Summary and Analysis: Song of Myself Introduction


This poem had no title in the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1856 it was called "A Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" and in 1860 it was simply termed "Walt Whitman." Whitman changed the title to "Song of Myself" in 1881. The changes in the title are significant in indicating the growth of the meaning of the poem.

There are three important themes: the idea of the self, the identification of the self with other selves, and the poet's relationship with the elements of nature and the universe. Houses and rooms represent civilization; perfumes signify individual selves; and the atmosphere symbolizes the universal self. The self is conceived of as a spiritual entity which remains relatively permanent in and through the changing flux of ideas and experiences which constitute its conscious life. The self comprises ideas, experiences, psychological states, and spiritual insights. The concept of self is the most significant aspect of Whitman's mind and art.

To Whitman, the self is both individual and universal. Man has an individual self, whereas the world, or cosmos, has a universal or cosmic self. The poet wishes to maintain the identity of his individual self, and yet he desires to merge it with the universal self, which involves the identification of the poet's self with mankind and the mystical union of the poet with God, the Absolute Self. Sexual union is a figurative anticipation of spiritual union. Thus the poet's ecstasy is both physical and spiritual, and he develops a sense of loving brotherhood with God and with all mankind. Even the most commonplace objects, such as Leaves, ants, and stones, contain the infinite universe.

"Song of Myself' is a good example of the stylistic features of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's style reflects his individualism. He once wrote to Horace Traubel, his biographer: "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment." Words, for Whitman, have both a "natural" and a "spiritual" significance. Colloquial words unite the natural with the spiritual, and therefore he uses many colloquial expressions. He is also fond of using foreign words. The catalog is another special characteristic of Whitman's poetic technique. He uses numerous images, usually drawn from nature, to suggest and heighten the impression of a poetic idea. These images appear to have no clear organization; yet, in effect, they have a basic underlying unity, usually involving a spiritual concept, which gives meaning and coherence to the apparently disconnected images or scenes.