Song of Myself by Walt Whitman: Summary, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Introduction to the Poem
  • 1:41 Poem Summary
  • 4:07 Poem Structure
  • 6:07 Poem Themes
  • 10:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' is one of the most important poems in the American canon, important for both its use of language and its vision of equality. This lesson looks at the poem's structure, themes and interpretations.

Introduction to the Poem

'I celebrate myself,' declares Walt Whitman's sprawling poem 'Song of Myself.' First published in 1855 in Whitman's collection Leaves of Grass, 'Song of Myself' is one of the best known and most influential poems ever written by an American. Running to somewhere around 70 pages and divided into 52 sections, 'Song of Myself' takes the reader on an epic journey through many settings, time periods, viewpoints and personas. Walt Whitman had some radical ideas about America, democracy, spirituality, sexuality, nature and identity. He used 'Song of Myself' to explore those ideas while preaching self-knowledge, liberty and acceptance for all.

With its free-form and loose structure, its compelling rhythms, multiple themes and shifting narrators, 'Song of Myself' is widely considered one of the first truly modern poems. No one had ever read anything quite like it before, and it wielded a heavy influence on 20th century poets like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, some of Whitman's passages are so steamy (more on that soon) that they shocked contemporary readers. Emily Dickinson, who wrote poetry around the same time as Whitman, once said of old Walt, 'I have never read his book, but I was told that he was disgraceful.' Let's dive into the poem and take a look at what makes it so unique and enduring.

Poem Summary

'Song of Myself' is not a poem with a clear plotline or single point to make. Although Whitman has some distinct themes that come up over and over again, he's juggling so many ideas, characters, images and symbols all at once that reading this poem is like holding on to a runaway horse. You just have to let it take you where it will. That's part of what makes it so appealing to so many different types of people - you can keep going back to it again and again and finding something new.

Sometimes Whitman feels like he's preaching, and some of the sections contain direct explanations of his philosophy. For example, one of Whitman's favorite ideas is that we're all equal, and he tells us so in lines like:

Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

He's also obsessed with how good life is. In lines like:

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to tell him or her it is just as lucky to die.

He's trying to teach the reader that everything is okay. Even the nasty parts of existence are all part of a great, intelligent pattern.

Other times, Whitman backs away from the teacherly voice to tell us a story or set a scene. In the famous Section 11, Whitman takes on the persona of a young woman watching 28 beautiful young men bathe in a river.

Whitman's ability to jump in and out of other people's points of view is part of the poem's overall commitment to democracy and equality. 'I can appreciate anybody,' Whitman seems to be saying, 'because at the heart of it, we're all alike.' Whitman is particularly interested in telling stories about 'regular people,' and he often portrays slaves, workmen, the poverty-stricken and even prostitutes. He wants us to know that no matter what our life situation is, no one is inherently better or worse than anyone else.

On the most basic level, we can think of 'Song of Myself' as an invitation from Walt Whitman, the poet from Long Island, to jump inside his head and take a look at the world through his eyes. As we do that, we discover with Walt just how expansive and complicated - and wonderful - it is to be a human being in mid-19th century America.

Poem Structure

As we've already mentioned, this poem is long - somewhere over 70 pages and hundreds of lines. It's divided into 52 sections, but those sections aren't arranged in any regular way. They're varying lengths, and they aren't contained by a regular rhyme or meter. Whitman went back to this poem later in his life and edited it somewhat, taking out some sections here and there and smoothing others over. You may find references to more than one edition of the poem in your studies.

Whitman uses poetic techniques to bring unity to what is otherwise a pretty sprawling and free-form poem. Here are a few key things to remember about the structure of 'Song of Myself':

  • Free Verse: A poem without a regular rhyme or meter, which feels almost like regular speech, is said to be written in free verse.
  • Long Lines: Excess is one of Whitman's main characteristics. The lines in 'Song of Myself' spill over the page, sometimes filling up two or three text lines before he takes a break.
  • Lists: Whitman loves to use lists to underscore his ideals of universality, as he does in this excerpt from Section 16:
    • A farmer, mechanic or artist. . . a gentleman, sailor, lover or Quaker,
      A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.
  • Anaphora: This is a fancy poetry term that basically just means repetition at the beginning of a line. Whitman uses this device to give some energy to his long poem, keeping the rhythm going forward. Check out this example from Section 33:
    • Over the growing sugar. . . over the cotton plant. . . over the rice in its low moist field;
      Over the sharp-peaked farmhouse with its scalloped scum and slender shoots from the gutters.

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