Is Whitman successful in his attempt to represent himself as all men and all women?
It is characteristic of American Transcendentalism that the divine should be apprehended in every living thing (Tanner, 34), but it is only Whitman, amongst the writers broadly termed Transcendentalist, who attempts a completely egalitarian approach to the writing of poetry and the themes of his poetry. As such, in order to do justice to the teeming variety of the new America, Whitman experiments with from and language in an attempt to represent himself as all men and all women.
“ Song of Myself” first appeared as the very first poem of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Whitman’s name is not written on the title page (which gives the volume an air of anonymity) on title page, but it is openly referred to in the poem: “ Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” (14). This adoption of a poetic persona encapsulates the question of identity in “ Song of Myself.” Whitman presents himself in the guise of a persona, a consciously-crafted persona as a simple American working man and as a divinely-inspired figure at one with all men and all women and in complete harmony with the universe. Although in the poem “ myself” is Walt Whitman, the identity of the adopted persona is also encompasses all Americans, regardless of race, class or gender. Instead of emulating Emerson by trying to say how special his elevated feelings and poetic thoughts are as a poet, Whitman stresses his ordinary qualities. This emphasis on his own ordinariness is one of the ways in which he successfully represents himself as all men and all women. In fact so comprehensive that he absorbs each American citizen within his persona.
The central concept in “ Song of Myself” is that the identity of the individual is irrelevant compared with the collective identity that Whitman shares with his fellow human beings and especially with his fellow Americans. The overwhelming mood of “ Song of Myself” is joyfully ecstatic and celebratory – partly because our assimilation with others represents a victory over death, but also because Whitman’s ability to represent himself as all men and al women, results in a joyous celebration of human unity, based on egalitarianism and a valuing of other people simply because of their otherness.
Whitman’s poetic form is crucial to his democratic poetic project. His use of free verse and his avoidance of figurative language and many of the more ornate poetic figures of speech (alliteration, enjambment, even rhyme) are part of an attempt to write a poetry which is distinctly non-European, but also suitable for America and accessible to all. Like America the verse form is free and unconstrained by formal patterns or more traditional verse. As Poirier (42) writes, “ Out of the many ethnic, racial, and gender identities Whitman saw in America, and out of the complexities of his own identity, he forged an epic of transcendent identity.” We might add that he creates an epic in which through his enthusiasm, through the verse form, he comes to represent all Americans.
Similarly in “ Song of the Open Road” Whitman presents himself as a traveller with a distinct egalitarian ethos: he claims that he has learnt “ the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial” (30) of every man and every woman. Even in nature, he is able to detect the “ light that wraps [him] and all things in delicate equable showers!” (31) In section 5, in a moment of quasi-mystical epiphany, , the narrator declares his own spiritual autonomy: “ From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,/ Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.” (32). And, being his own master, he chooses the task of representing all men and all women.
Our writers will create one from scratch for
“ Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is also an important poem in this debate. In section 7 Whitman addresses his future’ unborn readers and suggest a unity with them: “ Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?” (42). This clearly shows Whitman’s belief that the fullest human self is a small part of a much larger being which includes all humans now alive but also all the humans yet to be born. Thus far from merely representing all men and all women in contemporary America, Whitman moves to a position where he represents all humanity – from the past, the present and from the future. In the final lines of the poem, the poet makes clear the reasons for his desire that the wonderfully various phenomena of the natural and human worlds should continue to thrive and to flourish, with even greater unity, both now and over the vast tracts of time. They are all “ dumb, beautiful ministers” (44). Through the ordinary forms of quotidian life, Whitman and his readers reader (who are new refered to as “ we”), having engaged in the process of epiphany which is the movement of the poem, are able to fully understand the ties that bind us all as part of a living cosmos in which individual has value and is also part of the whole – the whole created by Whitman In his poetry. The celebratory conclusion, almost an epiphany, of “ Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is foreshadowed by an image in Section 3, when the poet, gazing into the water, sees “ fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head.” (31). In section 9 this image is repeated and has become universalized: he who gazes deeply and openly into the flux will also see their own heads and those of all their fellow human beings haloed in splendid, triumphant light –an apt symbol of Whitman’s ability to represent all men and all women and to find in that representation grounds for enormous hope and optimism.
In conclusion, it must be noted that Whitman’s desire to represent all men and women is a peculiarly democratic project and Matthiessen (542) argues that in his poetry, Whitman differs sharply from his European contemporaries:
The distinction was that Whitman did not ‘ espouse’ the cause of the masses through any self-conscious gesture of identification. The relation was simpler and more natural, for he was quite literally one of them himself.
Tanner (97) argues, in support of Matthiessen, that it is the vernacular vigor of Whitman’s language and the loose, flowing rhythms of his ever-expanding verse line which help Whitman succeed in representing all men and women and the entire variety and diversity of America.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. 1941. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. 1966. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Tanner, Tony. The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature. 1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems. 1991. New York: Dover Publications. Print.