Whitman begins his journey from “fish-shaped Paumanok where I was born….” He says that he has roamed many lands and now dwells in “Mannahatta” or in some withdrawn place where he can think and create away from the crowds. He becomes aware of the land around him; rivers like the Missouri and wonders like Niagara. He is solitary on his journey and he sets out “for a New World.”
Life, Whitman proclaims, is “Victory, union, faith, identity, time… / …riches, mystery….” The “ancestor-continents” are together, far away, and Whitman stands on the “present and future continents….” These continents are “cover’d with the foremost people, arts, / institutions, known.” Each American generation gives what is has and then passes on its work to a new generation. Whitman hears the future generations turning back to him “to listen….” Whitman tells all of America to “Take my leaves” to every corner of the nation and proclaim his message. He does take time to credit the “Dead poets, philosophs, priests” and the “Nations once powerful, now reduced” for all that those have given to create this new land. Whitman, however, proclaims that he stands in his own place and in his own day, separate from that history.
Whitman’s “mistress” is the soul. Whitman says that his poems are written with the soul in mind. The poems are spiritual; they’re of his body and of mortality but he will “then supply myself with the poems of my / soul and of immortality.” He then lays out his plans for his poems: he will write for the States and for freedom. He will write for both the President and “the One form’d out of all.” He will write for “contemporary lands” and for the hero workers of the “land and sea.” His song will be of friendship and of the “manly love” felt between companions and comrades. This song will be for a love of “complete abandonment….”
His poems also include “the evil” and Whitman admits that he and his nation have a dark side as well. Evil is an important dimension to the self. Whitman declares that he begins a religion with these poems. Previous men have “yet been half devout enough” and none has done justice to religion. “The real and permanent grandeur of these States / must be their religion.” There is a “greater / religion” according to Whitman that comes from the earth. He invites his readers to join in the grandness of this new reality: “The greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of / Religion.”
Whitman continues to describe the project of his poetry: he will “make the true poem of riches” that brings all into a togetherness of life and death. All things in the universe and nature are connected. No less than this is the focus on his poetry. All poems will have “reference to the soul.” Whitman compares the soul of a person to the type of a printer. The type leaves only an impression of words which contain the true meaning of a piece of writing just as the body is nothing but an outward impression of the inner reality of the soul. The body and the soul are interconnected and is “the meaning, the main / concern….”
Whitman proclaims that all the states and the regions are a part of him and he a part of them. He lists these “experienced sisters / and the inexperienced sisters” from Massachusetts to the South to the West to the “Arctic braced” and “Mexican breez’d” states. Whitman is their companion and arrives to be one with them. These poems contain the essence of each of these lands. The “arriere, the wigwam, the trail, the hunter’s hut, the / flat boat, the maize-leaf….” They contain “cities, solid, vast” as well as the natural settings of rural America and each will have him “lounging through the shops and fields….” Whitman calls on his reader to be his only companion and to “haste” in travel with him through these lands.
Just as an adventurer would map their journey before setting out, so too did Whitman attempt to draw a poetic map of the territory he sought to explore. This is the purpose of “Starting from Paumanok.” Paumanok is the Native American name for Long Island, a place where Whitman spent much time during his childhood visiting family. It was on Long Island that Whitman first discovered the beauty and joy of the natural world, a world often very different from the urban landscape of Brooklyn, where he lived with his parents.
The use of this Indian name represents Whitman’s own search for origin. Whitman was concerned with the underlying reality of place. This reality was to be the starting point for his physical and spiritual journey. By placing his own starting point in Long Island, Whitman suggests that his journey began in childhood. By telling the reader that he now dwells in Mannahatta, the Native American name for Manhattan, Whitman gives an original place to the ending of his journey.
“Starting from Paumanok” can be read as an autobiographical section. One can see both a progression of age, from childhood thoughts and dreams to mature relationships between lovers, and it can be seen as a progression of subject. As the poem progresses the subject turns away from Whitman’s self and begins to become the reader’s self. This move is Whitman’s attempt to draw the reader into the work. This literary journey mirrors the spiritual journey on which Whitman hopes to take his reader. The reader starts as an objective observer, hearing Whitman narrate his own life. By the end, the reader understands that Whitman’s life and Whitman’s journeys are the same as his or her own.
Whitman understands himself and his American characters to be a-historical, meaning that they stand outside of the time and space that seem to confine and constrict previous generations. This, Whitman believes, is a particular genius of the democratic experiment. He gives credence to the previous empires that laid the groundwork for the democratic United States, but he sees this democracy as the crowning achievement of civilization. This does not mean that Whitman believes his America to be some kind of perfect union for he is very aware of injustice and imperfection in society. Rather, Whitman sees the germ, or original thought, of perfection in this democratic land. It is even something for future generations to look back upon. Whitman encourages his future readers to remove themselves from their current contexts and histories in order to understand the original genius that he sees latent in the American landscape.
Whitman gives several maps for his work. In the first, he declares that he will write for the States and for freedom. This is his political purpose. These poems will attempt to define this unique democratic perfection that, though unrealized, is still present as potential energy. He then says he will write for Presidents and for the “One form’d out of all.” This is meant to represent those singular individuals for whom Whitman will laud, both real and physical people, and spiritual beings or realities. Finally, Whitman says that he will write of “manly love” and companionship. These will be the sections in which he praises love for others. In his own final analysis, it is this last theme that will encompass all others. By the end of “Starting From Paumanok,” Whitman has named the reader as his fellow sojourner. Whitman’s words become spiritual, emotional, and even physical. He describes an engagement with his words as going forth “hand in hand” and that the reader will become his lover. This is the conclusion of the map, but it is the beginning of the actual journey.