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Song of Myself by Walt Whitman:

Summary, Themes & Analysis


Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' is one of the most important poems in the American canon,
important for both its use of language and its vision of equality. This lesson looks at the poem's
structure, themes and interpretations.

Introduction to the Poem


'I celebrate myself,' declares Walt Whitman's sprawling poem 'Song of Myself.' First
published in 1855 in Whitman's collection Leaves of Grass, 'Song of Myself' is one of the
best known and most influential poems ever written by an American. Running to
somewhere around 70 pages and divided into 52 sections, 'Song of Myself' takes the reader
on an epic journey through many settings, time periods, viewpoints and personas. Walt
Whitman had some radical ideas about America, democracy, spirituality, sexuality, nature
and identity. He used 'Song of Myself' to explore those ideas while preaching selfknowledge, liberty and acceptance for all.
With its free-form and loose structure, its compelling rhythms, multiple themes and shifting
narrators, 'Song of Myself' is widely considered one of the first truly modern poems. No
one had ever read anything quite like it before, and it wielded a heavy influence on 20th
century poets like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, some of
Whitman's passages are so steamy (more on that soon) that they shocked contemporary
readers. Emily Dickinson, who wrote poetry around the same time as Whitman, once said
of old Walt, 'I have never read his book, but I was told that he was disgraceful.' Let's dive
into the poem and take a look at what makes it so unique and enduring.

Poem Summary
'Song of Myself' is not a poem with a clear plotline or single point to make. Although
Whitman has some distinct themes that come up over and over again, he's juggling so many
ideas, characters, images and symbols all at once that reading this poem is like holding on
to a runaway horse. You just have to let it take you where it will. That's part of what makes
it so appealing to so many different types of people - you can keep going back to it again
and again and finding something new.
Sometimes Whitman feels like he's preaching, and some of the sections contain direct
explanations of his philosophy. For example, one of Whitman's favorite ideas is that we're
all equal, and he tells us so in lines like:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
He's also obsessed with how good life is. In lines like:
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to tell him or her it is just as lucky to die.
He's trying to teach the reader that everything is okay. Even the nasty parts of existence are
all part of a great, intelligent pattern.
Other times, Whitman backs away from the teacherly voice to tell us a story or set a scene.
In the famous Section 11, Whitman takes on the persona of a young woman watching 28
beautiful young men bathe in a river.
Whitman's ability to jump in and out of other people's points of view is part of the poem's
overall commitment to democracy and equality. 'I can appreciate anybody,' Whitman seems
to be saying, 'because at the heart of it, we're all alike.' Whitman is particularly interested in
telling stories about 'regular people,' and he often portrays slaves, workmen, the poverty-

stricken and even prostitutes. He wants us to know that no matter what our life situation is,
no one is inherently better or worse than anyone else.
On the most basic level, we can think of 'Song of Myself' as an invitation from Walt
Whitman, the poet from Long Island, to jump inside his head and take a look at the world
through his eyes. As we do that, we discover with Walt just how expansive and complicated
- and wonderful - it is to be a human being in mid-19th century America.

Poem Structure
As we've already mentioned, this poem is long - somewhere over 70 pages and hundreds of
lines. It's divided into 52 sections, but those sections aren't arranged in any regular way.
They're varying lengths, and they aren't contained by a regular rhyme or meter. Whitman
went back to this poem later in his life and edited it somewhat, taking out some sections
here and there and smoothing others over. You may find references to more than one
edition of the poem in your studies.
Whitman uses poetic techniques to bring unity to what is otherwise a pretty sprawling and
free-form poem. Here are a few key things to remember about the structure of 'Song of
Myself':

Free Verse: A poem without a regular rhyme or meter, which feels almost like regular
speech, is said to be written in free verse.
Long Lines: Excess is one of Whitman's main characteristics. The lines in 'Song of Myself'
spill over the page, sometimes filling up two or three text lines before he takes a break.
Lists: Whitman loves to use lists to underscore his ideals of universality, as he does in this
excerpt from Section 16:
o A farmer, mechanic or artist. . . a gentleman, sailor, lover or Quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.
Anaphora: This is a fancy poetry term that basically just means repetition at the beginning
of a line. Whitman uses this device to give some energy to his long poem, keeping the
rhythm going forward. Check out this example from Section 33:
o Over the growing sugar. . . over the cotton plant. . . over the rice in its low moist
field;
Over the sharp-peaked farmhouse with its scalloped scum and slender shoots from
the gutters.