Visions of a Better World: Walt Whitman's Song of Myself

Tim Farrand
Walt Whitman photographed by Mathew Brady.

Realizing the individuals of America needed their own defining Epic—not simply a retelling of those from other societies and cultures but one that reflected the spirit of an emerging nation—Walt Whitman went inward. He decided we, as citizens of the earth, didn't need external heroes to look up to, to compare ourselves to, or to be a guiding light. We have nature and our common humanity. That is enough. That gives us everything we need.

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 which makes him a part of the first generation of children who were born Americans. He was not of the generation fighting the physical battle of the Revolution but rather a part of the group that got to be idealists and dream up what this country could become.

Here he was, at the birth of a nation, encapsulating in poetic voice the possibilities in the air. To find the spirit of a land that truly wishes to be free, to be equal, to be perfect, Walt had to let go of the traditions of the past (let go, but not destroy). The old heroes and legends were tied to a different society and culture. They told a different story. We needed our own Epic.

The subject of Walt's new epic, and the story of America, was—and in many ways still is—the Self. It is you, me, him, everyone that has inhabited this land and the earth. America is the story of the individual and likewise, Walt's epic celebrates the individual as the true possessor of knowledge. All we need is to open ourselves up and let the wisdom reveal itself:

Song of Myself, 2

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

From the very beginning of Walt's epic—Song of Myself—Whitman gives us a clear celebration of being an individual, of being true to yourself:

Song of Myself, 1

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Walt's celebration of the Self is in the spirit of "Unionism" instead of egotism. Walt is not validating himself over others. Rather, he accepts himself as he truly is instead of letting dogmas and other influences dictate who he should be. Whitman encourages us all to embrace our individuality, to shed our inhibitions and fears. By validating his own self he in turn validates ours.

This comes from a firm acceptance that all are equal, everyone is the same, "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Song of Myself, 44

I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any.

For Walt, America's epic was not a nationalistic story but rather an idealistic one. If we could only create a "City of Friends" rather than nations battling as enemies we would make this world a better place. If we could only accept others for their individuality and interact with them based upon our commonalities instead of our differences, we would have a better nation and a better world. America was at its early awakening during Walt's time and he saw the potential for the country to go down a different path than those that came before:

I Dream'd in a Dream
By Walt Whitman

I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust
love—it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of
that city,
And in all their looks and words.

Through this Epic, he found that the greatest wisdom can often be found in the most common aspects of life:

Song of Myself, 17

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

Whitman at 35 in an image that appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass with steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

The most common of objects is worthy of elevation within Walt's epic. Again, the heroes and stories are not those of the gods but rather the individuals. The boatmen, the seamstress, the blacksmith, the child, the grandmother, the beggar, the rich man, the farmer, the scholar, the drunkard, the clergymen all the way down to the trees, rocks, grass, ants, worms, and moss.

Song of Myself, 16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth

[. . .]

A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

Song of Myself is both an exultation of the individual as well as a collecting of all people, no matter who you are, where you came from, what you believe, or anything else. We are of one identity. We are one people. We are each unique yet also the same. Like leaves of grass, each one is different yet creates a unified whole. This was Walt's song, a vision that may not yet have been fulfilled but certainly is not forgotten.

Song of Myself, 1

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Delve deeper into Song of Myself in my long-form exploration: "I Celebrate Myself:" Walt Whitman's poetic vision for America.

August 24, 2022

Join Our Newsletter

Thank you!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.