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Themes of Democracy in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” Essay (Review)

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Updated: Jun 13th, 2022

Walt Whitman is the outstanding poet of the United States. He, as a man of great will and patriotic attitudes to America could bring the democratic message throughout his poetry in. In this respect he declared the status of the American poetry as a means for cultivating the whole idea of living in the US. “Song of Myself” characterizes Walt Whitman in his capability of using poetic language and personal [intentions for showing the difference that can be excerpted out of his writing style.

The poem represents a sort of the author’s first hopes and experience in life. It is a so-called conception of Whitman’s vision on how an American should encompass the reality around. Not but that Whitman prescribed and dedicated his poem exclusively for the American society. He tried to realize the bilateral, sometimes deceitful, nature of a human body and spirit (Kepos 368). The main idea should be perceived and put through the subtle strings of a reader’s soul, for the poem is really rich in the bright statements and claims. Thus, the themes of democracy are clearly stated by Walt Whitman in the poem “Song of Myself.”

The form of the poem is quite epical, and it represents a quest of the main character – Walt Whitman – across the United States (Socrates Troy 1). This feature of structuring the poem describes Whitman’s intentional desire to break traditional European norms of rhyme and rhythm in poetry down. As it might be seen, the author chose free verse form to designate the wholeness of the message he put down in “Song of Myself.” It is vital to admit that in his freewill implications Walt Whitman wanted to grasp the cornerstone principles for people to live. This idea can be extended by realizing Whitman’s sincere attitude to spiritual and material domains in which a man lives.

The narrative of the poem is quite full of the author’s speculations on what is “everything” he touches upon. In this respect by “everything” one should understand body, soul, life, and other conceptual parts criticized by the main character.

As a central single poem in the collection Leaves of Grass, in the part called Starting from Paumanok, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was first published in 1855 (Kepos 380). It was several times re-edited and transformed by dividing the poem into particular sections. Thereupon, a contemporary reader can point out the structural parts of the poem easily. Hence, the democratic idea in the poem is the fact which Whitman placed as a central manifesto of his work. His patriotism as an original American crosses boundaries of any expected effect after having read the poem. Thus, Whitman ruminates on every feature sparking his interest. He can talk on himself just in the poem and adjust higher values a man living in America might share. In the section 24 Whitman claims for democracy which he justifies as disseminated within himself:

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their

counterpart of on the same terms (Whitman 24:12-14).

The author’s democratic intentions are derived from the ability to serve to God by saving what was written in scriptures unchanged. To be precise, the author wants to evoke for a reader’s self-accentuation of why democracy is given by God. This is seen on many examples of how Whitman treats the term of “duty” as applied to God and a man respectively. Spirit, soul, and body are all interwoven into the vortex of the rationality in the narrative by Whitman.

However, some researchers tend to think that Whitman tried to point out the morality as the most important tint of conscientiousness. “Morality is thus the normal activity of a healthy nature, not the product either or of rationalism” (Kepos 369). Thereupon, a man, as a part of society, is depicted in the poem as freed from duties enforced by somebody, not by the public opinion or weighed (many times anticipated) norm of the society. It is described when the author states:

I give nothing as duties,

What others give as duties I give as living impulses.

(Shall I give the heart’s action as a duty?) (Kepos 369)

The way Whitman describes a democratic supremacy should be understood out of how he represents it. As a matter of fact, the author is quite sensitive in the narrative of the poem. However, he follows the way of using different stylistic devices and metaphoric transformations of personal direct intentions so as he tries to touch upon it extrinsically. Walt Whitman is one of those poets who declared the richness and all-pervasive character of democratic way of development in the American society. He is strict in his position. However, he never outlines it directly, but by the power of his influential poetic language.

Since the foundation, the United States is considered to be multinational and many-faceted in most of attributes country. This characterizes the US as the place which secures the gist of democracy, namely the participation of all representatives of America in formation of its power (as it is seen today). In this respect Whitman’s “self” runs across the versatile nature of American people. Racial, ethnical, cultural, political differences are all included in the narrative of the poem.

Moreover, Whitman shows his capacity in knowing language peculiarities by underlining “foreign words, colloquial phrasing, regional words, made-up words, biblical phrasings, sexual terms, and scientific terms” (Socrates Troy 1). Here lies the main point to be started with. It is an overwhelming persuasion by the author which delineates his deep desire to strengthen America in terms of the main postulates of democracy.

In fact, the poetical collection Leaves of Grass was written by Whitman exclusively to underline the values of democracy as a surefire way the American society should go. “Song of Myself” is then supported by “Towards Democracy” and other ten poems in the collection (Kepos 370). This is why the concept of the poem under analysis is the so-called introduction to the democratic intentions of Whitman in the whole collection. Ecstatic and passionate tone of the poem discloses the unified and overpowering nature of democracy as such. Whitman seems to use it in terms of people, animals, nature and everything and everywhere but especially across the United States (Socrates Troy 1).

Just from the very first sections of the poem one can clearly get the idea that everything is interconnected and interrelated. This unity cannot be ruined at all. Every hesitation or impulse in one of the chains which the universe represents inflicts vibrance onto another chain of existence. The development of the society depends hereby on either this society is dynamic or not.

The pivotal idea as pertaining to the American democracy and democracy itself is well-developed in the section 24. Here the theme of democracy is implied to be closer to the author as he calls himself by name. It is done to highlight the personal concerns of Whitman in his attempts to surpass the holistic concept of democratic trend. Hence, the idea of personal participation in building democracy is given as focal. The author starts with himself. He cries for the ability of everyone to be open-minded in creating the best conditions for democracy to flourish. In this case Whitman insists on the personal capacity to move toward changes by crashing the barriers of tyranny:

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,

I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and

heart,

Copulation is no more rank to me than death is (Whitman 24:27-30).

The identification of self is in its dedication to the current location, as Whitman would say. Even though, he wanders through the transcendent and unlimited sphere of thought, he strictly highlights the destination of divine human spirit as being covered by flesh. To say more, the author stimulates to gain inner freedom as by God’s Word. Hence, it is possible solely where democracy exults. Whitman refers his deep intentions to change everything around to bilateral nature of the human kind (spirit and soul). However, at this point the narrator stands democracy as a divine manifestation of God’s power over human beings.

The holiness of a man is in this respect spreads over everything one touches or is touched from. Whitman focuses on personal ramifications of this concept: “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch” (Whitman 24:34). Here comes the enlightenment of being democratically-oriented. One should speculate on this in the key referred to as Whitman’s prescriptions to human law within the United States.

One more idea concerned with democracy in “Song of Myself” is that religion keeps people away from what they want or need to say. Whitman sees religious conventions on how a man should behave as motivated by some other men, not God. He cries for gaining freedom for a man’s divine nature to spread over the whole country step by step.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!

Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs (Whitman 24:6-7)!

These lines should be understood as the author’s desire to set everybody free from religious creeds in order to make more steps forward than backward in democratic development of the society. It is the point which encounters criticism of Whitman’s poem. It manifests his revolutionary views on the place of democracy exactly across the United States. Needless to say, Whitman made a great attempt to personify the “American spirit” as transformed through democracy.

Even with strong contradiction to the impact of religion on the society, Whitman never tries to step back from the concept of divinity of a human kind. Turning back to the discussion of the form of the poem, one might recognize Walt Whitman as an inventor. Such a claim derives from the author’s rejection of traditional agenda-driven rules and norms of composing poems. He introduced characteristic features of democracy by free verse.

That is the initial formal justification of the democratic theme going through the full text of the poem. Amplifications on the equality in the society and its dynamic participation in changing things for better are comprehensive in the way Whitman composed verses. An egalitarian trend within the society Whitman referred to a readjustment of the poetic word in its form (Kummings 472). Creating a new language for democracy, Whitman emphasized the readability of his poem as concerned with all layers of people living in America. Here stands one of the most ubiquitous norms of democracy, i.e. egalitarianism.

Walt Whitman wrote his poem as the initial in the collection Leaves of Grass. He cannot go without symbolism of everything he meant in his poems. It is about time to shape the symbol of grass throughout “Song of Myself.” In this respect the symbol of grass is the expressive means which Whitman uses to encompass the concept of democracy. The whole idea of why the author chose exactly grass for this option to reconcile its meaning with democracy goes back to the years of the Civil War. Whitman relates his thoughts on democracy to the graves of soldiers who died struggling for democracy.

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,

O suns – O grass of graves – O perpetual transfers and promotions,

If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing (Whitman 49:14-16)?

Thus, democracy takes roots where people are copulated in their strong intentions for democratic change. The author puts the idea of equality and horizontal way of relationships provided within the society in this term. It goes without saying that grass is everywhere. It is all-pervading and fears no draught or trampling. It is a sort of everlasting plant that is everywhere. “The primary material of boundlessness and democracy and horizontalness is grass. “Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,” grass ignores race, class, and tribe” (Hagood 27). Hence, it is no wonder why Walt Whitman named his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. It becomes clear therefore that the role of grass is to spread over the state as it is.

The author uses grass to depict its normally similar height among each of grass-blades. Horizontal dimension of grass is the message for human beings that all are declared to be equal among Americans and those individuals living in a democratic society. Whitman refers the image of grass to hair which grows from the tops of graves: “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” (Whitman 6:17). The vertical dimension of grass is the symbol of constant upward direction. It means that it is for the development by means of consolidation of powers. Thus, Whitman could have shown the emergence of the grass to clarify the focal idea as concerned with the democracy.

Transcendent journey of the main character through the great spaces of America encounters ideas on democracy which are generated in terms of birth-death connection. The mortality ends up with another cycle for the next generations. Grass of Whitman theoretically presupposes the circle of regeneration year by year. It is also a symbol to prevent people from despair in life. Americans should unite while reacting positively on Whitman’s claims.

The author himself represents his personal role in communication with his soul as well as with the nature. Whitman showcases it in the section 5 where, lying on the grass, he speculates on what is needful when living in the democratic society. The ideas on horizontality are also seen in this section. Hence, a reader can get the destination of this state for democracy.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to

you,

And you must not be abased to the other (Whitman 5:1-3).

It seems that Walt Whitman follows the verses in the Constitution as the majority of episodes and sections in “Song of Myself” remind about the political overtones. However, one should not mix it with the truly magnificent capability of Whitman to use poetics in order to relate the main message to socialization. The middleness and fluidity of democracy is closely related to its vitality through renovation. In this respect the most criticized section 11 suits such an approach.

The number of male bathers is placed horizontally on the surface of water. A male bather joins them to symbolize constant unity for generating new people and new defenders of democracy. It also amplifies gender equality that fits democratic development in the society. As strange as it may seem, Whitman was a defender of all values that democracy embraces. Gender policy is artistically described by Whitman through erotic scene in the water. It is also used to symbolically magnify the all-pervading and heaven-sent concept of democracy.

Thus, the perpetual vortex of renovation shown in the poem demonstrates that where there is a case of death there appears a new life. Taking notice of how Whitman interprets different features in human beings, nature, animals, life, divine matters encompasses his universal viewpoint on democracy. He encounters different states of human mind and of how people behave. He does it in order to predict possible success or failure in the society.

Democracy along with its main attributes of equableness and constant development in internal and external connections stands paramount for the author. It is the needful cornerstone to make things together in the multinational and historically young country of the United States. Moreover, the poem can be understood as the set of norms to build the indigenously democratic society with its horizontal approach as for the individuals living in it and sharing the same rules and norms despite any ethnical, cultural, or gender barriers. Such a detached position of Whitman states his perseverance in struggling for democratic way of reforms in America.

The word of Walt Whitman is a manifestation of originally American tradition to secure democracy in its genuine outlook. It means that the author follows the pathway of sound-mindedness to explain the gist of democracy in the form, idea, and narration of the poem. All three units are related to the democratic prospects. Hence, Whitman considers all features concerned with American democratic society.

What is more, he breaks down any traditional understanding of the pivotal ideas through patterned type of verse. Instead, he chooses a free verse to depict the simplicity with which he can talk about democracy by virtues of the poetic language. Whitman’s talent is in the fact that his poetry is sincere and rich in content, even if it is composed with solely four lines. Nevertheless, the themes of democracy are clearly stated by Walt Whitman in the poem “Song of Myself.”

Works cited

Hagood, Taylor. “Hair, Feet, Body, and Connectedness in “Song of Myself”.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 21.1 (2003): 25-34.

Kepos, Paula. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 31. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1991.

Kummings, Donald D. A companion to Walt Whitman. Hobboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

Socrates Troy. ““Song of Myself” Whitman.” 2008. Socrates Troy. Web.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” 2009. Princeton. Web.

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