Study Guide

Song of the Open Road Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Walt Whitman

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings, and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I think you are latent with unseen existences—you are so dear to me. (24-28)

From the poem's beginning, we're told that this is no ordinary voyage. The open road is a path filled with "unseen existences" that matter deeply to the speaker. It seems that we're not just out for your typical stroll, but instead taking a more spiritual voyage. Coolio's got nothing on this guy.

Now I reëxamine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents. (84-85)

The speaker's trip on the open road causes him to rethink the conventional theories of life and existence. His point here is that true wisdom about the nature of our reality can't come from a textbook. It has to come from real, lived experience—the kind you might get, oh we don't know, maybe on an open road somewhere.

Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests! (130-131)

"Bat-eyed" priests? Our speaker's at his most direct here. He's calling out priests as being blinded (as bats) by their conventional ways of seeing reality ("formules" = formulas). The implication is that the open road can show us a better way to view life.

The Soul travels;
The body does not travel as much as the soul;
The body has just as great a work as the soul, and parts away at last for the journeys of the soul. (184-186)

Section 14 is where our speaker really starts to wax cosmic about the whole voyage metaphor. Here we learn that the Soul is itself a kind of traveler, one that hangs out in the body for a while, but that keeps on truckin' once the body calls it a day.

All parts away for the progress of souls;
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments,—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of Souls along the grand roads of the universe. (187-188)

The open road is not just some path that can take you from Long Island to New Orleans. In these lines, the speaker suggests that the universe is filled with open roads, and those roads are in turn filled with traveling souls making their way along the paths of existence. We wonder if they have a Waze app for that.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance. (189)

Here the speaker cuts to the chase. What's so great about the open road? Well, it's both a sign of, and training for, the ultimate voyage that every soul is on. Whether you know it or not, you are a traveler through the cosmos. Getting out on the open road connects you to that spiritual reality. Far out.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go;
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great. (190-194)

We think it's actually kind of great that the speaker has no idea where the Soul highway leads. That kind of certainty—whether it comes in the form of philosophy or religion—is usually a total dead-end. Just like the cliché says, it's not about the destination. We're travelers, all of us, so just embrace the journey.

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