The Idea of Self in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is one of the most popular and influential poems that explore the idea of the self. The poem bears the peculiarities of the American narrative of the nineteenth century. In the poem, Whitman treats this poem as a complex entity that embraces many different social, individual, and spiritual aspects. “Song of Myself” is an illustration of Whitman’s understanding of his own identity and the relation between the Self and other people and the country in general.
First, the self, as it is portrayed by Whitman in “Song of Myself,” is not a solid and unified notion. The poet addresses the self in several ways, namely “me”, “myself”, “I,” and “my soul”. In the poem, these entities often communicate with one another or even reflect opposite ideas. The first section of the poem contains a wide range of examples that prove Whitman’s different attitudes to various parts of his self. He says, “I celebrate myself and I sing myself,” while later he adds, “I loafe and invite my soul” (Whitman). These conversations between “I” and “my soul” are not evidence of schizophrenic tendencies; they are the indication of Whitman’s constant attempts to better understand the self and learn more about its limits, if they exist at all. The poet tends to explore the self from different perspectives by trying to test how his self will behave in different situations. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman covers various spheres of American life – from the living in the busy streets of New York to experiencing the nature on the shores of the lake – and pays close attention to the way his self reacts towards these environments. All these attempts and experiments lead Whitman to the conclusion that all the aspects of his self are equally important and crucial for his personality.
The main peculiarity of Whitman’s narrative about the self is its universality (Killingsworth 23). According to Whitman, there are no clear dividing lines between the personality of the poet and the rest of the world. He feels a close connection between all elements of the universe, including the self. Whitman says, “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul” (Whitman). Thus, the poet not only has the same positive feelings towards his own self and the surrounding world but also believes that “me” embraces all other objects and living beings in the universe, and this idea justifies his statement that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman). Such universality was crucial for the social processes taking place in the USA during the author’s life.
Besides, Whitman speaks of gender equality in his poem. This notion was rather debatable in the US of the nineteenth century, but “Song of Myself” laid the foundation for the discussion of this theme in later works of art. In the poem, Whitman addresses men and women in an equal manner as he considers himself to be “the poet of the woman the same as the man” (Whitman). These universal ideas about a person’s identity are developed in this poem even further as Whitman claims that women have the same right to express their sexuality as men. Moreover, the author sees no difference between the physical and spiritual elements of the self. He says, “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul” (Whitman). Therefore, the scale of Whitman’s universality is enormous, and, as a result, his self, as presented in the poem, exceeds all possible limits.
Another crucial element of Whitman’s self is connected to the changes that were taking place in the US society of that period. Although Whitman constantly speaks about the benefits of the union with nature, he is an urban poet who explores the city’s life in many sections of “Song of Myself.” His self is the urban dweller who feels comfortable in the busy streets of New York, but, at the same time, the self is aware of the necessity not to lose close relations with nature. In one of the attempts to define his multidimensional self, Whitman says, “This is the city and I am one of the citizens” (Whitman). Later, he gives a long list of his interests that all are closely connected with urban life – “politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools, the mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate” (Whitman). All these elements are crucial not only for the understanding of Whitman’s narrative but also for the comprehension of the context of the nineteenth century USA as well. At that time, the US entered the era of skyscrapers and the constantly growing urban population. In the poem, “myself” is often impressed with various industrialization processes, treating them as an integral part of urban life and not as the factors that negatively affect the environment and nature. The author acknowledges the impact of different urban elements on his life – “the latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new” (Whitman). Therefore, being an American poet, Whitman sees himself as an urban citizen who is ready to accept both positive and negative sides of the industrial progress.
In “Song of Myself,” Whitman pays attention to the idea of democracy, stating that it is the only possible way in which any person’s identity may harmoniously develop. Whitman is often considered to be a political writer and a political philosopher because there are many thought-provoking discussions regarding the political and social evolution of the United States in his works (Killingsworth 67). The aforementioned issues were topical for the US society in the middle of the nineteenth century because there was still no consensus regarding whether democracy was the best option for the country (Killingsworth 45). Universality provided a firm foundation for Whitman’s belief in the equality of all people. Although he often refers to the political repercussions of this notion, for him, the aforementioned concept is much broader than equal rights to vote and other similar issues widely discussed in the political circles of the US during his time. Whitman treats democracy as a way of life that has a considerable impact on his self and the way it interacts with the surrounding world. He shows the same likeness to men and women, the young and the old, black Americans or “groups of newly-come immigrants,” and other people (Whitman). The genuine interest in democracy also affects the vocabulary used by the poet to describe conversations between the different constituents of his self. Whitman does not focus on high-flown words as the majority of his contemporaries. Instead, he often uses slang, colloquial phrases, and similar expressions. Thus, as the American poet, Whitman is able to talk to all social groups in an equally efficient way.
In conclusion, in the poem “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, the idea of the self is portrayed as a combination of personal and social aspects. Whitman’s identity is closely interconnected with the processes that occur in the US society of his period, namely urbanization, industrialization, and the development of democracy. In the poem, the self is a complex notion that requires a constant study and thorough exploration. Various literary elements employed by the author make the narrative of the self in Whitman’s poem an impressive reflection of the American narrative as a whole.