The Labyrinth of the Self in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

By D. R. Gayton


“Go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young…” Walt Whitman commands his readers to do in the introduction to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass [1]; “re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book” he continues, “and dismiss whatever insults your own soul….” Filled with the enthusiasm of a young man who has witnessed his young nation expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which grows out of what would become “Song of Myself”, is a tempest of words and images that carry the reader through a journey across town and country, bedroom and public lot.  Throughout the years Walt Whitman would continue to expand, reorganize and edit Leaves of Grass, yet throughout the decades and many revisions, “Song of Myself” would remain a locus to Whitman’s thought and oeuvre.  As such, “Song of Myself” stands as an immense labyrinthine construction that culminates in an all-embracing vision of the self. Bending its course along the variegated multiplicities of the human experience, in “Song of Myself” it is the physical, the senses, which inform not just the mind, but in fact the spiritual life. Ultimately, however, for Whitman it is the spiritual aspect of life which validates both perception and experience, body and mind. For always conscious of the conflict between the real, concrete world and the life of the mind, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” manages to reflect an absolute synthesis between the temporal, the physical and the spiritual.

Having begun the poem at age thirty-six or thirty-seven, “Song of Myself” is a vigorous and mature work of art. Moreover, it is the work of a man whose very core has been calcined and made pure again through a tremendous pain, loss, and profound resignation.  Relinquishing personal vanity and society’s prejudices, Whitman, the poet, watered by the work of Emerson, regains his strength and vitality by flinging his very being onto the quotidian only to find therein the universal. That is, by becoming nothing, the poet is able to become everything, creating thereby a labyrinthine image of the self that contains all other selves. He then is city, country, old, young, white, black, rich, and poor, for as he states in section sixteen of his great poem,

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,

A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, Quaker,

Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist anything better than my own diversity. (346-49)[2]

In other words, what the poet, or speaker of the poem has learned to do is recognize himself in others; he knows that what he feels others feel, what he thinks others think as well.  There are no superiors or inferiors in Whitman’s poem, but rather every sentient being is drawn together into a fraternity of the self. “And such as it is to be of these more or less I am” the poet says in section fifteen, “And of these one and all I weave the song of myself” (338-39)[3].

Despite the many multiplicities of the self, however, it is within the temporal, the present, the here and now that the self converges and becomes; and it is within the here and the now that true wisdom and providence shall be found.  For the recognition within “Song of Myself” is that the sacred and most profound is not to be found in some ancient catacomb in the Levant nor in any scripture or theology book, but rather that the sacred and the mythical are always here with us in the temporal, in the present, in the now.  As Whitman states in section forty-one, “Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation, / Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me than the gods of the antique wars…” (1039-40)[4].  That is, the mystical experience that the individual craves is not to be sought out in some far-off land or time, but rather the mystical experience is here with us permeating everything that we behold. As such, any knowledge that is not directly drawn from the senses or is made true through personal reasoning is made to stand suspect. Exhorting his reader to “no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,  / [nor] look through my eyes either, nor take things from me…” Whitman’s resolve is that the public “shall listen to all sides and filter them from your [them] self” (36-37)[5].   The self that must decide, however, is a self, which like the poet who speaks in prophetic terms, must be a “Self” free of societal prejudices.  Thusly, this self, the arbiter of all things, is the self that will find more satisfaction in a morning glory than in any metaphysical book (“Song” 548-49)[6].

It is then this glorification of the temporal and the present that carries the poet unto the absolute appreciation and devotion for the physical and the material.  Translated into poetic terms, this then becomes a profound idealization of the body, the electric, the dynamic, the organic, and all that is living.  As Whitman states in his introduction to the to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, “nothing, for instance, is greater than to conceive children, and bring them up well — that to be is just as great as to perceive or tell” (Kindle format)[7].  This is a form anti-intellectualism that denies any learning that is not directly in congruence with physical reality, or with the present moment. Approximating man’s nature to that of the simple animal and holding it up almost as a model, on section thirty-two Whitman writes,

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.   They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

So they show their relations to me and I accept them,

They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession. (684-93)

The equanimity that Whitman projects thusly unto the animals he sees is the equanimity of a mind that has ceased its internal dialogue and can rest in absolute contemplation of the now; most importantly, however, it is the mind that has discarded society’s conventions in order to seamlessly become one with the world it inhabits.  To Whitman there is no incongruity between human and animal lives; all are living creatures after all, and in them and in himself he sees “the same old law” (“Song” 249-51)[8].  Extending this idea of the dynamism of life with powerful leveling strokes, the very grass of which he “sings” becomes one with man, and its very growth above the grave is proof of the victory of life over any creed, or death.

Notwithstanding this great adherence to the physical, which borders on febrile materialism, Whitman time again reminds his readers that life and the sciences are ultimately but a manifestation of something greater.  “I accept Reality and dare not question it,” Whitman writes, as if thinking of the fast-developing sciences of the nineteen-century, and he praises those developments by proclaiming “Materialism first and last imbuing” (483-84). Yet despite this enthusiasm, Whitman ends his praises with marked simplicity. “Gentlemen”, the poet says to the men of science, “to you the first honors always! / Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling, I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling” (492-93).  These lines in the poem then clarify what the poet means when in section two he states that, “the unseen is proved by the seen, / Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn” (53-54).  Always devout within his faith in God, to the poet the world is but a revelation that gives proof of God, and through God the world receives not just its form, but its meaning.  To further stress this very important point which is central to Whitman’s thought, on section forty-eight he writes,

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,

Others will punctually come for ever and ever. (1281-88)

This then is a religious belief that transcends all creeds; for what the poet experiences at a very deep and personal level, is a sense of being in absolute communion and accord with God. If the poet feels secure enough in his affirmations on the divine, it is simply because for him the Godhead has made itself manifest through all that the senses can possibly communicate to the mind.  It is this religious certainty and unflagging faith that brings the poet to affirm, “I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, / And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own” (91-93).  That is, in Whitman’s terms, God is the band that both unites and gives shape to all.

To the poet of “Song of Myself”, the self, more than a dynamic entity, is a convergence of God, flesh and world. To be is a reciprocal act, where the physical informs the mind, and both the mind and body are in turn sustained by the soul.  To the poet everything is made of the same stuff; one belongs to another as much as the other belongs to one.  Herein the conflict between the real, concrete world and the life of the mind becomes resolved within a dissolution of all parts into a single and congruent spiritual one.





[1] Whitman, Walt. The Delphi Complete Works of Walt Whitman. New York: Delphi Classics, 2011. Kindle file.

[2] Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, New York: Norton, 2002. Print

[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid.

[7] Whitman, Walt. The Delphi Complete Works of Walt Whitman. New York: Delphi Classics, 2011. Kindle file.

[8] Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, New York: Norton, 2002. Print.




Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Other Poetry and

Prose, Criticism. Ed. Michael Moon, Sculley Bradley, and Harold William Blodgett. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

Whitman, Walt. The Delphi Complete Works of Walt Whitman. New York: Delphi Classics, 2011, Kindle file.