When this poem was first published as the opening work in Whitman's collection Leaves of Grass, it did not have a title; Whitman later titled it "Song of Myself" in 1881. This fact is telling when considering the poem's themes and truths: Whitman himself did not necessarily consider the implications of such a self-referential title, although modern scholars often interpret the work as intensely personal and perhaps even self-indulgent. But Whitman's body of work is influential for these very subjects of intimate and scrupulous self-knowledge and self-iventory. The free verse format of the work is further evidence of the poet's iconoclastic approach, one that serves inspiration and impulse (also themes found in this poem) more than it does the formal expectations of poetry.
As with much of Whitman's poetry, themes of sexuality, nature, identity and life's purpose are woven throughout this text. Whitman unites these themes in a sort of cosmic manifesto, one that questions the very fabric of life and the human being's place in it. In the poem's celebratory language exploring the human body, for example, he goes beyond mere biological or physical functions and pleasures and considers the more mystic and spiritual aspects of the body's context within in the natural world. He also questions the experience of human suffering and seems to embrace his responsibility as a poet to give voice to the vast spectrum of human experience. Because the poem was written just before the conflicts that ignited the American Civil War, it is possible Whitman's thought process was influenced by questions surrounding slavery, sovereignty and national pride.
There's no way to fully summarize this poem, because there is so much in the poem. Seriously – Walt Whitman changes topics almost every other line. But there are a few main ideas you should know about before starting.
Let's start off with the basics: our speaker, who is actually named Walt Whitman, declares that he's going to celebrate himself in this poem. He then invites his soul to hang out and stare at a blade of grass. It's the party of the year.
He explains how much he loves the world, especially nature, and how everything fits together just as it should. Everything is good to him, and nothing is bad that doesn't contribute to some larger good. Nature has patterns that fit together like a well-built house.
The speaker divides his personality into at least three parts:
- The "I' that involves itself in everyday stuff like politics, fashion, and what he's going to eat;
- The "Me Myself" that stands apart from the "I" and observes the world with an amused smile; and
- The "Soul" that represents his deepest and most universal essence.
Whitman thinks it's important for people to learn through experience and not through books or teachers. (If you like this idea, check out his short and sweet poem called "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" https://www.shmoop.com/learnd-astronomer/; you'll be a fan.)
A child asks him what the grass is, and he doesn't have an answer, which gets him thinking about all kinds of things, but especially about all the people buried in the earth who came before him. He identifies with everyone and everything in the universe, including the dead. He imagines that he's a bunch of different people, from a woman staring at naked bathers to a crewman on a ship during a naval battle. His soul takes him on a journey around the world and all over America.
Whitman tells us a bit about what he believes and what he's opposed to. Let's start with what he's opposed to:
- People who think they preach the truth, like the clergy
- Feelings of guilt and shame about the body
- Self-righteous judgments
On the flip side, Whitman believes that:
- Everyone is equal, including slaves
- Truth is everywhere, but unspeakable
- An invisible connection and understanding exists between all people and things
- Death is a fortunate thing and not something to fear
- People would be better off if they had faith in the order of nature (and death is part of this order) He's awesome, and thinks people should take pride in themselves
At the end of the poem, he says that he's going to give his body back to nature and to continue his great journey. He'll be hanging out ahead on the road, waiting for us to catch up with him.