Study Guide

Song of Myself Visions of America

By Walt Whitman

Visions of America

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. (section 6)

The speaker has been discussing the grass in this section, trying to guess what it means. He thinks it might be a kind of universal symbol or language ("uniform hieroglyphic") that represents the equality for everyone. Grass is a democratic plant because it grows everywhere, and because everyone comes from and eventually returns to it. Black and white, Canadian ("Kanuck") or Native American ("Tuckahoe"), grass is Whitman's vote for official plant of America.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table . . . . my firelock leaned in the corner. (section 10)

Trust is the central ingredient for a democracy to flourish. You have to trust your neighbors, even if your neighbor is a runaway slave who is probably very suspicious of you. Whitman doesn't bother to hide his rifle ("firelock") when the runaway comes by his house. He cares for the slave and treats his wounds.

The pure contralto sings in the organloft,
The carpenter dresses his plank . . . . the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case, (section 15)

A central feature of Whitman's vision of America is that everyone has an important job to fill. Even the "lunatic" has a part to play.  People are known by their roles, as if they were names. This section has a long list, or catalogue, of roles from different parts of society, urban and rural, rich and poor.

Swift wind! Space! My Soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at;
What I guessed when I loafed on the grass,
What I guessed while I lay alone in my bed . . . . and again as I walked the beach
under the paling stars of the morning.

My ties and ballasts leave me . . . . I travel . . . . I sail . . . . my elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt the sierras . . . . my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision. (section 33)

Comparing himself to a boat that unmoors from its "ties and ballasts," Whitman makes a metaphorical journey across America and other parts of the world. (Even though he's still dreaming in the grass). Every line seems to be set in a new place. Whitman inspired later poets who were known for their travels, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

I tell not the fall of Alamo . . . . not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo.

Hear now the tale of a jetblack sunrise,
Hear of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men. (section 34)

In this section Whitman sounds like a passionate patriot who is outraged by the mistreatment of American prisoners by the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War. Whitman was not known to be especially opposed to war, but he can't abide when people don't play by the rules. In other sections he praises the glory of victory and defeat, but here his tone is somber.

I tramp a perpetual journey,
My signs are a rain-proof coat and good shoes and a staff cut from the woods;
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, nor church nor philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table or library or exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself. (section 46)

Whitman had read the essays of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised the American virtue of "self-reliance." Self-reliance means thinking for yourself and not taking your cues from what other people do or from what is written in books. It has its roots in the American tradition of independence and innovation. These lines perfectly capture the spirit of Emersonian self-reliance.