If the speaker wasn't ambivalent about priests, preachers, and clergymen, we'd think he was a preacher himself. The poem sounds like a really long, deeply passionate sermon, and the audience is America as a whole.
The sound of a Whitman poem – especially this Whitman poem – couldn't be more recognizable. The most important audible feature of the poem is what it does to your breath. When you read it aloud, you tend to take a breath after each line. That's because the lines are longer than most poems you've probably read. A lot of the lines are just run-on sentences and fragments crammed together. For example, "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance – always substance and increase, always sex" (section 2). If you read the entire poem aloud, first of all you'd be a hero in our book, but, second, you'd also be about as winded as if you had just run five miles. If you've ever heard a hypnotic preacher, you'll notice that they often get tired and sweaty on the pulpit. It's hard to keep people's attention for that long! In the same way, Whitman is truly giving it all he's got here.
Another tactic used by preachers is repetition. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech "I Have a Dream." King, of course, was a preacher, and in that speech he repeats the phrase "I Have a Dream" over and over again in a spellbinding way. Much of the speech is a list, or "catalogue," of King's dreams for society. Whitman is the poet who uses repetition of phrases in successive lines (called anaphora) and long lists (called catalogues). Take, for example, this list of things that the speaker "knows" for certain:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
pass all the argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the
women my sisters and lovers; (section 5)
This particular list only goes on for four more lines, but there are some that go on for many, many lines, like the list of people and places in Section 33.
Two other tricks of the trade used by our speaker are rhetorical questions and apostrophe. In a sermon, a preacher uses rhetorical questions to anticipate an argument or to introduce a subject by pretending to respond to a question about it. Whitman does exactly the same thing with questions like, "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" (section 5). In that case, the argument he's responding to is, "I feel proud because I understand poems."
As for apostrophe, the term just means talking to someone who can't respond. Preachers might talk to the "poor and oppressed" or to "sinners" or some other group. Politicians often address "My fellow Americans." The sound of "Sound of Myself" is greatly influenced by the speaker's repeated attempts to start side-conversations, as if he were pointing to someone in a great crowd and saying, "You there! I've got something to say to you." Who, me?
Whitman generally avoids the fancy language and sentence structures of the traditional poetry of his day, but his tone is more like a formal speech than a plain conversation. He still knows how to turn a phrase. Think, for example, of the memorable passage when he praises his soul, says he wants to hears its "valved voice," and remembers when his soul "plunged [its] tongue to my bare-stript heart." From start to finish, "Song of Myself" is full of such astonishingly beautiful and highly eloquent passages. If Whitman was a preacher, we wouldn't miss his sermons for the world.
If Whitman were in a relationship with "titles" for "Song of Myself" on Facebook, the status would read, "It's complicated." In the first, historic edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855, the poem has no title. The collection has a lengthy and famous preface in prose (which you should read – check it out here), in which Whitman explains his ideas of poetry and democracy. Then he just launches right into the poem. People who read that first edition probably assumed the title of the poem was "Leaves of Grass."
And yes, "Leaves of Grass" would be an appropriate title, because one of the poem's central images is grass. Specifically, Whitman thinks that grass is a symbol of hope but also of the dead people who are buried beneath it and try to communicate to the living.
Leaves of Grass is also a famous pun. A "leaf" can be both the green thing that hangs from trees and also a page in a book. So Whitman wants you to think that, literally, the book you hold in your hands is like a clump of grass. Also, we don't normally think of grass as having leaves. Grass has blades; trees have leaves. The speaker, however, compares this small plant (i.e., grass) to larger trees. In Whitman's world, small things can be huge.
In the second edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1856, Whitman added the title, "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American." This title reminds us of Section 24 of the poem, in which he describes himself as "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." So far as we know, no other poet up to this point had ever titled their longest poem with their own name.
In 1860, Whitman shortened the title to "Song of Myself." This change is important because we suspect that "Walt Whitman" and "Myself" (or "Me Myself") might actually be different "characters" in the poem. This final title is also more democratic, and focuses our attention of the "Me Myself" persona. Anyone could write a poem called "Song of Myself." This one just happens to be written by Whitman.
A "song," by the way, is both a piece of music and an old-fashioned word for "poem." Songs are meant to be performed, and this poem is a grand performance to be sure.
"Song of Myself' is set in too many locations to name. At the same time, you could argue that the speaker goes to all of these places without moving anywhere at all. He just wants to "loafe" and look at a blade of grass, but the contemplation of this single "spear of grass" leads to thoughts about America, the world, and even the universe.
The primary setting is America as a whole. Unlike other Whitman poems, which are set in New York City or out in the countryside, "Song of Myself" travels quickly from place to place, both rural and urban, mimicking the metaphorical "journey" of the speaker. For example, Section 8 captures something of the chaos of the city, with "the blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders." Meanwhile, Section 9 shifts to the countryside at harvest-time, and Whitman rides on top of a hay-cart.
One reason for these frequent shifts is that Whitman likes telling vignettes, which are small vivid stories that put us in a particular scene but do not have a conventional narrative. The story of the woman admiring the 28 bathers is one such vignette, and so is the story about attending the wedding of a fur trapper and a Native American girl.
Some of the settings seem more realistic than others. The setting in which the speaker wheels through the universe past the planet Uranus is obviously not realistic, but the story of the massacre in the Mexican-American War feels like it could have been written by a journalist who was there. Above all, Whitman hopes to give a sense of the size and span of America and her great democracy. The diversity of the setting reflects the diversity of its people.
Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" has the craziest speaker situation in any poem we know of, so bear with us here. At Shmoop, we usually don't refer to the speaker of a poem by the author's name, but here it's pretty unavoidable: in Section 24, the speaker just busts out and says, "I'm Walt Whitman!" But that doesn't mean you can say that the speaker is the biographical Walt Whitman who wrote the poem. No, this speaker is a super-charged Walt Whitman, who has been places and done things that the real Walt could only dream of.
This "Walt Whitman" character is, as he says, a "kosmos," or an entire universe. He's like a giant magnet drawing everyone and everything into itself. He knows exactly how you and everyone else feels, and his powers of empathy are unparalleled. He's been all over America and all over the globe, and even outer space. Also, his two best friends happen to be the two persons that also live inside his body – how convenient. These guys are the "Me Myself" and the "Soul." There's no clean division between these different personas; they are more like masks that Whitman puts on and takes off. He speaks for his soul but stands apart from it.
He's a good friend of you, the reader. He is constantly addressing the reader as "you." He seems to think that you and he are on a journey together, and that he's your guide. He challenges your sense of pride and tries to goad you into thinking for yourself. It's clear that he has really soaked up the ideas of the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose notion of "self-reliance" is essentially, "learn by experience and don't trust everything you read from books or hear from other people." It's equally clear from the elevated language and interesting words he uses that the speaker has read the Bible and a lot of Shakespeare. Whitman has Shakespeare's flair for the dramatic, as in the famous standoff with himself from Section 28: "You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat, unclench your floodgates, you are too much for me."
Whitman seems to have it out for organized religion, too. He doesn't like churches and hierarchies, though he's quick to point out that he doesn't "hate" them, either: "I do not despise you priests" (section 43). That's because he doesn't hate anything. Nonetheless, he sides with the "prophets" against the "priests." In other words, he believes that truth arrives through individual inspiration and not through received doctrines.
However, the one thing that gets him more excited than anything else is sex. Or at least the body. He loves bodies, particularly the strong, muscular bodies of strapping young men. Ladies are cool, too, but he's just not quite as excited about the womenfolk. Read into this what you will – plenty of other people have. Also, he feels no shame about sexuality and doesn't think that sex is "shameful" or "immoral."
As for his political beliefs, the speaker is clearly against slavery in the years running up to the Civil War. He shelters a runaway slave. But he doesn't hate Southerners for slavery. He just wishes everyone would realize that they are brothers and sisters and get along. He's a passionate democrat (with a small "d") and believes in the idea and promise of America.
There's much, much more to say about the speaker, but the poem itself is dedicated to saying it. That's why it's called, "Song of Myself."
Walt Whitman is an accessible poet. Everyone can, and should, read Whitman. There's something about his poetic tone that is so reassuring that it's hard to be intimidated by him. Plus, he never judges people, and he thinks book learning is overrated. What could possibly scare off the reader? OK, so "Song of Myself" is long, and might be intimidating from that standpoint. Otherwise, it's tempting to think that Whitman is a "simple" poet because he's so darned direct. But there's plenty of complexity to sink your teeth into here. For starters, who is this "I" who narrates the poem, and how does he relate to those other dudes, "Me" and "My Soul"?
Wait, what's a catalogue? In poetry, catalogue is just a list of stuff. It could even be a grocery list, provided you've got especially poetic groceries. "Song of Myself" is the ultimate poem for catalogues. There are just so many of them, and they go on forever. For example, Section 33 is a huge catalogue of places that his soul travels to. If you're trying to figure out just what makes Whitman so distinctive, this technique is a great place to start.
Whitman's particular style of writing has come to be known as "free verse," but not everyone agrees with this term. The term "free verse" was popularized by 20th century poets like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg whom Whitman inspired. The term means "a poem with no regular form or meter." If that's the definition, then "Song of Myself" is free verse.
Other critics prefer not to use the term "free verse," arguing that Whitman borrows forms and styles from all over the place. According to this train of thought, labeling Whitman's poetry "free verse," would cover up this vast diversity styles he draws from.
Either way, we don't think it's a huge deal. Technical terms in poetry can be overrated.
Besides, a verse of Whitman's poetry is recognizable from a mile away. He uses tons of repetition, including the repetition of words at the beginning of lines, called "anaphora." His stanzas are frequently long lists, called "catalogues." And his lines are generally longer than those in most other classic poems.
As we mentioned, Whitman does not use a regular meter, but his ear for rhythm is probably his greatest poetic strength. At some points he seems to slip into a traditional use of stresses and beats, as in this phrase from Section 1:
Hous-es and rooms are full of per-fumes
More often, though, he uses sharp beats at random, like someone reciting a hypnotic chant from Section 8:
The blab of the pave . . . . the tires and carts and sluff of boot-soles and talk of the prom-en-ad-ers
Gallons of ink have been spilled on Whitman's peculiar sense for rhythm, and your best bet is to explore the poem on your own.
Finally, the original edition of the poem was not divided into sections. Whitman simply used stanzas of varying length and changed from topic to topic without warning. In the 1867 edition of "Song of Myself," he divided the poem into 52 sections, and we use these sections to make it easier to refer to specific parts of this very long poem. These sections often center on a specific topic or vignette (mini-story), but they are somewhat arbitrary. If you have a version with section divisions, we recommend you also try reading one without the divisions. Viewing the poem as an organic and ever-changing whole can be a refreshing and liberating experience.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
"Song of Myself" did not originally have a title, but people probably thought it was titled Leaves of Grass, which is the name of the book in which it was published. It was the first poem in that book, and grass is one of its central images. You could think of the speaker narrating the entire poem while sitting in the grass with his soul. Grass is an image of hope, growth, and death. According to the speaker, the bodies of countless dead people lie under the grass we walk on, but they also live on and speak through this grass.
It's not easy to keep track of exactly who is talking in the poem. We have the guy named "Walt Whitman," but Walt also has a deeper self he calls "Me Myself" or just "Myself." Oh, and then there's his soul, which may or may not be the same thing as "Myself." Confused yet? It's OK. Just remember, there's not a strict separation between all of these personas, but it is important to recognize when the speaker is talking to one or another of these personas, and how they contribute to his idea of an all-encompassing personality.
Didn't you know that you were one of the main characters of this poem? It's not like you had a choice. It seems like Whitman mentions "you" in every other line. His goal is to force you, whether you like or not, to identify with him. He wants you to learn from him, but also to travel your own path. However, "you" is not a stable idea in the poem any more than "I" is. "You" could be anything from natural phenomena to the literal reader.
The journey is the main extended metaphor in the poem, which begins in the daytime and ends at night. The poem itself is a journey, and this is one of the reasons why "Song of Myself" is considered an epic, similar to other famous journey-poems like Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy. It's not a "real" journey in the sense that no person could ever possibly go all the places that he claims to go. Instead, it's an imaginative journey in his mind, or more accurately, his soul.
Lists that go on and on are one of Whitman's specialties. They define his poetic style. In this poem, he tries to contain the entire world within "Myself," the all mighty "I." This requires naming a whole lot of stuff that to which he belongs and with which he identifies. The technical term for these lists in poetry-speak is "catalogue." These lists often include many lines in a row that begin with the same word or phrase, which is called "anaphora."
The "Twenty-Ninth Bather" section of "Song of Myself' is so famous that we felt it deserved its own heading here. Basically, it's a short narrative or vignette, along the lines of the naval battle in sections 35 and 36. The imagery is extremely erotic, and many critics think that Whitman was expressing his own desires through the eyes of the voyeuristic young woman. The language is extraordinarily vivid.
Whitman was completely unashamed about human eroticism and sexuality, at least when he first published the poem in 1855. He thought sex was natural, and not something to giggle or blush about. "Song of Myself" is loaded with sexual images, particularly of the homoerotic variety. Nowadays, scholars make a big deal about all this homoeroticism, often trying to prove that Whitman was gay. But it says something about Whitman's society (and ours) that the most controversial parts of the poem for audiences of his time were the ones depicting straight sex – between married people, no less.. In particular, Whitman felt compelled to cut out the lines from section 21: "Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bridge hurt each other."