Adeline's Reviews > Song of Myself

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
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Mar 02, 2009

it was amazing
Read in October, 2007

The first six sections of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself present a myriad of issues both in subject matter and style. Reading these sections is a very different experience from reading a sonnet or even blank verse. Whitman's form was revolutionary when it arrived on the literary scene, and it continues to be distinctive. To some, Whitman's form is the essence of his art, and part of what makes Song of Myself so accessible and so entrancing. But to others it seems mere sloppiness – Whitman's lines follow no particular rhyme scheme, beat count, or structure. My alliances lie with the former camp; it seems that Whitman's form only adds to the beauty of his work. Not only are his ideas and images amazing and new, but the way it must be read is unconventional; in fact, even the way it looks on the page is distinct. Whitman's thoughts flow smoothly from his mind to the paper; there is no stuffiness or sensation of a forced meter.
The particularly fine aspects of Song of Myself are the images and concepts Whitman utilizes. Whitman's Song of Myself operates on a new level, with a new method, and he wants us to know it. He wasn't afraid to throw conventional poetic expectations out the window. It is, in fact, intimidating to look at the pages of Song of Myself; lines are irregularly spaced, there is no clear poetic form, and his verse paragraphs are arranged differently from page to page. The subject matter, too, is sometimes surprising. It takes effort to appreciate the beauty of Whitman's technique and to interpret the depth of his images.
While the broadly accepted impression of Whitman is the grandfatherly bearded man we so often see pictured, it is important to remember that the original edition of Leaves of Grass which contained Song of Myself featured a photo of an attractive young Whitman staring haughtily back at his readers, head cocked, hand on his hip. He is not a man talking just about the grass and plant life parts of nature, but the whole gamut of events from life to death, including sexuality.
Whitman's entire work is sensual in nature, but at parts it veers towards overt sexuality. There is one part in particular that is beautiful, but also rather scandalous in its depiction of what I assume to be homosexual fellatio:
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue
to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet (90).

The image of the “head athwart my hips” and the diction “gently”, “parted”, “plunged” and “bare-stript” creates a sensation of gentle but erotic caresses. However, it is also possibly to somewhat “skim over” the passage and simply think of it as metaphorical or to not even analyze it at all. Missing this passage doesn't necessarily damage the work as a whole. Surely there are many readers who never have and never want to see the sexuality of the passage. It is certainly intriguing to see an author who is so open about the sexuality that is indeed innate to human life, but at the same time inappropriate to discuss in “proper society”. Whitman's attitude of authority regarding life and death seems more convincing because he is willing to take on the issue of sex. Honestly, how would life and death exist if sex did not? By addressing reality, Whitman draws the reader in further; the poem seems to true and so honest.
Whitman's song became, in parts, my song too. I felt connected to the earth and to other people, and I felt an intellectual connection with Whitman himself. Ultimately, this seems to be the point of Leaves of Grass, as we are informed in the very first stanza: “And what I shall assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (2). Captured within the poem is the wide eyed wonder of childhood, an attempt to grasp death, and of course the many sensual aspects of life. Whitman's combination of the beauty of life and the utter unidentifiable nature of death helped me better understand my own life. His writing encompasses the degree to which we all live, all the while trying not to dwell upon our demise. We will all die, but no one can know when. In this way, we are all connected. The following stanza presents this idea quite concisely when one considers how complex the subject matter is:
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death. (188)

In the last line of the above section Whitman asks us to consider the nature of life and death and the inevitability of our own demise. Yet his outlook is not bleak; he wishes to live until he dies, which is all we can really do. What is the point of thinking about dying when we have our lives stretching indefinitely before us? We all hope to live until we die, but perhaps never verbalize it or put the sensation into concrete terms. Were we not to live as best we could, the world would sink into Nihilism, and the beauty of small things such as fresh green grass and the smell of perfume would be wasted and lost.
The combination of imagery: the grass growing from the bodies of the dead and the children plucking the grass in wonder, lets us remember that there is a circle of life and the world is still amazing, even when it seems impossibly bleak; even when someone close to us has died. We all die, but first we have to live. And if we can remember the wide eyed wonderment of childhood and the fact that we are connected even through something as tiny as a blade of grass, maybe the life we are given can be as enjoyable as the picture Whitman portrays. The grass is new life, but its roots lie in the decaying skulls of our past. Yet a child can pluck the blades and see only beauty, not the death that, in reality, lies behind the appearance of new growth.
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