Song Of Myself: Individuality And Free Verse Essay, Research Paper
Forged in the fire of revolution and defined by manifest destiny, America has always been the land of the individual. Although the American dream has not always been consistent, (married with 2.5 kids, 2 cars, a dog and a satisfying job), the spirit of innovation, individuality and progress remains unchanged. The father of free verse, and perhaps the American perspective of poetry, Walt Whitman embodies these values in his life and work. First published in 1855 in Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself” is a vision of a symbolic “I” enraptured by the senses, vicariously embracing all people and places from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Sections 1 and 2, like the entirety of the piece, seek to reconcile the individual and the natural world in an attempt to uncover the individual’s humanity.
Born near Huntington, New York, Whitman was the second of a family of nine children. His father was a carpenter. The poet had a particularly close relationship with his mother. When Whitman was four years old, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended public school for six years before being apprenticed to a printer. Two years later he went to New York City to work in printing shops. He returned to Long Island in 1835 and taught in country schools. In 1838 and 1839 Whitman edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in Huntington. When he became bored with the job, he went back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. There he enjoyed the theater, the opera, and the libraries. Whitman wrote poems and stories for popular magazines and made political speeches, for which Tammany Hall Democrats rewarded him with the editorship of various short-lived newspapers. For two years Whitman edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but he lost his position for supporting the Free-Soil party. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, Louisiana, he returned to Brooklyn, where he tried to start a Free-Soil newspaper (Academy of American Poets). During the Civil War Whitman served as a nurse and his contact with the atrocities of battle later proved to be a driving force in his desire to bring people together in harmony (Ott 1774). After the war, he held various jobs, including government clerk and homebuilder. But it was the decade before the war in which Whitman made the switch between rhymed verse and the radically new, free verse he has so greatly influenced. Leaves of Grass, in its original printing was the first product of that change.
Due to Whitman’s glorification of the senses and intimate exploration of the human body, he was forced to publish the 1st edition of Leaves of Grass with his own resources (Academy of American Poets). Also notable was the absence of any note on the cover identifying Walt Whitman as the author. Instead, engraved on the front is a portrait of Whitman, hat cocked, nonchalant and intimately personal. In his preface, Whitman heralds the coming of a new democratic literature, one that forms a “commensurate with the people” (preface). Whitman saw his poetry not only as a creation of the self, but indeed a piece of the self and a reflection of American society as a whole (Mulcaire 471). Whitman purposely left the cover unmarked because he regarded his poetry as a binding and universal understanding of which he was not the proprietor, but merely a participant in. More central to Whitman’s purpose was his view of the poem as a means expressing his “self” in universal terms. Because of his background in the high volume production of literature, Terry Mulcaire theorizes that Whitman saw the mass distribution of his poetry as a means of universalizing an intimacy with his world:
(W)e are now part of a living crowd who see the same “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the same poem, the same book, the same product of an industrial culture that generations of readers have experienced. (Mulcaire 473)
The intended result is that the person that Whitman, in this “commodification,” becomes inextricably melded to the persona of the subject Whitman in the poetry. As Mulcaire goes on to argue:
(T)his book is not just the product of my body, he insists to us; this book is my body. The corollary of this radical intimacy is a radical alienation. Leaves of Grass can embody Walt Whitman to his public, it seems, only insofar as his body has undergone a process of alienation so thorough as to be fatal to any form of bodily existence independent of the commodified form of his book. (474)
In essence Whitman’s goal is to erase, or ignore, all boundaries, geographic, spiritual and temporal, in an effort to bring forth the true spirit of humanity (Egan 81). This search for, and communication of, the natural, caring and intimate human being guides the poetry of Walt Whitman.
In converse the poetry reflects the pursuit of the human being. Like life and like nature, the verse is uneven and unrhymed. It is free. The poetry is the reflection of how Whitman sees the natural human being, unconstrained by the burdens of verse as the free human is independent of the mental handcuffs of society. He envisions himself, and his American society, as something that has the potential to break free and live. As he explicates in the first stanza of section 2, Whitman sees a spiritual undressing as a prerequisite to achieve consciousness:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me (Section 2).
The perfume in this passage is representative of the alienation of the self with the physical world. It is a mask that disguises the essence of the individual. Whitman allows himself to recognize the allure, the temptations of an artificial existence, but rejects the opportunity to become inebriated in its appeal. He instead chooses the natural, the odorless air of the atmosphere. In doing so he is not only declaring his support for the natural, but for the communal as well (Mulcaire 480). The atmosphere is a shared environment. Everyone breathes of it. In contrast, the crowded shelves offer to each individual a unique, albeit artificial scent.
In choosing the perfume, one is effectively choosing to be defined by the terms of a created and illusory world. Also of importance is the syntactical structure. While the verse is basically prose, the line breaks reveal the statement Whitman wishes to convey. The indented “crowded with perfumes” exemplifies the constriction of the artificial, “crowded” being the antithesis of “free.” The second indentation “let it.” implies the reader has a choice, and must take a conscious action, to decide their direction (Egan). Whitman is saying that this world of boundaries, and things, and conflicts, and ephemeral individuality, will consume you, but only if you let it. Therefore, one must make a resolution with oneself to choose the free and “odorless.” That resolution, on a literal level, is to discover your own humanity and claim intimacy with yourself, which Whitman expounds with, “and naked.” The relationship between humanity and nature fascinated Whitman and the pursuit of that understanding became his life’s purpose.
Leaves of Grass was revised and rewritten a multiplicity of times. Stimulated by a letter of congratulations from the eminent essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman hastily put together another edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), with revisions and additions. The most significant 1856 poem is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” (noted above by Mulcaire) in which the poet vicariously joins his readers and all past and future ferry passengers. Finally, in 1881, Whitman arranged his poems to his satisfaction, but he continued to add new poems to the various editions of Leaves of Grass until the final version was produced in 1892. Today, Whitman’s poetry has been translated into every major language. It is widely recognized as having a formative influence on the work of such American writers as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens (Academy of American Poets).
This influence on the future is the result of Whitman’s attempt to universalize his poetry. By shedding the shackles of structure and seeking to find intimacy with the physical world, Whitman has broken down the boundaries of culture and time. His vision of humanity, one that embraces the person and the natural world, still inspires the stirring of an alienated individual. Whitman’s gift to the world is his poetry, and in essence, Whitman himself. His poetry is the epitome of the American dream; free, wild and personal. His poem, “Song of Myself,” is a bridge, spanning the divides of time, to bring us in touch with our own intimate humanity.