Study Guide

Song of Myself Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Walt Whitman

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

Grass

"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.

  • Title: The title of the book in which "Song of Myself" appears, Leaves of Grass, is a pun on the meaning of "leaves" as the green things on plants, and also as the pages of a book.
  • Section 1: The speaker states his intention to look at a "spear" of summer grass. The word "spear" is suggestive of a weapon. Is the entire poem about a single blade of grass?
  • Section 6: This is the most important section concerning grass in the poem. He describes grass as a symbol of his "hopeful" disposition. The grass is also metaphorically a child of other plants and the "handkerchief" of God, left as a token of God's presence. Most importantly, the speaker uses a metaphor comparing the grass to "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." The earth is a grave because the soil is made up partly of decomposed bodies. The idea of dead life supporting new life is crucial.
  • Section 31: He revisits the phrase "leaf of grass" and says that the grass is the "journeywork of the stars." "Journeywork" is work done by an experienced craftsman, so the stars are being compared implicitly to craftsmen.
  • Section 49: He addresses the grass of graves through apostrophe, "O grass of graves."
  • Section 52: Whitman gives or "bequeaths" himself to "the grass I love." This line returns to the image of the grass as graves.

Me, Myself, and I (and My Soul, too)

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.

  • Section 1: Whitman personifies a part of his person into someone that he could invite on a nice summer outing. He invites his soul to come look at the grass with him.
  • Section 4: He personifies some other part of him called the "Me Myself," who stands "apart" from Whitman's day-to-day activities. Whitman gives this "Me Myself" emotions, gestures, and facial expressions, as if it were another person living inside him.
  • Section 5: He addresses his own soul through apostrophe, which is when a speaker talks to something outside the poem. He reminds his soul of an erotic encounter in the grass.
  • Section 14: Whitman returns to the personification of this truer idea of himself, the "Me." He says that the "Me" is "nearest" and "easiest" to him.
  • Section 16: One of the most common tactics used by Whitman in this poem is identification, where you identify yourself with someone or something else. Except Whitman literally claims he is all of these people, both male and female, Northerner and Southerner (Whitman wrote this poem just before the American Civil War).
  • Section 24: How often do you see a poet describing himself using his own name in a poem? Answer: Not very often. The speaker famously compares himself metaphorically to an entire universe or "kosmos."
  • Section 25: The speaker personifies his own speech, which is unable to speak.
  • Section 28: In the elaborate metaphor of this section, Whitman's sense of touch is a "marauder" that threatens to overpower him. Something inside him is supposed to defend against these marauders, but these guards or "sentries" desert him. Basically, he's under attack from his own erotic feelings.
  • Section 44: He claims that his essence has always been present in the universe and always will be. The entire history of the universe has been building toward the moment when he stands on "this spot with my Soul." The soul, again, is like another person.

Hey, "You"

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.

  • Section 1: Whitman exaggerates (hyperbole) in claiming that "every atom" of himself belongs to you, the reader.
  • Section 2: He often poses rhetorical questions to the reader – he likes to turn the screws a bit. Here he tries to find out what we consider to be large or meaningful.
  • Section 24: He repeats the phrase "it shall be you" at the end of several lines in a row to talk about who and what he will worship. He likens parts of nature metaphorically to body parts. In one particularly juicy metaphor, he compares the wind to "soft-tickling genitals."
  • Section 40: As he has done throughout the poem, the speaker addresses people and things that cannot respond, which is called apostrophe. He addresses the earth, sun, and a weak ("impotent") person.
  • Section 46: You ask questions too.
  • Section 47: He addresses the readers as if we were his students and wanted to learn from him. He says, "My words itch at your ears till you understand them."
  • Section 52: In the metaphor of the poem as a journey, he leaves us at the end, only to wait for us further on up the road. The last word of this "I"-centered poem is, surprisingly, "you."

A Journey

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.

  • Section 1: The journey begins with an invitation from Whitman to his soul. Except they don't go anywhere. They just hang out and "loafe" in the grass. Our parents always used to get on us for "loafing."
  • Section 10: Whitman frequently uses short narratives or scenes called "vignettes" that take him from place to place. In this section, he becomes a hunter and witnesses the marriage of a trapper, among other things.
  • Section: 20: Whitman's contact with the earth has very erotic overtones. One of the most controversial couplets in the poem is the metaphor in which he compares his relationship to the earth to newlyweds having sex.
  • Section 21: The speaker uses apostrophe to address the sea, as his journey brings him in contact with the ocean.
  • Section 32: At the end of this section about animals, he introduces a paradox: he can travel faster than a horse even as he remains in one place. How does he do that? (Hint: He uses his mind!)
  • Section 33: This is the big section for journeys. It's also the longest section in the poem. Here the speaker is a metaphorical ship journeying over land and sea (it's a metaphor, so his ship is allowed to cross land) going all over America and the world. "I travel . . . . I sail . . . ."
  • Section 34: He tells a story-within-a-story (another vignette) about a bloody massacre in the Mexican-American War.
  • Sections 35-36: He tells a vignette about a naval battle in which the Americans beat the British.
  • Section 46: He makes the metaphor of the poem-as-journey more explicit than ever, saying, "I tramp a perpetual journey," and describing how he puts his arm around our waist.
  • Section 51: He warns that the journey is ending and "I stay only a minute longer."
  • Section 52: He has to leave us to continue on his journey. Fortunately, he's waiting for us just up the road.

Lists (Catalogues)!

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."

  • Section 2: The first list in the poem is a list of things his loves and wants to be in contact with.
  • Section 8: This section contains a list of different events that add up to a vision of the chaos and excitement of the world. It includes big contrasts, like between birth and suicide.
  • Section 15: This section provides a list of jobs, roles, and "vocations," everything from musician to prostitute.
  • Section 26: The speaker gives a list of things he hears.
  • Section 33: In this "traveling" section, he gives a list of all different places that he visits, people he visits, and people he identifies with. The repetition of the word "where" is an example of anaphora.
  • Section 43: He gives a list in this section to show that he identifies with every religion he can think of, from Christianity to shamanism to atheism.

The Twenty-Ninth Bather

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.

  • Section 11: The young woman sees 28 young men bathing naked in the river, and she imagines herself as the "twenty-ninth bather." Whitman addresses her through apostrophe, saying, "Where are you off to, lady?" Like Whitman, she takes a journey in her mind. Her eyes are compared metaphorically to an "unseen hand" that touches their bodies. Why 28 bathers? Some critics think that the number relates the usual number of days of a woman's menstrual cycle. Just throwin' it out there. Feel free to tell us what you think.