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Song of Myself

With 52 sections and running over 40 pages, the very scope of the poem “Song of Myself” suggests that Walt Whitman considers the self to be an incredibly vast entity, “absorbing all to myself and for this song” (234). He continues this theme with multiple metaphors: when he listens, he hears “all sounds running together” (586). This raises the question of how contradictions might affect the conception of a complete or perfect self. To Whitman, however, the identity of the self exists in harmony with any grouping of apparent contradictions, similar to the Tao or omnipresence of God.

In fact Whitman comments directly on the self and God: “nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is” (1271). For Whitman the best proof of contradictions not damaging a complete self is in nature. At once creative and destructive, with varied ecosystems and biodiversity, nature’s harmonious, nameless, all-accepting contradictions and variances are all the proof Whitman needs to embrace contradictions in a complete self. Contradictions in the Self and in Society To demonstrate that contradictions enhance a complete self, Whitman uses two techniques: he plays with opposites in language and employs imagery of a diverse human world.

With opposites and paradoxes Whitman forms an all-encompassing aesthetic, which carries over into his acceptance of all kinds of people, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or any other categorical difference. Within the 1345 lines in the poem, Whitman offers numerous contradictions. Language Often Whitman uses opposite comparisons and paradoxes in order to create a comparative harmony, adding to the composite of the complete self. As one example, the Embracing Contradictions 4 oft-polarized concepts of life and death are equally lucky to Whitman: “Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?

/ I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die” (131-132). As well, “the living sleep for their time,” and “the dead sleep for their time” (325). Regarding concepts of time, Whitman does not “talk of the beginning or the end,” because he does not believe that there is any more inception or perfection at any given time than right now (39, 40, 42). In war Whitman asserts that “battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won” (364). Whitman especially likes unions between opposites.

In one example he says “there is nothing greater than the mother of men,” because that image provides a bridge connecting the two genders (427). When directly describing himself, Whitman continues to use contradictions: he is “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” (330-2). Moving on to matters of the spirit, Whitman considers himself “the poet of the Body, and the poet of the Soul, / The pleasures of heaven . . . and the pains of hell are with me” (422-3).

Making no distinction between good and evil, Whitman describes himself as the poet of both goodness and wickedness (463). With respect to social manners, Whitman wears his hat as he pleases, inside or outside (397). In relation to others Whitman is “no stander above men and women or apart form them, / No more modest than immodest” (499-500). Whitman makes his view of opposites clear: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance” (46). Imagery in the Human World Embracing Contradictions 5 Whether through gender, culture, age, matriculation, or otherwise, people often tend towards emphasizing differences among themselves.

Whitman embraces these differences among people, however, and uses them to describe further his complete self. Regarding culture, whether people are “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,” Whitman “give[s] them the same” and “receive[s] them the same” (109). Furthermore, upon witnessing a strong black man hard at work, Whitman “behold[s] the picturesque giant and love[s] him. ” Whitman has empathy for all cultures and makes no distinction among them. Whitman embraces all types of people within the male and female genders.

He accepts “every kind of itself and its own, for me mine male and female” (139). Continuing, he describes “those that have been boys and that love women, / For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted, for me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers” (140-2). He sees males and females both as “lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears” (143). Whitman accepts each gender equally, he is “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” and he believes “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” (425-6).

Whether young or old, Whitman accepts people of all ages. Married couples have similar habits regardless of age: “The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife” (326). Whitman composes odes to both youth and old age, first by writing “O span of youth! Ever-push’d elasticity! / O manhood, balanced, florid and full” (1170-1). Several lines later, he writes “Old age superbly rising! O welcome, Embracing Contradictions 6 ineffable grace of dying days” (1180). Whitman embraces the human condition at any stage in life.

Whitman makes no distinctions among a wide variety of jobs, accepting all. He loiters with the butcher-boy, enjoying his repartee and dancing (217-8). With blacksmiths he follows their movements: “They do not hasten, each man hits in his place” (224). As Whitman loves nature, it is not surprising that he can sleep and eat with people who work outdoors: “men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods, / Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes and mauls, and the drivers of horses” (256-8).

In section 15 Whitman lists more types of workers, including pilots, whalers, duck-shooters, spinning-girls, machinists, and many more. He concludes, “of these one and all I weave the song of myself” (329). Whitman works with contradictions in language and among people, as he feels that these contradictions strengthen the composite of his self: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance” (46). Nature Whitman writes that he has an intricate purpose because April showers and the mica on a side of a rock have a similar purpose (383).

His best resource to support his acceptance of all things comes from his many observations of nature. While monocultural farms like banana plantations have higher risks of diseases or pests, healthier ecosystems tend towards biodiversity, accepting predators and prey, plants and animals, water animals and birds that fly, among many other seemingly contradictory categories of life. Biodiversity as a virtue fits nicely with Whitman’s all-accepting Embracing Contradictions 7 aesthetic.

As well, Whitman observed that other living organisms do not place cognitive categories on other organisms: a monkey sees a banana as neither by its name nor good or evil, but just as a yellow food. Biodiversity “The wild gander leads his flock his flock through the cool night, / Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation” (245-6). As a Romantic poet, Whitman sees great beauty in the biodiversity of nature, which he uses to support his aesthetic of the human self that accepts all things.

He lists a number of varying physical features on the earth: slumbering and liquid trees, departed sunset, misty mountains, full moon tinged with blue, and the river tide, reflecting a wide biodiversity (439-42). Whitman concludes to the earth: “Smile, for your lover comes. ” Whitman celebrates the diverse nature of the sea as well. He believes that the sea refuses to recede without feeling of him (450). From the sea he can have sensations of being cushioned soft, rocked in billowy drowse, or dashed “with amorous wet” (452-3).

He then lists the sea in its different forms: “Sea of stretch’d ground-sweels, / Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths, / Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves, / Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty” (454-8). Among the sea’s different forms, Whitman feels “integral with you [the sea], I too am of one phase and of all phases. ” Whitman feels so integrated with nature that he bequeaths himself to the dirt to grow from the grass he loves (1338). The Nature of Animals Embracing Contradictions 8

Whitman promotes the mindset of animals as a reflection on his conception of a complete self. Some might consider a tortoise too slow, or rate some birds’ songs as better than others. Whitman, however, does not “call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else, / And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me” (241-2). In comparison with human language and labels, Whitman considers the “oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is that you express in your eyes? / It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life” (235-6).

Whitman “could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,” which is a very similar outlook to Whitman’s conception of a self that accepts all things (684). Animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition,” and Whitman’s self accepts the human condition in all its emotions and states. As well, animals are “not dissatisfied,” as Whitman’s complete self is satisfied with all things. Not one animal kneels to another, just as Whitman would not kneel to another human or expect a human to kneel to him (690).

Animals simply show their relations to Whitman, and he accepts them, as a complete sense of self accepts all things (692). Conclusion According to Whitman, it is best to embrace all of the contradictions that comprise nature and the human self. “Logic and sermons never convince,” and as the contradiction is a logical conception of opposites, Whitman cannot be convinced that contradictions are limits than can be placed on the human self. To the extent that Whitman wishes to educate others about his conception of a complete self, he writes that “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, / He

Embracing Contradictions 9 most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (1235-6). Whitman would have others use his poem to see themselves in an even freer way, embracing all contradictions and becoming more integrated with nature than even Whitman was.


Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Sixth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003

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