Study Guide

Song of the Open Road Sound Check

By Walt Whitman

Sound Check

Like any great classic rocker, Whitman created his own sound. If you're even just a little familiar with his poems, you'll certainly know one when you hear one. It's not that he hits you with a ton of fancy techniques like alliteration or consonance. Nope, Whitman has a different sound effect in mind.

That effect is called anaphora. It happens when a writer repeats the beginning words or phrases to create a kind of emphasis. Usually it's something that's used sparingly, just to highlight a key idea or to punch up a line or two. For Whitman, though, anaphora comes as naturally as breathing. He uses it as if he's trying to become the World Record Holder for Anaphora Use—which, last time we checked, was not a thing.

Still, if it were, ol' Walt would be in the running. We're just going to hit you with a few examples of it being used in "Song of the Open Road." Once you get the hang of it, we invite you to go back and find all the other instances where anaphora makes an appearance. It's hours of fun—guaranteed.

Check out, for example, lines 4-5:

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

The repetition of the "Henceforth I [blank]" phrase here underscores the speaker's commitment to the open road, once that builds with more repetition as we make our way through the poem. The echo of the word "pass," for example, highlights all the movement and motion on the open road:

They pass—I also pass—anything passes—none can be interdicted;
None but are accepted—none but are dear to me.
(22-23)

And then we come to section 3 in the poem, which is totally packed with anaphora. Of the fourteen total lines in that section, eleven start with "You" and another two start with "From." Section 4 follows this with four "The [noun]" phrases to start lines, two "O [road]" lines, two "Do you say" lines, two "You [verb]" lines, and four "I think" beginnings.

From there, the anaphora continues to fly hot and heavy from Whitman's pen. Eight of the last nine sections, in fact, start in the same way, either with "Allons!" or "Listen!" In between each section are tons more examples of repeated openings, so many that we just don't have room to list them all here.

Now of course, the big question is… why? What's up with all these repeating echo patterns, Walt? Sadly, he's no longer here to supply us with an answer, so ours will have to do for now: it's about energy. The repetition of short phrases in writing creates a kind of intensity that is totally in keeping with our speaker's personality. (Check out "Speaker" for more on him.) He's all in when it comes to the open road. For him, the experience of travel is not just a fun way to pass the time; it's a life-affirming commitment.

You don't communicate that kind of passion without repeating yourself just a little. Given the sheer volume of anaphora in these lines, we get a clear sense of the urgent and inspired enthusiasm our speaker has for traveling this road. He digs it, he loves it, he can't get enough of it—and anaphora helps him get that point across.

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