In honor of WW’s 200th birthday, here’s this.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (1-3)

Whitman is my favorite narcissist. His poetry overflows with ego, but instead of being stuffy, his poetic self is so all-embracing, so resplendent and dynamic, that I can’t help but get caught up in it. It sees and envelops all of spacetime in its whirling velocity and carnal verve. In it, he wants the union of the States, the union of lovers, the union of his body and soul. But at the height of his masterwork, his cosmic identification turns him to the Gospel, where he glimpses a more consummate union amid division.

Whitman begins “Song of Myself” with the lines above, emphasizing from the start his main theme: his union with “you,” whether that’s a lone reader or the whole universe. The speaker revels exuberantly in being himself. At first, that celebration seems solipsistic. Then in the second line, “you” appear, and “you” get pulled into the speaker’s circularity. “I” and “you” think and “assume” the same things, and then we even hold our matter in common, as if we were one body. We share our atoms as good: not only do the speaker’s particles belong to the reader as well, they also belong as good things, as benefits to each.

Yet Whitman’s speaker wants more than human connection. He wants to cleave to everything. So he imagines himself bounding through all of creation:

Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess’d at,
What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass,
What I guess’d while I lay alone in my bed,
And again as I walk’d the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision. (710-16)

As his weights and stabilizers loosen, the speaker becomes untethered from his own self, his own place and moment, able to gallop over the whole earth. These lines then introduce an enormous catalogue of prepositions and participles, 80 lines of them, in which, as he announces, the speaker zooms through all that is or ever was. He places himself in each scene. As he soon says, “I take part,” like an actor on the stage of the world. He becomes a lumberman, or various animals, or the wife of a drowned sailor, or the sailor himself. “I am the mash’d fireman,” he says. “I am the clock myself. / I am an old artillerist.” Martyrs, witches, slaves, convicts, all the oppressed—“All these I feel or am.” With building passion he declares, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there” (717-870). The line echoes Pilate’s ecce homo. And fittingly, as sure as the speaker becomes everyone everywhere, he also becomes Jesus, “Walking the old hills of Judæa with the beautiful gentle God by my side.”

Jesus appears, subtly, a few other times in “Song of Myself.” The strongest passage is a few sections later, in section 38. Several critics have emphasized the centrality of this passage for reading all of “Song of Myself.” Sudden urgency takes over at this sharp interjection:

Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping,
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.

That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.

I remember now,
I resume the overstaid fraction,
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.

I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average unending procession,
Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines,
Our swift ordinances on their way over the whole earth,
The blossoms we wear in our hats the growth of thousands of years.

Eleves, I salute you! come forward!
Continue your annotations, continue your questionings.

What has the speaker forgotten? And how, by the end of the section, has the speaker righted himself and his world enough to continue his poem and to bid others to, too?

The speaker reaches an intense low-point. As one critic notes, “The poet has been overcome by feelings of weakness, worthlessness, and error,” as he reels from the violence and disorientation of his “cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping,” and his “usual mistake.” At the end of the previous section, “Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them” (957). The same critic argues that by this point in “Song,” “The union [of speaker and others] is so complete that the poet’s own identity becomes lost in the identities of others.”

Events are slightly jumbled in Whitman’s stanza: the crucifixion is mentioned before the bloody crowning; death, burial, and resurrection are merely implied; and no ascension occurs. Perhaps the experience is like a daze and waking from it. Then time keeps going. The speaker “resume[s] the overstaid fraction,” as if some division were late or overdue. And suddenly it’s the Eucharist, when Jesus gives his body to his body. Which is why this episode is so crucial to Whitman’s poem. It is the biggest communion he can muster, to identify here with Christ, who is himself, the priest, the bread, and the eaters, all at once, even as he holds all things together. And more than anything, the Eucharist is about bodies, so beloved of Whitman. “I believe in the flesh,” he says in a prior stanza. “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body.”

And that body does spread. Immediately after starting the fraction again, “The grave of rock multiplies” its contents and unleashes them. His own resurrection—“fastenings roll from me”—mingles with many others’ —“corpses rise,” in the plural. Here the speaker begins most strongly to shift his identification from the individual to the universal, and from the suffering and debasement of the earlier lines to the triumph and contented progress of the later. “I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power,” he declares after the resurrection, restored to his celebratory self. He has become both a part and the whole of “an average unending procession” of himself and his disciples (“eleves”). In the context of the crucifixion and resurrection, this parade, the “swift ordinances on their way over the whole earth,” executing some great commission. It extends the speaker himself, as “I” and “we” intermingle.

The passage shows Whitman’s familiar interplay of individualism and broad identification. Because what both kills and revives the poem (and the speaker) is his participation in other people’s pain. The memory overwhelms him at first, as he feels totally cut off, totally alone. Then at that “fraction,” although he splinters, he remembers that he’s in good company, and that’s enough hope for the moment.

Of course, the speaker also maintains the singular “I.” “Song of Myself” keeps playing with the tension of himself and “you.” It may seem inconsistent. Whitman would shrug and respond:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


Image credits: Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection; University of Iowa Libraries; Bayley Collection; Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.