In this poem, Whitman questions his own existence and the futility of life. He ponders the "endless trains of the faithless," or the many people who, throughout his life, betray his expectations. He describes cities full of foolish people and reproaches himself for being no better than these faithless masses.
He admits that his eyes vainly crave light and that he, like many others, always wants something better than what he has. He laments that things never turn out the way he wants them to, and observes the "sordid crowds" around him who are also fighting through the journey of life. He believes that he is intertwined with these people, spending just as many "useless years" in pursuit of a distant idea. At the end of the poem, he answers his own question—existence is enough of a purpose for humans to exist, and having life is reason enough for living.
Whitman writes in his signature free verse with very little formal structure and no rhyme scheme. There are two stanzas: the first one has seven lines, and the second, starting with the simple first line "Answer" contains three lines. In the first stanza, Whitman employs anaphora, repeating the word "of" at the beginning of each line. This repetition puts the reader inside the speaker's head so he or she can experience the poem as a stream of consciousness. The title, "O me! O life!" actually summarizes the poet's entire conflict: he questions his own purpose (O me!) and wonders why life can be so cruel (O life!).
The "question" and "answer" format of the poem allows for Whitman to make an unusual and unexpected choice. While readers might expect the poem to be a sorrowful lament (as many poems are), the poet answers his own question. Whitman uses the second stanza's "Answer" as a way of expressing his own perspective on the meaning of life. He imparts his belief that human life is sacred, and that human beings must appreciate what they have. Although this poem starts out with an eternally elusive question, Whitman chooses to combat his own feelings of helplessness and futility by offering an answer. Instead of letting his lament linger, he uses the opportunity to remind readers (and himself) that the purpose of life is to live.
Whitman chooses specific images to represent hopelessness in this poem. Both "trains of the faithless" and "cities fill'd with the foolish" evoke the themes of modernization and industrialization. The 1800s were full of new innovations that modernized society, so Whitman was writing against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. He acknowledges that in the context of rapid development and human achievement, it is easy for human beings to feel useless, inadequate, and ultimately, disappointed with their lives. Whitman admits to feeling this way himself - in fact, his lack of condescension here makes his work highly relatable. He does not offer instructions to fix the problem, but rather, he asks his reader to stop and realize that he or she is contributing to humanity simply by being alive.
Whitman chooses a powerful metaphor in the last line that is essential to understanding the poem. He refers to civilization as "powerful play," and insists that each person will "contribute a verse." In this image, Whitman is able to communicate his democratic beliefs (as each person contributes equally) as well as emphasize the importance of art and human expression. This concrete metaphor also allows Whitman to ground his existential philosophy in a relatable context.