Walt Whitman is the quintessential American poet from the 19th century and “Song of Myself” is probably his most famous work. He wrote poetry, essays and was also a journalist – his writings balance between transcendentalism and realism. He is called the father of free verse, as one of the most influential poets in America. At the time, his work was quite controversial and he was scrutinised for suspicions of homosexuality. His most important poetry collection called Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855. He continued working on it until his death in 1892.
Song of Myself
“Song of Myself” was published in his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. It was an untitled poem in that first edition without any sections. In the second edition of 1856 he titled it “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” which was shortened in the 1860 third edition to “Walt Whitman”. In the 1867 edition, the poem was divided into 52 sections, as many as there are weeks in the year. And finally, in the last edition of the poetry collection in 1892, it got the title “Song of Myself”. I will not post it fully here. I’ll just share the first part and give you al link to the rest!
Song of Myself
Walt Whitman (1855)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
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.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
This epic poem is one of the best known poems of the “Leaves of Grass” collection. Whitman wrote it in the hopes that it would reunite America and avoid the threatening civil war. “Song of Myself” balances beautifully between the transcendental romanticism that inspired Whitman and the realism that would come to American literature after the Civil War many years later.
The first person speaker in this poem is not Walt Whitman, as proven by several quotes. It is an expansive persona, one that has exploded the conventional boundaries of the self. He seems to be speaking for all: “in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.” According to several critics who interpret Whitmans’s work, the self serves an ideal. But this identity is not one of an elevated hero, like in traditional epic poetry, but rather that of the common people.