Song of Myself
How we cite our quotes:
I heard what was said of the universe,
Heard it and heard of several thousand years;
It is middling well as far as it goes . . . . but is that all?
Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah and laying them away,
Lithographing Kronos and Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris and Isis and Belus and Brahma and Adonai,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, and Allah on a leaf, and the crucifix engraved,
With Odin, and the hideous-faced Mexitli, and all idols and images,
Honestly taking them all for what they are worth, and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their day,
Admitting they bore mites as for unfledged birds who have now to rise and fly and sing for themselves, (section 41)
Interestingly, the speaker simultaneously praises and undermines the religions of the world. For one thing, he thinks that many representatives of organized religions are "hucksters," but he has great respect for the religions themselves. Nonetheless, they belong to an earlier age and need to be integrated into a new tradition in which people discover divine truths for themselves rather than through received wisdom.
I do not despise you priests;
My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing all worship ancient and modern, and all between ancient and modern,
Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years,
Waiting responses from oracles . . . . honoring the gods . . . . saluting the sun,
Making a fetish of the first rock or stump . . . . powowing with sticks in the circle of obis,
Helping the lama or brahmin as he trims the lamps of the idols,
Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession . . . . rapt and austere in the woods, a gymnosophist,
Drinking mead from the skull-cup . . . . to shasta and vedas admirant . . . . minding the koran,
Walking the teokallis, spotted with gore from the stone and knife—beating the serpent-skin drum;
Accepting the gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing assuredly that he is divine,
To the mass kneeling—to the puritan's prayer rising— sitting patiently in a pew,
Ranting and frothing in my insane crisis—waiting dead-like till my spirit arouses me;
Looking forth on pavement and land, and outside of pavement and land,
Belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits. (section 43)
The phrase, "I do not despise you" is pretty cold comfort for the priests, considering that the speaker seems to tell everyone else in the world how much he wants to hug and kiss them. Clearly he thinks that the priests are misguided. Whitman's spiritual vision is one of participation in all of the great traditions of the world, even if only in the imagination. His personal spirituality "contains" the wisdom of all these tradition, and therefore it is superior to them.
And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come for-ever and ever.
And as to you death, and you bitter hug of mortality . . . . it is idle to try to alarm me. (section 48)
The concept of God is murky in this poem. Whitman thinks that we could do without worrying so much about the nature of God, but he also finds the concept useful in his effort to show that divinity is everywhere. The world is full of reminders of the divine, like little letters "dropped in the street." He leaves the letters for those who need them.