Allison For Sept. 1

What makes Whitman’s “Song of Myself” so jarring has nothing to do with his poetic syntax or clever word choice; what makes this poem worth reading, not just reading but consuming, is the insatiable life that emanates from it.  The speaker of “Song of Myself” cannot be defined, touched, or contained. Never passive, utterly present, biting, and passionate, there is no “speaker” of this epic poem, but rather a bright, powerful force that drives it. This force encompasses the diversity of all mankind and also the multitudes that lie within one human being. It holds every occupation, contains every race, every emotion, every urge, and then some. The poem meanders, contradicts itself, inserts random thoughts as if occurring immediately, and yet still takes the time to expend lengthy, organized lists. Much like the force that delegates our own lives, the force that drives “Song of Myself” cannot be conquered or predicted.

Despite my assertion that the speaker is not a “person,” the first person is employed in the poem; “Me” and “I” are all over the place. This “Me” constantly defines itself as well as any other thing that could ever be defined. It proclaims: “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; they do not know how immortal, but I know.” There is no pretense here, the “Me” admits readily its omniscient presence, but does so humbly by asserting that “Me” is the, “commonest and cheapest.” With this, the speaker is both God and Man, the most profound of all contradictions. But who cares? “Me” certainly doesn’t.  In fact, the concluding thoughts address this issue, and quite proudly so: “do I contradict myself? Very well then…. I contradict myself; I am large…. I contain multitudes.” There is no sense in analyzing these contradictions, in trying to connect them to some sort of underlying theme, because each thought exists independently, each from its own organic moment, and if one happens to contradict another… oh well.

As both God and Man, the speaker, the force, the “Me,” shares with equally intimacy memories of personal experience, memories of foreign lands and foreign times, and memories of the Earth as a whole. There are thoughts of slaves, mechanics, farmers lovers, and other real, observable things. Seamlessly, however, there are also thoughts of brahmins, llamas, ancient Gods, the sun, the sky, the Earth, and the unknowable. And yet, despite these countless thoughts, the force declares there is so much more to know: “a few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span, or make it impatient, they are but parts…. any thing is but a part.” Though “Me” appears to be limitless, it acknowledges its own limitations.

“Song of Myself,” as a work, mirrors the life that speaks through it. This poem is large, it does contain multitudes. More important and more striking, though, is how alive it is. How wonderful would it be to live in this poem? To exist in a world of such passion and beauty and feeling. Perhaps what makes Whitman so enviable is not his incredible talent, but that he did exist in such a world.

  1. #1 by Caryn Levine on August 30, 2009 - 7:34 pm

    Allison, I feel that you have truly captured the essence of “Song”, not only in your analysis, but also your personal syntax in this post! I agree with your interpretation of “Me”, it is universal, a general “Me” as if to say I am myself, but I am also anyone and everyone. Great Post!

    -Caryn Levine

  2. #2 by mns on September 1, 2009 - 8:08 am

    Allison, I really love this moment in your post:

    How wonderful would it be to live in this poem? To exist in a world of such passion and beauty and feeling.

    No matter what got me started on this course/grant project, in some ways this marks my real investment in this class: what WILL it mean for us to live in it for a semester, to immerse ourselves in Whitman? Here we go.

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