Leaves of Grass Summary and Analysis

"Song of Myself"

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Summary

Whitman begins this poem by naming its subject – himself. He says that he celebrates himself and that all parts of him are also parts of the reader. He is thirty-seven years old and “in perfect health” and begins his journey “Hoping to cease not till death.” He puts all “Creeds and schools in abeyance” hoping to set out on his own, though he admits he will not forget these things. Whitman then describes a house in which “the shelves are / crowded with perfumes” and he breathes in the fragrance though he refuses to let himself become intoxicated with it. Instead, he seeks to “go to the bank by the wood” and become naked and undisguised where he can hear all of nature around him.

Whitman says that he has heard “what the talkers were talking, the talk of the / beginning and the end,” but he refuses to talk of either. Instead, he rejects talk of the past or future for an experience in the now. This is the “urge” of the world which calls to him. Whitman sees all the things around him – “The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old / and new,” but he knows that “they are not the Me myself.” He remembers in his own past that he once “sweated through fog” with fashionable arguments. He no longer holds these pretensions, however.

Whitman then describes an encounter between his body and soul. He invites his soul to “loafe with me on the grass” and to lull him with its “valved voice.” He tells his soul to settle upon him, “your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d / over upon me…..” He invites his soul to undress him and reach inside him until the soul feels his feet. This will bring him perfect peace “that pass all the argument of the earth….” This peace is the promise of God and is what allows all people to become his brothers and sisters.

Whitman recalls a scene in which a child came to him with a handful of grass and asked him what it was. Whitman has no answer for the child. The grass is “the flag of my disposition” and it is the “handkerchief of the Lord….” It is also the child or a symbol for all of humanity. Whitman sees the grass sprouting from the chests of young men, the heads of old women, and the beards of old men. He remembers all those that have died and recalls that each sprout of grass is a memorial to those that have come before. Whitman reflects that “…to die is different from what any one supposed, and / luckier.”

Whitman then writes a parable. Twenty-eight young men bathe on a sea shore while a young woman, “richly drest” hides behind the blinds of her house on the water’s bank. She observes the men and finds that she loves the homeliest of them. She then goes down to the beach to bathe with them, though the men do not see her. “An unseen hand” also passes over the bodies of the young men but the young men do not think of who holds onto them or “whom they souse with spray.”

Whitman describes groups of people that he stops to observe. The first is a “butcher-boy” sharpening his knife and dancing. He sees the blacksmiths taking on their “grimy” work with precision. Whitman then observes a “negro” as he works a team of horses at a construction site. Whitman admires his chiseled body and “his polish’d and perfect limbs.” He sees and loves this “picturesque giant….” He admits in the next poem that he is “enamour’d…Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods, / Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes / and mauls… / I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.” In a lengthy section, Whitman describes the work of all people of the land – the carpenter, the duck-shooter, the deacons of the church, the farmers, the machinist, and many more. They often have hard, ordinary lives, yet Whitman proclaims that these people “tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them” and they all “weave the song of myself.”

Whitman describes himself as “old and young” and “foolish as much as…wise….” He is “Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man….” He is of all the land of North America from the South even into Canada. He notes that these are not his own original thoughts, however. These thoughts have been a part of the human condition for all of time. These thoughts are “the grass that grows wherever the land is…the common air that bathes the globe.” His thoughts are for all people, even those that society has considered outcasts.

Whitman wonders why he should adhere to the old ways – prayer or ceremony. He claims that he has “pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair” and found that nothing is as true and sweet as “my own bones.” Whitman understands himself. He is “august” and vindicated by his own nature. “I exist as I am, that is, enough.” He does not have to explain his inconsistencies. Those are only to be accepted. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” All pleasure and all pain are found within his own self. Whitman describes himself in the basest terms: “Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,” he does not feign interest in manners. He hears the “primeval” voices of democracy and mankind and gives himself over to these forbidden lusts. Above all, Whitman says, “I believe in the flesh and the appetites….”

Analysis

The first thing to note is that Whitman calls his poems “songs.” This insinuates that Whitman feels there is an audible quality to his work; that the true meanings of his poems will not be understood if they are not heard by a listener. Thus, Whitman feels as though he will not be understood as an individual if he is not heard by the world. “Song of Myself,” as the linchpin of this first half of Leaves of Grass, is his attempt to make himself heard.

Whitman’s subject is himself, but it is clear that Whitman means more than just his physical self. Whitman calls himself a universe of meanings. He uses the symbol of his naked self in nature to symbolize his own fusion with the world around him. Whitman’s self is the whole of America and the whole of nature. This is best seen in Whitman’s use of the catalog. A catalog is a literary device used in epic poetry as a rhetorical naming or inventory. Whitman uses a catalog in “Song of Myself” to name a variety of professions and people that he meets on his journey across the States. He says that he becomes part of these people and these people come to compose his own self.

In this section, Whitman first engages the idea of individuality and collectivity. The catalog is Whitman’s example of the collective. This refers back to his opening inscription in which Whitman proclaimed that his work is of the self, both the individual self and the democratic self. The collection of all people in the land forms a self that is distinct from the individual self, yet is similar in that it has its own soul and being.

Whitman uses the metaphor of grass in the sixth section of “Songs of Myself” to try and explain the democratic self. His explanation, he admits, is incomplete. Whitman describes a child coming to him and asking him what is the grass. He has no real answer, meaning that he cannot fully describe the democratic self to those that do not inherently understand it. Whitman can only tell the child that he sees the democratic self in young men and old women, meaning that he sees it in all people. Whitman then takes the metaphor one step farther, telling the child that even the grass that has died and has gone back to the earth is a part of the whole. “Song of Myself” balances the themes of individuality and collectivity as two important ingredients for the democratic experiment of America. This is Whitman’s political argument.

Whitman breaks up “Song of Myself” with a kind of parable. A parable is a short, succinct story that offers a moral or instructive lesson for its hearers. Whitman’s lesson is an erotic one and it is instructive to see how Whitman’s passion for democracy is equated with a sexual and erotic passion. A woman sees twenty-eight men bathing and lusts to be with them. When she joins them, they are together through the power of an “unseen hand.” Whitman uses shocking erotic images of the men and spraying water, a reference to male ejaculation, to arouse the reader. Whitman is telling his readers that they must not only observe the democratic life but they must become one with it. This joining is both mysterious and erotic for those that take part.

Whitman closes “Song of Myself” by trying to name this large, democratic collectivity, yet he finds it impossible. He makes a point to let the reader know that he contradicts himself and that this democratic self is full of inconsistencies. Whitman understands very well that the democracy of America is imperfect, filled with injustice, self-serving, and undermined by the tyranny of the individual. He pares this democratic self down to its essentials: it is primal, the flesh and the appetites. Whitman continues Leaves of Grass with this carnal vision in the next sections.