Study Guide

Song of Myself Spirituality

By Walt Whitman


I have heard what the talkers were talking . . . . the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . . always a breed of life. (section 2)

Whitman rarely attacks religion directly, but he tries to undermine the idea that knowledge of the universe should be received from religious authorities. You can tell that "the talk of the beginning and the end" refers to religious ideas because he goes on to challenge the notions of heaven and hell. His basic spiritual principle is life and growth (i.e., reproduction), which both exist in the present moment.

Who goes there! hankering, gross, mystical, nude?
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?

What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.

I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.

Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids . . . . conformity goes to the fourth-removed,
I cock my hat as I please indoors or out.

Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious? (section 20)

Although he frequently challenges religion in "Song of Myself," it's important to remember that this is a religious poem in many ways, and Whitman feels he has learned from the world's religions. He has drunk deeply of Christian ideas like divine mysteries and importance of hope and faith. He has great faith in the order of the world and does not think, like Shakespeare's atheistic Macbeth, that the world is just a big scam.

I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the Soul.

The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself . . . . the latter I translate into a new tongue. (section 21)

One of the projects of this poem is to take religious ideas to a different level –  to transform them into an appreciation for the spirituality of the present moment. The present contains the unity of body and soul, and of heaven and hell. Except that hell is an old-fashioned idea that needs to be "translated" into a new language.

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.