes in his memoir A Backward Glance over Trveled Roads, his endeavor is to create a work in answer to these questions: “Is there one [earlier epic] that is consistent with these United States….? Is there one whose underlying basis is not a denial and insult to democracy?” (Trecker, 2011, p.12) While liberal politics is one inspiration, classical music is another source, for the poet found “structural forms in the overtures, recitatives, and arias of Italian opera and, very possibly, inspiration for his role as poet as well…” (Trecker, 2011, p.12)
The manner in which Whitman characterizes his hero makes it clear that he is not referring to one single individual. Instead his hero is the collective spirit of the average American citizen that includes himself. The poet’s characterization of himself, which can be identified in the poem, is borne by two qualities: “first, as common circumstances had made him, as an American of his time; second, as magnified by hope, by joy, by exultation, and by the proud, full sail of his great verse.” (Donoghue, 2012, p.248) The manner in which Whitman transposes the ‘One’ on the ‘Many’ is an effective psychological device. This notion of claiming through the authorial voice, the voice of the whole community of American people is both novel and challenging. The poem lends itself to other dualities:
“the One, construed not as a metaphysical principle of unity embothed in the universe at large but as a psychological principle of unity embothed in a particular mind, and thereafter as a mythic principle of unity and power attributable in principle to every mind. One, in that sense, is then identified with All, and made to extend subjectively to the outer limit of the universe.” (Donoghue, 2012, p.248)
Some of the lines in the poem are quite profound, as in, “There was never may more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now, And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.” (lines 31-34) These lines are subtly subversive to the Biblical perception of humanity and human life. To this extent, Song of Myself is a symbol of secular and pragmatic humanism. The secular humanist credentials of the work are further evidenced in the lines “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,/ And you must not be abased to the other” (74-75). We see sharp criticism of the dichotomy of good versus evil that is the lynchpin of the Christian religion. Apart from motifs of pragmatism of this sort, the other recurrent motifs are “the air and the grass, and the celebration of the body, the human voice, the natural world, and the city.” (Genoways, 2005, p.1)
The celebration of the seemingly mundane and quotidian is a recurrent theme of the poem. Animals, plants and insects find several references. The author employs geographical and ecological markers are part of ‘his’ identity. For example, in line 694, section 32 we see “They [animals] bring me tokens of myself … they evince them plainly in their possession” (line 694). The theme of interconnectedness and interdependency of all life forms is best illustrated in Whitman’s allusions to animal life. Though his work preceded Charles Darwin’s publication of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, Whitman’s position aligns with the scientific view. The line “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars” (Section 31) is remarkably congruent with the theory of evolution. Whitman is also hinting at a larger philosophical point that the individual ego is small and insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things. The poem captures Whitman’s understanding of the nature of the soul. For example, the author has claimed in another publication that
“the soul or spirit transmits itself into all matter–into rocks, and can live the life of a rock into the sea, and can feel itself the sea–into the oak, or other tree—into an animal, and feel itself a horse, a fish, or a bird into the earth–into the motions of the suns and stars.” (Trecker, 2011, p.12)
In conclusion, it is apt to say that Song of Myself exhibits a style that is neither immediate nor abstract. In other words, the style employed by Whitman neither conveys distance nor possess intimacy. Far removed from realism, the poem is a eulogy for the notion of unity under the sweeping grandeur of the cosmos. It is rich in features of psychology, symbolism, characterization and theme.
Donoghue, Denis. “Of “Song of Myself”” The Hudson Review2 (2012): 247+.
Genoways, Ted. “Inventing Walt Whitman.” The Virginia Quarterly Review2 (2005): 1+.
Trecker, Janice Law. “The Ecstatic Epistemology of Song of Myself.” The Midwest Quarterly1 (2011): 11+.