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Redefining Self in Whitman’s Poem “Song of Myself”, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Emerson’s “Nature” Essay

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2019

Whitman’s concept of the self as illustrated in the poem Song of Myself is radically different from what Thoreau and Emerson envisioned in their works, Walden and Nature respectively. Whitman advocates for conformity while Thoreau and Emerson subscribe to individualism. For Whitman, the self should be unified with other selves and nature as well, a view that is castigated by Thoreau and Emerson who feel that the individual self should be self-reliant and ought not to conform to the environment.

In the poem Song of Myself Whitman presents the self for modern times in various ways. First, Whitman adopted the direct address style of rendering the poem. He takes the conversational tone in order to appeal to all the others in an effort to reconcile selves to create unity: “And what I assume you shall assume” (Whitman p. 1, line 2).

This is contrary to Emerson’s impersonal approach in his essay, Nature. Whitman seems to be inviting others to join him in his great quest for unity. This could have been informed by the racial segregation and discrimination that was rife in America at the time when Whitman was constructing the poem.

Whitman’s poem not only addresses the audience in general, but is also directed to specific individuals. In the poem, the speaker is observing nature when the presence of a lady comes by. He asks: “Where are you off to, lady? for I see you”. This is a further illustration of the poet’s quest to bring everybody on board.

He also does not hesitate to address various elements of nature in order to achieve unity with the environment. To the earth, he says: “Smile, O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!” (Whitman p.1, line 9). And to the sea: “You sea! I resign myself to you also…” (Whitman p. 22, line 1). This denotes the speaker’s attempt to reconcile with nature.

On the other hand, Emerson and Thoreau vouch for solitude and self-reliance. Emerson’s essay begins thus: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society” (Emerson chap. 1, par. 1). It implies that unity with others in the immediate environment is of secondary importance. The same view is held by Thoreau, to whom nature is nothing, but a source of solitude. Any attempt to reach out to nature in order to make peace and nature is not considered in friendly terms.

Whitman also redefines the self to the modern times through repetition. Repetition serves the purpose of developing the plot of the poem as well as enhancing its subject matter. The style is quite appropriate in the poem as it is used deliberately to advance the poet’s motive. In his attempt at unifying people and nature, the speaker has to lay emphasis on certain aspects.

For example, in order to foster equality among people, he says: “Whoever degrades another degrades me” (Whitman p. 22, line 7). This was perhaps meant to break the barriers that existed between the blacks and the whites in America at that time.

Whitman’s determined pursuit for equality in society is quite relevant to the modern times. Presently, there is widespread inequality the world over, manifested politically economically, religiously and even socially. Basically, humanity is dichotomized into two groups: the haves and the have-nots. The former despise the latter and, more often than not, subject them to some of the worst forms of infringements. It would be necessary that people treat each other equally without regard to one’s social or political standing.

Whitman’s use of symbolism is also notable in redefining the self to the modern times. The most remarkable symbol in the poem refers to grass: “A child said What the grass is? Fetching it to me with full hands” (Whitman p.6, line 1). Grass is used to symbolically refer to the masses.

The masses in the poem are the target of the poet as he aspires for unity. One outstanding feature of grass is its uniformity and closeness as it grows. The poet engenders this attribute in the poem thus: “Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic/ And it means sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones” (Whitman p. 6, line 8-9).

This is in sharp contrast to Thoreau’s “bean” in which the beans do not grow uniformly. This is due to their different planting times: “… for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground” (Thoreau p.109). Unlike grass, beans can hardly be used to represent the masses since they are too unique to be used in making generalizations.

Emerson, on his part, does not envision unity between people and nature. In the essay Nature, Emerson clearly identifies a disconnection between man and nature: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.” (Emerson chap.1, par. 4). In this essay, Emerson does not see any aspect of nature that represents unity, like grass. Nature is, therefore, not a source of oneness since each individual reacts towards it differently. This further emphasizes the individualistic nature of the self as opposed to Whitman’s collective psyche.

The use of an all-encompassing voice in the poem Song of Myself is also a clear indicator of a redefined collective self for the modern times. The speaker in the poem assumes an omnipotent being representing many people. Thus, the speaker seems to be speaking for all, not just for themselves: “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman p. 51, line 6).

The speaker’s desire to lend voice to the plight of the masses is thus illustrated: “It is time to explain myself – let us stand up” (Whitman p. 44, line 1). The speaker wants us to stand up because the explanation to be offered is on our behalf. Standing up for others is a true application of a redefined self to the modern times when there are so many injustices in the world.

This is not the case for Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s Nature. Walden depicts Thoreau’s personalized experiences. There is no attempt to stand up for others as the individual is preoccupied with his own soul-searching. In this case, Thoreau narrates his own experiences at Walden, where he even sets up a bean farm. The essay Nature also subscribes to the same principle: everybody to their own devices.

Rhetoric questions have also been used extensively in Song of Myself. They engage the mind of the reader in a manner that is riveting; hence leave a lasting impression. This is a powerful tool used by literary artists to draw attention to what would otherwise be ignored as mundane.

The issue of unity is not new; therefore, people may easily be tempted to brush it aside. But this would not be the case after interacting with Song of Myself. The readers are drawn into examining the meaning of their existence and reevaluate themselves more critically: “What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?” (Whitman p. 20, line 3).

Whitman’s poem is essentially a free verse. This could possibly suggest that it was the poet’s intention to reach as many people as possible through the poem. People may fail to appreciate a given poem due to the literary complexities associated with it.

These complexities include the use of rhyme scheme, regular rhythm, equal length of lines, uniform stanzas, and poetic language among others. In order to achieve the rubric of poetry, sometimes meaning has to be compromised. Nevertheless, this is not the case for Whitman. He discards some of the traditional poetic tenets in order to make the poem easy to appreciate.

Whitman seems to be aspiring to make the poem universal by giving it a simple easy to read structure. The simple language structure further lends credence to the intended universality of this poem.

This is a poem that takes the readers on a journey of self-discovery with the view of understanding, accepting and finally reconciling with each other. This is why the poem asks: “What is man anyhow…who are you?” (Whitman p. 20, line 3). This is relevant even in the modern times because one cannot begin to appreciate others before he has fully grasped his own self.

In conclusion, Whitman seeks a collective self, one that is at peace with other selves around and also with nature. Emerson and Thoreau aspire for solitude in which the individual selves are free from the forces of conformity. It is important that people be able to reconcile between the individual and the collective selves.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. American Transcendentalism Web, n.d. Web. <>.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden,or, Life in the Woods. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books, 1927. Web.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Modern American Poetry, n.d. Web. <>.

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1. IvyPanda. "Redefining Self in Whitman’s Poem “Song of Myself”, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Emerson’s “Nature”." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/redefining-self-essay/.


IvyPanda. "Redefining Self in Whitman’s Poem “Song of Myself”, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Emerson’s “Nature”." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/redefining-self-essay/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Redefining Self in Whitman’s Poem “Song of Myself”, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Emerson’s “Nature”." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/redefining-self-essay/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Redefining Self in Whitman’s Poem “Song of Myself”, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Emerson’s “Nature”'. 12 August.

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